Government to test emergency alert system in nationwide test sent to mobile phones

The new emergency alert system will be used to warn people about events such as extreme weather

Joseph Rachman
Sunday 19 March 2023 08:09 GMT
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Listen to what the government emergency alarm sent to phones will sound like

The government has launched a new emergency alert system that will send a siren-like alert to mobile phones.

The system will give the government and emergency services the ability to send a message directly to mobile phones when there is a risk to life. When your device receives the alert it will vibrate and play a loud siren-like sound for up to 10 seconds.

The siren will be accompanied by a notification on your home screen, which you will have to acknowledge before you can use other features. The notification may include telephone numbers or website links containing further information.

The new system, which will go live on Sunday 23 April, should allow the government and emergency services to get urgent messages quickly to nearly 90 per cent of mobile phones in a defined area. Any compatible device within range will receive the message.

The alerts can only be sent by authorised government and emergency services users. The alerts will always include the details of the area impacted and will provide instructions about how best to respond, including links to gov.uk/alerts, which will provide further information.

The messages will be broadcast from cell towers near the emergency, ensuring that they are secure, free to receive and one-way. People’s privacy will not be affected as the alerts do not reveal anyone’s location or collect personal data.  

Members of the public should receive the alert about four to 10 seconds after it has been sent. By contrast, SMS messages can take days to release when sent to the entire population and will not be received by people from outside the UK.

People who do not want to receive these alerts can opt out of them in their device settings. The system has already been successfully tested in East Suffolk and Reading, prior to the planned national test. A survey of people conducted after the tests found that 88 per cent wished to receive the alerts in the future.

Emergency alerts will be used very rarely since they will only be sent when there is an immediate risk to people’s lives. Many people might not receive any messages for months or years at a time. They will initially focus on the most serious severe weather-related incidents, including flooding and possible wildfires.

Flood water surrounds Bathampton, located adjacent to the River Avon which burst its banks

Announcing the launch of the system, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Dowden MP, said: “We are strengthening our national resilience with a new emergency alerts system, to deal with a wide range of threats – from flooding to wildfires.

“It will revolutionise our ability to warn and inform people who are in immediate danger, and help us keep people safe. As we've seen in the US and elsewhere, the buzz of a phone can save a life.”

The chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Mark Hardingham, also welcomed the system’s launch. “Together with every fire and rescue service in the country, I’m looking forward to having emergency alerts available to help us to do our jobs and to help communities in the event of emergencies.

“We’ve seen this type of system in action elsewhere across the world and we look forward to having the facility here in the UK – by working together with fire services and partners we want this system to help us to help you be as safe as you can if a crisis does hit.”

The US, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan have all successfully rolled out and used similar systems. The alerts have been widely credited with saving lives. However, the US state of Hawaii caused widespread panic on 13 January 2018 when it accidentally sent out an alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile to televisions, radios and mobile phones. Officials blamed miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

You can see what the alerts look and sound like at gov.uk/alerts.

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