New system will enable authorities to warn citizens if their life or property is in imminent danger
A government illustration of what the alerts will look like
The government is shortly to launch a system through which citizens will be sent text-message alerts warning of extreme weather or other emergencies in their local area which may endanger their safety.
In a week where large parts of the country have been subject to official warnings about first extreme heat, followed swiftly by potential storms and flooding, the government has announced that a national Emergency Alerts service is due to go live in October.
The system – which is supported by all operators of 4G and 5G mobile networks – will use mobile phone masts to send messages to everyone in range at the time. Government claimed that more than 85% of phones will be able receive the alerts, although those still using a 2G or 3G network are not equipped to do so.
Alerts will be sent to warn people “if there’s a danger to life nearby”, including fires, floods and other extreme weather, and public-health emergencies. Government and the emergency services will have the ability to issue alerts, as will other public bodies involved in responding to emergencies – including the Met Office.
The government said that the receipt of messages will be dictated only by people’s location at the time and their proximity to the mast from which the alert is sent. The system will not be informed by any prior information on where people live or work, nor will location details or any other data be collected from citizens’ devices.
Citizens can opt out of receiving certain messages via their phone’s settings, which provide the option to switch off three categories of alert, including ‘severe’ and ‘extreme’ threats to life and property, as well as alerts related to child-abduction emergencies.
But the government said that the “most important” updates will be sent to everyone affected, regardless of whether they have chosen to opt out.
When a message is received, the recipient’s phone will make “an urgent and distinctive siren-like sound” and a notification will appear onscreen until it is acknowledged.
The message will contain details of the emergency and any applicable instructions on what action to take, including websites or phone numbers where more information can be found. Details of all ongoing alerts will be published on gov.uk/alerts so citizens can make sure the message they have received is genuine.
The launch of the system – which will issue a ‘welcome’ message to all citizens once it is up and running – has been several years in the making, with plans for government-issued text alerts first unveiled in 2018. Last year, authorities tested the services in areas including Suffolk and Reading, with test messages sent to all phones in the area.
In the months before these trials took place, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – which is working with the Cabinet Office to deliver the alerts programme – signed long-term deals with each of the UK’s four mobile network operators.
EE, O2, Vodafone, and Three have all entered into five-year contracts with DCMS to support the provision of emergency messages. The deals are worth a cumulative total of £15.9m to the four networks.
Announcing the imminent launch of the full nationwide alerts service, Kit Malthouse, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “To make sure that government continues to offer the best possible prevention and protection against threats, we are shaking up how we prepare for and respond to emergencies, strengthening the effective resilience capability we already have in place. [The] new public emergency alerts system… will focus on extreme weather, revolutionising our ability to ‘warn and inform’ people who are in significant and immediate danger. These alerts will be sent direct to people’s mobiles giving details of the emergency – such as local flooding – explaining what to do and how to seek help.”
Ian Cameron, director of markets at the Met Office, added: “The right messaging helps people take action to stay safe. It is clear that we are seeing an increase in the number of extreme weather events in the UK and overseas. Just this summer we have seen temperatures in the UK exceed 40C for the first time on record, followed closely by the heatwave which ended earlier this week. Communicating effectively is imperative so we can warn and alert people, ensuring they are aware and have more time to take action and look after themselves, their friends and family.”