After officially unveiling its electronic emergency alerts system last month, the UK government is preparing to launch the first nationwide trial this Sunday (23 April). The system is designed to notify the public of imminent danger to life in a specific area.
At 3pm, all 4G and 5G enabled smartphones in the UK will receive a message directly to their device, accompanied by a siren-like sound and vibration for up to 10 seconds. The message will say:
This is a test of Emergency Alerts, a new UK government service that will alert you if there is a life-threatening emergency nearby. In a real emergency, follow the instructions in the alert to keep yourself safe and protect others. Visit gov.uk/alerts for more information. This is a test. You do not need to take any action.
Similar alert systems have been used in other countries for some time, including the Netherlands with NL-Alert; the US, which has deployed Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) for more than a decade; and Canada, which launched its Alert Ready system in 2015. There has been a steady increase in other countries implementing nationwide alert systems in recent months, including Denmark, Germany, Spain and Norway.
the need to know
The new alert system is based on so-called cellular broadcast technology, which means it will broadcast messages even if a phone is on silent and also if it’s not connected to mobile data or Wi-Fi. However, it will not work on devices that are turned off or in airplane mode, devices that are connected to 2G or 3G networks, or devices that do not have any built-in cellular functionality (for example, Wi-Fi only devices). Additionally, cellular iPad models do not support emergency alerts.
But if you have an Android smartphone or tablet running Android 11 or later that is at least 4G enabled, or an iPhone running iOS 14.5 or later, you’ll automatically receive an emergency alert test at 3pm on Sunday.
Since this is just a test, recipients don’t have to take any action and the sound and vibration will automatically stop after 10 seconds. To get rid of the message, it’s just a matter of swiping it like you would any other home screen notification, or hitting the “OK” button.
Only emergency services or government departments will be able to send these alerts to people’s devices, and in the future, users can receive alerts about critical or dangerous events, such as floods, fires, or terrorist attacks.
However, there have been a number of false alarms related to emergency alerts around the world, including in 2018 when Hawaiian residents were informed of an impending missile attack, which turned out to be a simple case of human error. And just a couple of days ago, Floridians woke up at 4:45 a.m. local time to a test alert that was supposed to have been sent to TVs instead of smartphones.
The UK release has been a long time coming. In 2010, the former Conservative-Liberal coalition government published The Strategic Defense and Security Review, a document that covered many facets of the UK’s defense strategy, including its response mechanism to national emergencies. To this end, the government said it would “assess options to improve national public warning systems for use in major emergencies.”
The focus, ultimately, was to develop a capability to issue alerts to mobile devices in defined areas where an emergency is unfolding. In 2013, the government launched a series of trials in partnership with three of the country’s mobile network operators (MNOs) and emergency responders, using different methods to see which was most effective. It initially concluded that location-based SMS was probably the best solution given the existing MNO infrastructure, plus it did not require any configuration at the device level, with all mobile phone numbers registered on a mobile phone network capable of receiving alerts.
Not much happened to the UK’s emergency alert system in subsequent years, although the government used an SMS-based system to send messages about pandemic-era lockdown rules in 2020, as well as alerts about the accessibility of vaccines the following year.
But there are downsides to location-based SMS mechanisms. For example, traffic load spikes (eg during an emergency) can affect the speed at which messages are delivered, while privacy concerns surrounding SMS’s reliance on access to numbers of people’s mobile phone can be cause for concern. Cell broadcast technology, on the other hand, allows senders to send messages to all phones in a defined area (ie, proximity to a cell tower) without needing to access any mobile phone number.
In addition, cellular broadcasts circumvent traffic load concerns, since cellular broadcasts operate on a different channel than voice and SMS.
And that is essentially why the UK has chosen a system based on cell transmission. Some users across the UK received cell broadcast-based test alerts in 2021, part of an initial pilot in preparation for wider rollout and nationwide testing this weekend.
The government estimates that its Emergency Alerts system will cover about 90% of all mobile phones in a given area. And while it goes without saying that I’d rather people No choose to maximize your reach, there can be a multitude of reasons why someone might want to do so. This is how you can do it.
On iPhones, go to notifications in it settings menu, and then scroll to the bottom where you will see sliders for extreme alerts and severe alerts which can change to Off position. On Android, in settings you can navigate to Security and Emergencyscroll to Wireless emergency alerts and toggle the allow alerts slider
In fact, there have been some concerns from organizations representing vulnerable groups, such as women and children who may be subject to domestic abuse and who may have secondary phones that they hide from their perpetrators.
“We are concerned about the impact of the emergency alert system on survivors of domestic abuse,” said Women’s Aid Policy Director Lucy Hadley in a statement posted online. “For many survivors, a second phone that the perpetrator doesn’t know about is an important form of communication with friends or family, as some abusers confiscate or monitor and control their partner’s phone. It can also be your only lifeline in an emergency. Emergency alerts pose a risk, not only because an abuser could discover a survivor’s second phone, but also because she could use this as a reason to escalate the abuse.”
The government also says it has been working with the UK transport sector to ensure drivers are aware of the alert and are not inadvertently scared into checking their device when the alarm goes off. It goes without saying that the normal rules of the road apply with emergency alerts: don’t look at or interact with phones while in control of a moving vehicle.