Policy paper

Public emergency alerts: mobile alerting trials

Updated 28 March 2014

1. Background

During an emergency it is vital that emergency responders can contact members of the public in order to give them important, potentially life saving information.

While current arrangements such as use of sirens and deploying officers to the scenes of incidents are satisfactory for a range of emergency scenarios, improvements can be made. Most notably these improvements include the speed with which members of the public are notified and the way in which responders can contact people ‘on the move’.

In a world where mobile phone ownership continues to soar (92% of the UK public now own a mobile phone) and where demand for information ‘on the go’ is expected, advancements in technology must be considered when striving for improvements to public emergency alert systems. This is why the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) are working in partnership with the mobile industry and local responders to trial different approaches to mobile alerting that would target members of the public in an area impacted by an emergency, via their mobile device.

One very important part of this proposed capability is that it would NOT require the government or local responders (eg the police or your council) to know individual personal numbers. It would also NOT require people to sign up to receive messages. Instead, the idea is that if you are in an area where an emergency occurs then you will be sent a location based alert which will convey important protective action for you to take.

2. About the trials

3 trials will be run this autumn, working with 3 of the UK’s biggest mobile network operators to test different technical approaches for such a system. 2 different approaches will be tested as part of the trials:

  • cell Broadcast service (CBS): the broadcast of a text-type message to all handsets in a defined area
  • location-based SMS messaging: all numbers in a specific location receive a traditional SMS message

There are pros and cons for each approach which mean that trials are necessary to conclude which provides the optimal service for the public. There are examples of these approaches in use across the world. For example the United States and the Netherlands both employ a cell broadcast based approach, whilst in Australia a location-based SMS system is being rolled out.

The trials will take place in 3 locations:

  • North Yorkshire - 18 September
  • Glasgow - 3 October
  • Suffolk - 20 November

These areas have been chosen to provide a good geographic coverage of the UK and a balance of urban-rural areas and are not in response to any increased levels of risk or threat. In addition to national level communications, each local area has developed a communications plan to inform local communities that might be affected by the trials.

3. Trial progress

We are delighted to share our progress with you via our trial update (below) which we will refresh regularly throughout the project.

3.1 September 2013: Simon Wright

Simon Wright, Emergency Planning Officer from North Yorkshire County Council provides his reflections on the recent trial:

Media coverage was, in general positive, with little or no reaction by the public and only a small rise in hits on our webpage. An early mistake by the local radio station reporting it as a “test of a new flood alerting system”, and a news item linking it to warning of a nuclear strike highlighted the need for local media officers to emphasise that it is a technology test only, and NOT linked to a specific threat - as amusing as it was for listeners and viewers!

I was surprised that the different handsets reacted in different ways on receipt of the Cell Broadcast message, but the variety of ways in which they displayed was thought provoking and would need more dialogue with handset manufacturers.

The length of time that the Broadcast message can be sent or adjusted would enable you to create an “alert bubble” around an incident area which could be updated as a situation develops. I see this as an invaluable tool especially if the incident was over a wide area or multiple sites.

This was an excellent opportunity for us to embrace evolving technologies and work with the service provider, EE and the Emergency Planning College to trial new warning and informing capabilities in North Yorkshire.

We are keen to be involved in future trials and will continue to learn lessons from the further trials in Suffolk and Glasgow.

3.2 October 2013: Charlotte Lawrence

Project Support Officer Charlotte Lawrence offers her thoughts on the recent trial in Glasgow:

The trial in Glasgow represented the biggest single trial in terms of the expected number of recipients. To ensure this went to plan we worked meticulously over the course of many weeks with Glasgow City Council and Telefónica O2 to ensure we got the concept right and all project stakeholders understood our aims and objectives. This culminated in last Thursday afternoon sending out thousands of text messages to those handsets in a specified area of Glasgow city centre. It was a really useful experience and we learnt a great deal about the system.

I’m delighted with the public’s response to the project too, having had far more expressions of interest in our focus groups than my project manager had expected! We’re still keen to hear people’s views on the system so if you have the time I would urge you to complete our survey.

3.3 October 2013: Chris Starrs

Chris Starrs, PR Manager at Glasgow City Council, shares his views on the Glasgow trial:

Communicating with large numbers of people in any city centre is always going to be difficult because of the transient nature of the population. We know some of the people will be here on a daily basis, but there’s also many visitors to think about.

Glasgow is no different. With 2 train stations in the city centre of town, expansion of our already excellent shopping and night-life facilities, and hotel occupancy at an all-time-high, the city is busier than ever.

So the benefits of a mobile alerting system are obvious – in theory it would allow us to communicate with everyone in a certain area without us needing to know who they are.

That was the premise of the trial in Glasgow. We targeted an area just to the east of the city centre with a mixture of residential and business properties, but that would also have people passing through.

One of our concerns was that people would think the messages related to a real incident, so all of our communication activity made it clear this was simply part of a series of tests being conducted across the UK.

We generated some media coverage in advance to make people aware the trial was taking place, and we notified some of the larger employers so they could pass this information onto staff and visitors. This was also designed to encourage people to take part in the post-trial evaluation.

To take part in post-trial evaluations, email the team in Cabinet Office at public.alert@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk

We also used the council’s Twitter account – the most followed local authority feed in the UK – to alert people in advance of the trial and as each test message went out.

We sent out 3 trial texts over a period of several hours. STV News carried out a vox-pop during the trial and spoke to members of the public who had received messages. The response was fairly positive.

Our trial messages were all generic and made no reference to any incidents. In real life, these messages would contain information that would be aimed at keeping people safe.

Along with our partners in the police and other agencies, we would use a system like this in conjunction with our existing communication channels, such as Twitter, the media and websites.

So I’m keen to find out how the rest of the trials went and whether or not a system like this will ultimately be available for local emergency responders.

3.4 February 2014: Emma Jones; Behavioural Sciences Team, Public Health England

The Behavioural Science Team within Public Health England has a real interest in improving our understanding of how members of the public might respond to incidents and emergencies. I managed the team who were responsible for evaluating the scheme from the perspective of the public, who might one day receive such an alert message.

The evaluation aimed to understand what information the public would expect to receive in an emergency, particularly in the initial stages, and what people thought about receiving this via their mobile phone. With over 100 participants in focus groups and more than 400 survey responses the evaluation delivered important insights into a range of people’s expectations, views and concerns. Whilst there were some concerns over whether the messages would be understood and could be acted upon, a large majority of participants were in favour of a mobile alerting system as a means by which the emergency services could inform them about emergencies in their area.

Working together with the different agencies and stakeholders during the Mobile Alerting Trials was an interesting and engaging experience, which helped us to develop detailed discussion guides and survey questions for our work with the public. A co-ordinated multi-agency response will be critical to the success of mobile alerting and it is important that we see the public as key stakeholders in the development of this capability. We are keen to help the project team develop evidence-based guidance on effective alert messaging for responders, and future engagement with the public both to refine the messaging strategies and raise awareness of mobile alerting for emergencies.

4. Evaluating the trials

The trials were considered against 3 different perspectives:

  • opinions from the mobile industry on the technical and corporate implications of introducing such a system
  • public views and thoughts on alert message content, method of delivery and resulting behaviour
  • views from emergency responders including how such a system would enhance their existing arrangements, the resources and training to manage it and how and when it would be most effectively used

The evaluation project report sets out our findings, including proposals for further work.