Still just talking about EU-wide smartphone alert system

Emergency alerts in US expand from radio and television to mobile phones

 Nearly everyone has a mobile phone and it’s usually either being carried by its owner or within close reach, and hence, earshot. Broadcasting to every mobile on a network means an emergency alert also reaches visitors. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Nearly everyone has a mobile phone and it’s usually either being carried by its owner or within close reach, and hence, earshot. Broadcasting to every mobile on a network means an emergency alert also reaches visitors. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

 

The downpour began as we were driving back from a restaurant to our South Carolina hotel this week. Huge thunderheads, accompanied by random, short-lived showers, had been whisking through the area throughout the afternoon.

Now, though, the term “cloudburst” was an understatement. Out on the interstate highway, traffic slowed, then slowed some more. Visibility dropped to under 50 feet. Windshield wipers struggled to clear sheets of torrential rain. Cars and trucks began to pull to the side of the road, emergency lights flashing. Others crept along at 20km/h.

It was hard to know whether it was better to pull over or keep going, but we inched forward and with relief, made our exit. Back at the hotel, we had just sat down and relaxed when, seemingly out of nowhere, a voice spoke. It turned out to be coming, unbidden, from our mobile phones.

This was a message from the emergency alert system (EAS), an automated voice stated. Flash flood warnings were now in effect for at-risk areas in the region. We also got text alerts with the same message.

I have heard emergency alerts before in the US, but only in the form of radio or television messages. To have the message delivered via mobile was new. And a bit startling – who expects their phone to just start up a conversation on its own?

It was as if Siri had decided she was bored with waiting around to be asked questions and gone proactive. The more I thought about it, though, the more such a system made sense. Nearly everyone has a mobile phone and it’s usually either being carried by its owner or within close reach, and hence, earshot. Broadcasting to every mobile on a network means an emergency alert also reaches visitors, like us.

It turns out this mobile warning system is a fairly recent service. While the EAS has been around since 1997, sending alerts via broadcast media, the commercial mobile alert system (CMAS) is a 2008 initiative that, starting in 2012, gradually became operational state by state. It was also renamed wireless emergency alerts (WEA).

Curiously, wireless operators can choose whether they will offer WEA. Most of the major carriers in the US – such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint – do, and seem to view it as a feature for their smartphone handsets rather than an imposition. Operators who choose not to are required to inform their customers.

Although alert messages are delivered to smartphone handsets via the network operators, they actually initiate on a standalone network. When alerts are sent, they are given priority over regular network text and voice messages. They were used to warn people to take shelter during the Boston Marathon bombings and in New York when Hurricane Sandy hit.

The system raises questions too, though, about the kinds of warnings that should be sent, which remains under debate. Many New Yorkers were not happy to be woken by a 4am alert about a child abduction in July 2013, for example.

Given that the US introduced its mobile alerts system back in 2012, why don’t we have something similar here? Well, there are – or perhaps more precisely, there seems to be – EU-wide plans to introduce an emergency alerts system. General discussions for such an approach were under way in 2012.

At about the same time, an EU project called Alert4All scoped out a possible system and explored how it might be delivered using a range of media including text alerts. The idea would be that alerts could be sent out initially in ‘smart’ coded format, utilising keywords on a list that best defined the situation. The alert would also have of a country code prefix. The message would be sent to the required region, in the correct language. However, that project concluded more than two years ago, in January 2013, and, as is often the case with EU projects, it’s not easy to find out what is happening now.

The European Commission website suggests that the team members from the project are currently involved in developing standards for a potential implementation of the system.

A broader EU-funded project called Pharos, which would incorporate the Alert4All system, appears to be the next phase, but it will not conclude until next year. It is looking at the whole picture, from risk monitoring and alerts through to deploying emergency teams.

The project sounds ambitious and complex, but lacking in good old deliverables. Meanwhile, individual states all have their own general emergency alert programmes and some of these seem to incorporate text alerts.

The Netherlands, for example, already has a mobile-based alerts system. Clearly, the Dutch government opted to just go ahead and introduce it rather than wait on the vagaries of the EU.

Which leaves me feeling confident – if disappointed – that my phone won’t be piping up to warn me about Dublin flash floods any time soon.

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