Plans for nationwide text warnings were only revealed within the last 10 days, but the UK Government is already planning a test for its new system. Mobile network Vodafone has warned customers in the East Suffolk area about the small-scale test, which should see thousands receive a trial message from the new system. As well as the text messages, when the alert is received by your phone it will trigger a loud sound.
“The Government are testing their Emergency Alerts system in East Suffolk today between 1-2pm,” the mobile carrier cautioned customers in a tweet, “Don’t panic if you receive one of these messages, in future these alerts will warn people whose lives are in danger.”
When the system is up-and-running, text messages will be sent to everyone in the nearby area when there is a danger to life nearby. It should keep people informed about severe floods, fires, explosions, terrorist attacks, or public health emergencies close to where you’re currently located. If the tests are successful, the UK Government hopes to be able to issue text alerts to millions by “summer 2021”.
After the first trial in East Suffolk today, the next test will happen in Reading on June 15. Following that, the system will go online nationwide.
The system, dubbed Emergency Alerts by the UK Government, was inspired by countries like New Zealand, which have used text messages to alert citizens for some time.
The Cabinet Office provided more details about the alert system, saying it would send out warnings that outlined affected areas, advice on what to do and a link to any extra information. Penny Mordaunt, the Tory MP for Portsmouth North, said the text alert system would be a “vital tool in helping us to better respond to emergencies”.
The Cabinet Office minister added it will “allow us to more quickly and effectively get life-saving messages to people”.
The alert system could be used to send messages about public health emergencies as well as industrial incidents and terror attacks. Cell broadcasting technology will be used to create the alert system which makes sure alerts are “secure, free to receive, and one-way”.
The Cabinet Office added that the system does not use people’s telephone numbers, instead sending alerts out to anyone in a specific area. The Government also revealed the alerts “do not reveal your location and do not collect any personal data. Alerts can also only be sent by authorised governmental and emergency services users”.
If users want to they will be able to opt-out of certain alerts via the Android or iOS settings, but the most important ones will always come through.
The new alert system will be a first for the UK, with other countries such as the US having similar systems in place for some time. Famously, back in 2018 the alert system the US used accidentally sent out a ballistic missile alert over phones, radio stations and on TV. Residents were told “this is not a drill” and were warned of an “inbound” threat to Hawaii, with people told to seek shelter.
Thankfully, this was just a false alarm – with people informed around 38 minutes later that there was no reason for concern.