Mobile alerting trials for public emergencies (UK)

This service potentially will be used in the UK (as in other countries) to alert people in a particular area via their mobiles of an emergency and may give them appropriate instructions on what to do. The service does not require the government or anyone else to know individual mobile numbers – it works on all mobile devices within an area defined by the emergency.

Three trials were run last autumn, working with three of the UK’s biggest mobile network operators to test different technical approaches for such a system. Two different approaches were tested as part of the trials:

  • cell Broadcast service (CBS): the broadcast of a text-type message to all handsets in a defined area
  • location-based SMS messaging: all numbers in a specific location receive a traditional SMS message

Of the two, location-based SMS is the preferred solution. Public response to the trials was very positive, with a majority of people (85%) feeling that a mobile alert system was a good idea. Public views on “intended compliance with advice‟ issued in sample alert messages was also high (81%). A series of workshops were held to develop the Alert Activation Protocols which set out how such a system could be used on a day to day basis. The workshops proposed ideas on the scope of use, trigger points (linked to the definition of an emergency in the Civil Contingencies Act) and access to the system (based at police control rooms).

The original announcement, Public emergency alerts: mobile alerting trials has been partially updated following the trials, so watch the tenses, which can otherwise confuse. A detailed final project report is here.

The next steps proposed in the final report are:

1. Run a further pilot to test location-based SMS in one urban area with all four UK networks: to allow for further development of this capability.

2. Further develop and test alert messages with emergency responders and members of the public to produce guidance for responders on effective message construction to ensure compliance and action;

3. Prototype the ‘Front End’ of the system: to allow responders to easily define the alert content and target area before passing this information over to MNOs. Understanding how existing messaging applications could integrate with any solution is also of interest.

4. Change Impact Assessment with MNOs: Further work must be undertaken to understand effort and costs required to deliver a solution.

5. Conduct laboratory based Cell Broadcast testing: as Cell Broadcasting has not yet been ruled out, this would allow some small-scale work to continue whilst reducing the workload on MNOs.

There is however no mention of a commitment by government to carry out this work, which seems a shame, as it looks to be genuinely beneficial, users overwhelmingly like it, and even say they are happy to comply with instructions..

Hat tip to Prof Mike Short.

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