Great Britain

Emergency phone system to send warnings of terror attacks by text message

Emergency warnings will be sent automatically to people at risk from floods, fires and terror attacks, under a hi-tech scheme announced by the government today.

Under the emergency alert system, 4G and 5G mobile network operator technology will be used to send SMS text messages to all phones in the vicinity of the scene of an incident causing risk to life.

The messages will give details of the nature and location of the emergency as well as instructions on how to respond and a link to a government website where phone users can verify the alert and get more information.

The system is based on the use of text messages during the coronavirus pandemic to urge Britons to stay home to protect the NHS and save lives.

Messages will be received within 10 seconds of transmission by all mobile phones in a defined area, as well as those entering the area later.

After trials starting in east Suffolk on 25 May, it is intended that the service will be rolled out across the country after the summer, to warn of incidents including public health emergencies,  severe floods, fires, industrial accidents and terror attacks.

Similar alerts have already been adopted by countries including the USA, Netherlands, Canada, South Korea,  Japan and New Zealand, where they have been widely credited with saving lives during earthquakes.

Paymaster general Penny Mordaunt said the service will be “a vital tool in helping us to better respond to emergencies, both nationally and locally”.

She added: “This new system builds on existing capability and will allow us to more quickly and effectively get life-saving messages to people across the UK.”

By broadcasting from cell towers in the vicinity of an emergency, the alerts are secure, free to receive, and one-way, said government officials. They do not reveal phone users’ location and do not collect any personal data, and can be sent only by authorised governmental and emergency services users.

The messages will trigger a distinctive notification, using a loud tone and vibration that is designed to convey urgency and is said to be hard for users to ignore.

People who receive a test alert over the coming weeks will not need to do anything, as any messages sent before the nationwide launch will just be tests to ensure the effectiveness of the service.

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