U R under 8tack: text alerts may supplant sirens

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The Independent Online

Text messages are likely to become the modern version of the Second World War air raid warning under plans to notify people of terrorist attacks via their mobile phones. The alerts will warn the public of imminent danger with instructions on how to cope with bombings, fires, chemical and biological attacks.

Text messages are likely to become the modern version of the Second World War air raid warning under plans to notify people of terrorist attacks via their mobile phones. The alerts will warn the public of imminent danger with instructions on how to cope with bombings, fires, chemical and biological attacks.

The emergency texts would be part of a new system being drawn up by Cabinet Office emergency planners in response to 11 September. They fear the present warning system is geared too much to the Cold War era.

Under the plans, the messages would utilise the internet, digital television and radio. Experts on the Government's National Steering Committee on Warning and Informing the Public believe the public has become unfamiliar with emergencies since 1945 and would not recognise a siren or know how to react.

"There is no national culture of awareness amongst the public of how to respond to large-scale emergencies," the study says. The committee has urged the Government to draw up a national map locating sirens and to drill the public to recognise their tones and interpret what the different signals mean.

The plans are part of preparations for a Bill on national emergencies to be introduced in the next parliamentary session. The law would ensure councils and other bodies planned for events threatening national security, including terrorist attacks, floods and mass protests.

The committee, which advises the Government's Civil Contingencies Secretariat, says text messages would enable people "on the move" to be contacted in an emergency. The proposal follows successful trials of mass texting in Germany.

The Government is also allowing for warning the public if there is a power cut, or if people are otherwise unable to hear sirens or television and radio warnings. "Not everyone located within their home is likely to be listening to TV or radio. Some could be in their gardens, others listening to hi-fi systems, operating vacuum cleaners or have other ambient sounds behind sound-insulating double glazing," the advice says.

The steering committee reported that "all the mobile networks must carry the message to ensure maximum people coverage".

The committee advises the the Civil Contingencies Committee, chaired by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, which was set up to co-ordinate responses from the police, hospitals, local authorities and other bodies.

The Government wants to create a comprehensive alert system via global e-mails, internet alerts, messages via digital television and radio designed to minimise chaos in the event of a terrorist strike.

"It's a lot to do with September 11. We are looking at all sort of mediums for alerting the public, including texts. The way most information would be communicated would be through radio or TV," a source said.

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