What are the challenges and benefits of the UK Government's emergency alert system?
Written by Phil Emonson | Emergency Planning Lead

On Sunday 23 April all mobile phones in the UK will be sent a test of the new Government emergency alert system. Once launched, the system will be used by government agencies and emergency services to warn people of life-threatening emergencies. But what are the additional benefits of the emergency alert system and what challenges will it need to overcome to be successful?

What is the emergency alert system and how will it be used to increase resilience across the UK?

Emergency alert systems are used around the world, with the UK following the likes of USA, Canada, Japan, Greece, and the Netherlands in adopting their own system. Designed to be used in life-threatening emergencies including extreme weather events such as wildfires and flooding, the UK Government’s emergency alert system has been in production for more than three years.

Following pilots of the system which involved over 100,000 people in East Suffolk and Reading, the nationwide test of the new emergency alert system will take place at 3pm on Sunday 23 April. At this time an emergency message will appear on mobile phones across the UK, accompanied by a ten-second sound and vibration. Clearly sign-posted as a test, this alert will require no further action from mobile users, other than a simple tap or swipe to remove the notification.

The advantage of this nationwide test is that it will allow recipients to recognise a real alert, which would provide clear instructions on how to respond in an emergency. Once active, the alert system will have the ability to send emergency messages to all mobile phones in a given area, for example, to residents of a village where a river was about to flood as well as all those within the target area. However, these alerts are expected to be sent very rarely, only when there is an immediate threat to life.

What are the challenges the emergency alert system will need to overcome to be a success?

Despite the clear advantages of the emergency alert system there are some challenges around its adoption. The fact that alerts are expected to be seen extremely rarely raises the concern around public reaction and possible apathy that could lead to mobile users dismissing the notifications.  Regular tests would help in maintaining awareness. Should the alert be used in error, or too frequently in ‘cry wolf’ situations it’s also likely that public interest and trust in the system may wain.

Another concern is the potential anxiety and stress that could be induced from hearing the siren-like alarm – something the RAC has identified as a potential hazard for people driving. It also has potentially serious implications for those with concealed or hidden phones for their own safety. In such instances the Government has confirmed certain users can opt out of the system and also have the option to turn their devices off before the test.

Naturally, there are also concerns about personal data and how this will be used, but what of those without access to a mobile phone? The new emergency alert system will exclude over 1.3million without mobile access, highlighting the importance of developing additional tools, resources and systems that improve risk awareness and response. Linking the alert broadcast with messaging across local radio would be an effective way of addressing this.  

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Independent reviews conducted following major incidents in the UK have found that communication with the public could have been improved. The test of the emergency alert system is therefore supporting the ‘whole of society’ resilience endeavour, as set out by the UK Resilience Framework (UKRF). Read our analysis of UK Resilience Framework here.

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