UK emergency alert test: what will the new system will be used for - and what happens in other countries
Emergency alerts are already used in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, where the system has been widely credited with saving lives
and live on Freeview channel 276
The first UK-wide test of a new emergency alert system over the weekend hit a few stumbling blocks, but the government remains convinced it could one day save lives - just like similar systems have across the world.
Millions of phones across the UK rang out on Sunday, as part of the first nationwide test for the emergency alert system. The loud alarm was planned to ring at 3pm on all devices using 4G and 5G networks in the UK.
The alert rang for 10 seconds and displayed a message notifying phone users that no action was needed in response to the test. But the test was riddled with issues, with the sirens sounding early for some phone users and not at all for others - and the Welsh version of the message containing a spelling error.
But what kind of emergencies will the UK government use the mobile alert system for in the future, and what do other countries use it for?
What emergencies will the new alert system be used for?
Once established, the emergency alert system is designed to warn the public if there is a danger to life nearby. In future, a similarly loud notification and message will be sent to those the UK Government is seeking to reach in life-threatening situations.
Examples of when it might be used include: extreme weather, flooding, or wildfires. The messages will provide clear instructions about how best to respond. They will be able to be localised as well, so messages will only be sent to those in immediate danger of the threat.
Speaking before the test, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden conceded the drill could be “annoying”, but that it had the potential to save people’s lives once rolled out. He told Sky News: “It’s a bit irritating at the time but in the future people could be grateful for it because in a real emergency, this could be the sound that saves your life."
Some emergency services have also spoken out in favour of the UK implementing the new system. Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Mark Hardingham added: “Together with every fire and rescue service in the country, I’m looking forward to having Emergency Alerts available to help us to do our jobs and to help communities in the event of emergencies.
“We’ve seen this type of system in action elsewhere across the world and we look forward to having the facility here in the UK - by working together with fire services and partners we want this system to help us to help you be as safe as you can if a crisis does hit.”
What happens in other countries?
Emergency alerts have already been used successfully in a number of countries, including the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, where the system has been widely credited with saving lives.
Australia's system, established in response to the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, sends text messages and automated telephone calls - often to let residents know about the country's deadly bushfires. In New Zealand, the system is also used to let residents know about evacuations and extreme weather events, and was used during the Covid-19 pandemic to make sure residents were aware of when lockdowns would begin.
In earthquake-prone Japan, a national instant warning system called J-Alert lets the Japanese government transmits emergency information instantly. It is used by the Meteorological Agency to transmit information about earthquakes, as well as associated tsunamis, or volcanic eruptions. It can also be used to send information about missile threats or terror attacks.
While it has been criticised for high-profile incidents - like a recent North Korean missile alert which caused fear, confusion and evacuations in Hokkaido despite no risk of it hitting the northern island - its ability to send early warnings about imminent earthquakes have been credited with saving lives by allowing residents to take shelter.
The US government can issue three types of warnings via its emergency alert system, including alerts issued by the President of the United States or the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and AMBER alerts - which alert the public when a child has been abducted. The US Justice Office said as of January 2023, 1,127 children were successfully recovered through the AMBER Alert system, and 131 children were directly rescued because of wireless emergency alerts.