Review of alerts systems yesterday and today 

At a time when Europe is attempting to move towards greater harmonisation in an enhanced emergency alert system to notify affected populations when an immediate danger arises, it is important to provide an overview of the technologies that are available to address the issue. And, while we are all now connected via our smartphones, there are plenty of other methods that are used to provide notification of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

History of alerts : from churches to media

Let’s not forget that the majority of countries used sirens in the 20th century (4,500 in France and as many as 7,500 in Switzerland) to warn their citizens, fulfilling a similar role to church bells in earlier times. Traditional media such as TV, radio and even urban signage also have a role to play at a national level. Meanwhile, the trend is towards more personalised messaging and greater use of the internet where, once again, everything has changed. We have entered an era where everyone receives real time notifications, from their friends and family as well as directly from the media. Scarcely a minute goes by without a message appearing on our phone screens!

Text and alert

SMS is a reliable warning tool, because 98% of text messages reach their intended recipient. The various distribution standards allow the reach of a message to be defined, and sometimes even allow senders to see whether a recipient has read the message. Similarly, use of geolocation is widespread, although it remains discretionary. This allows us to locate ourselves, as well as enabling us to be informed about what is going on around us with greater accuracy and relevancy. Norway uses geolocated SMS messages so that its SMS alerts are only sent to affected areas. UMS is a company that is also developing its own “Population Alert System” (PAS) in Sweden and Denmark, combining physical addresses in the form of landline telephones with geolocation data from mobile phones to broadcast a message in a few minutes.

Enlarging and focusing

SMS CB (cell broadcast) is another standard for broadcasting messages that appears suitable for a large volume of simultaneous broadcastings, and which also supports coding so that only relevant messages are “selected” to be delivered to the receiving terminal. As such, it is possible to imagine nationwide coverage of the entire United States, even though only a single state or city are affected. Another advantage of SMS CB technology is the fact that messages are transmitted on a different channel than regular mobile messaging, ensuring smooth, fast communications.

A French case

Meanwhile, France deployed an SAIP app that aimed to install an app on citizens’ smartphones with a view to targeting the delivery of messages to reflect actual risk, building on a secure web platform that would use geolocation and comply with privacy standards. The recent abandonment of this solution is not due to the performance of the technology itself, but rather to a lack of interest by the public at large, and the high-level decisions taken in advance as to whether they should be notified. The French authorities have chosen to migrate their alert system to social networking, entering into partnerships with Facebook and Twitter, for example: however, recent European regulations have called this choice, made out of necessity, into question.

Sharing is caring

Apart from the various technical solutions, the main problem encountered by decision makers remains the need to manage warning systems in a consistent manner across multiple platforms. The search for a perfect solution goes on; and it is conceivable that several technologies will need to be confined to use the strengths of several solutions to overcome any weaknesses. As ever, resources and technologies will need to be coordinated. It will also be necessary to ensure that all warning messages are fully synchronised and easy to understand, whether they are broadcast using SMS or sirens.

CAP (Common Alert Protocol)

Today, the CAP (the Common Alert Protocol) exists, allowing a consistent warning message to be delivered, no matter which technologies are deployed. Could the CAP, which is derived from university research into best practices in the area, be the response that public authorities have been waiting for? Will it meet the requirements fo the European Commission, and could it be adopted by all affected countries? Let’s hope that an effort to standardise all emergency warning systems can led to more uniformity in the solutions that are deployed, benefiting the public, which is increasingly sensitised to questions of security and public safety.

To read also: Emergency alert: Europe creates a “Reverse 112”