IEMA's Digital Journalist Tom Pashby discusses the upcoming Emergency Alerts System, providing weather and public health updates, allowing the public to respond much faster to environmental events.

On Monday 15 August 2022, it was reported that the UK Government would be launching its new Emergency Alerts system in October 2022. The system is smartphone based, and will allow public authorities to send alerts to people within a range of life-threatening events, including extreme weather and public health emergencies.

In a press release, the government said:

“The emergency alerts system, which will focus on events like extreme weather and warning the public where there is a risk to life, will be launched in the autumn following a public awareness campaign. The free message will give details of the emergency – local flooding or wildfires, for example – what to do and how to seek help, and will relay urgent messages to over 85% of mobile phones in areas affected.”

In a statement to parliament in 2021, the then Paymaster General and later Conservative leadership candidate, Penny Mordaunt MP, said:

“The new service will be secure. Alerts can only be sent by authorised governmental and emergency services users. Emergency alerts cause the phone to vibrate and emit a unique noise making them difficult to ignore and mimic or spoof. Emergency alerts are broadcast from cell towers in the vicinity of an emergency, meaning that no personal data is collected and the service will never be used for commercial purposes. As part of its development, there will be a series of public trials of the system where we will send out live test alerts to the phones of people in Suffolk (25 May 2021) and Reading (15 June 2021).

“Should the public trials prove successful, the Government will send out a national welcome message to the whole of the UK later this year.”

Many people will probably not have heard of this system, but it may sound familiar to the type of process which was in place during the Cold War to warn people of ‘air attack’, i.e. nuclear war. That system was based around alerts to be sent out on live television and radio. Today, we face a higher frequency of lower impact events, such as extreme weather, and a higher proportion of us today are less likely to be watching live television and radio. A significant proportion of us are likely to be carrying, or at least with someone else carrying, a smartphone.

The new Emergency Alerts service from government will allow public authorities such as emergency services, the health services, and the Met Office, to send out alerts to our smartphones, without needing our mobile numbers. The alerts will include a loud noise and a call to action to help us respond to danger.

Prof Paul Bates, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Bristol’s (an IEMA corporate partner) School of Geographical Sciences and Chair of Fathom, which describes itself as “a global leader in water risk intelligence”, said:

“This system will allow the public to respond much faster to environmental events. It will make data, which many of us already receive via the Met Office weather app and other opt-in systems, far more accessible for a wider proportion of the population, which is critical given that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense with the climate emergency.

“Data on our environment, such as rainfall and soil saturation, is gathered by the Met Office and the Environment Agency, put through models which we already have, and then those organisations, plus other public bodies, assess the severity of events and decide whether to ask the public to act to protect themselves and their property. Emergency Alerts ensure more people are aware of risks a lot faster.”

Andy Garraway, a Climate Policy Analyst at Risilience – a company using data to help inform businesses about risk, and former Senior Policy Advisor at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said:

“The announcement that this system will be rolled out soon is very welcome, especially because it will help improve the UK’s climate resilience.

“It is likely that the new system won’t affect the government’s assessment of the risks posed by extreme weather events – which is informed by the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Rather it will allow more effective communication of that risk to more people. A large number of organisations within government will be involved in this, from the Cabinet Office and its Civil Contingencies Secretariat, through to the Environment Agency and local fire and rescue services.

“It’s also important that government makes clear how decisions will be made about whether to send out alerts and whether this will be informed exclusively by the data, or with political considerations too.”

You can find further information about the Emergency Alerts system on the government website.


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