Law change floated to enable emergency alerts
Location based text to replace sirens for warning citizens of emergencies
The UK Government has taken the first steps towards setting up a national system capable of texting mobile phones with information about a terrorist attack or another major emergency. A consolation opening yesterday proposes a change in the law to enable every mobile phone in a defined area to be teed with an emergency alert.
In the immediate aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London, the City of London Police shut down mobile phone networks within a mile of Aldgate East, one of three stations hit by suicide bombers. Contingency plans for shut-downs were also part of the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.
Official thinking now seems to have swung behind the idea that mobile networks are more use in emergency situations when switched on. Especially for official communications. Today’s consultation cites the need to disseminate information in situations such as floods or industrial accidents at chemical sites – and that the cellular network makes a vastly better information conduit than the traditional sirens.
This is clearly a step in the right direction and a significant improvement on the current arrangements. However, it may create a dilemma for the Emergency services if the public start to rely on this capability as the ONLY point of reference, when terrorists are using the mobile network to detonate explosive devices. We would assume in this situation the public would be notified that the service was going to be shut down and they should refer to “something else” as an alternative source. Emergency stakeholders will need to have extremely fluid plans to overcome such an event. In addition, we believe it is questionable to only to inform citizens in the effected area – if my family or property are at risk but I am working outside the area, I will be out of the communication loop. Allowing citizens to opt in an to receive alerts irrespective of their location would surely be preferable.
Securing the service will be of paramount importance – if hackers were to gain access, they would have an excellent vehicle for spreading misinformation and could compound an emergency with potentially dire consequence.
It will be interesting to see how Government deliver this proposed service and whether they will defer to local agencies to take decisions on the most effective and relevant capability to alert the communities they serve.
For more information on the consolation, please refer to: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/changing-existing-regulations-for-an-emergency-alert-system