A European Decision for a National Alert System

The warning system for the general public in France goes back to World War II. Back then, alerts were sent out to warn of possible bombings, and an organized hierarchy governed their use. Governors and mayors were responsible for transmitting the safety instructions and sending out the alerts. Since then, this system has been partially revised and named SAIP (Système d’Alerte et d’Information des Populations, or Public Alert and Information System).

Today, the general public is faced with new dangers, including technological, terrorist, and weather-related ones. This is why  states are pushed to be innovative in the creation of new warning systems. And they more or less succeded thanks to the advent of new methods of communication and mobility. 

Various European countries have already introduced new warning channels to the general public.

Which countries are these? And what obstacles has France encountered in this area?

European leaders in the use of warning systems

The Netherlands, Lithuania, Sweden and Belgium have implemented effective systems. There’s a good reason for this: they are proactive. It’s no secret. In order to have a reliable system, it needs to be designed such a way that it answers two essential questions:

  • Who is it for?
  • And how does it work?

Defining the target and the method of transmission already provides a more specific idea of ​​which media to use to better transmit the information to as many people as possible.

Slovenia, Poland, Romania, and France have already started to think about modernizing their warning systems. But they are not yet satisfied with the current methods of transmission.

The Belgian example: BE-Alert

In Belgium, mayors have the right to alert the populatio. They also have access to the national secure web platform BE-Alert to do so. Bourgmestres (mayors), governors, and the Minister of the Interior can use it too if necessary.

In operation since June 2017, the alert can be sent out via different channels, such as social media, emails, cell phones, and even landlines!

This system allows messages to be sent to to all registered recipients. For everyone else, the platform’s mission is to use geolocation to find cell phones in the risk area. Then the platforms transmits the appropriate text using the cell phone provider network.

Drills and real-life tests

Benoit Ramacker, spokesman for the Belgian National Crisis Center, calls it “risk and warning education.” In Belgium, on the first Thursday of every month, municipalities can test their warning system to increase awareness. He also emphasizes that citizens have been calling for this type of drill in their daily lives.

As of December 2018, around fifty alerts have already been sent out. This also brings with it a cost for city and town governments. Fees are about 1,000 euros/year for subscription plus the cost for transmitting each alert sent out. Only the costs related to the platform development are charged to the State, while the texts are charged to cell phone companies.

In Switzerland, people can download the Alertswiss app available for all Android and iOS systems. Optimizing this app has cost a little more than 1 million euros. In case of a crisis, the alert is sent out in the 3 national languages, ​​as well as in English. The information is kept in a central location by the canton police, who are responsible for sending out the alert. All broadcast channels are used to broadcast the alert with the help of a dedicated terminal.

Debate on cell broadcast

Cell broadcast is a technique that sends the same message via a cell phone network to all subscribers within a given geographical area.

Belgium has actually turned this solution down in favor of text alerts. By doing so, Belgians are avoiding the constraints related to configuration. Actually, this system requires the use of cell phones pre-programmed to receive alert messages via cell broadcast.

But the big disadvantage of cell broadcast lies mainly in the fact that this method is not available through various channels. This is why more and more countries are opting to supplement this tool with digital applications (such as for tablets and other connected devices).

What are the warning systems in France? 

The warning system designed by France is meant to be unique and able to be broadcast using different methods:

  • Media
  • Variable message boards (highway signs)
  • Smartphones

Regarding social media, France has an official Twitter account for alerts (@Beauvau_Alerte). If we take the case of the December 11 attack in Strasbourg, the alert appeared on the account within 45 minutes after the event occured.

Highway signs, on the other hand, remain large-scale platforms, just like television. The abduction alert represents the best example of this, since it brings together several multichannel networks.

However, the risk of “fake news” and widespread panic is too significant to take such alerts lightly. Ludovic Morand, Vice President of Visov, is a member of the organization Social Media in Emergency Management. The monitors in his organization continually keep an eye on things by analyzing and verifying information. It is necessary before publishing it on social networks. Although there’s a need to rely on the human sensors within the population is a real focus, it is also essential to check and verify the information.

Defining an alert, a French problem ?

Terminology is important here, because it is where the decision-making process starts. Therefore, understanding it is a deciding factor in the process of finding a new, reliable system.

Indeed, the shadow of the SAIP App still lingers over the decision-making context. And the thought of sending out lower-level alerts to avoid long delays between the time at which an event occurs and the time at which information is sent out remains a touchy subject. As a reminder, SAIP was designed to send out warnings to the population in case of danger using various channels. The dedicated app was intended for sending text messages.

On November 14th, the European Parliament voted to set up a mobile emergency alert system using geo-localization called “Reverse 112,” in the event of an attack or a natural disaster. This provision puts Member States in a critical situation. In fact, whether initiated or not, EU Member States have until June 2020 to set up an alert system. In the meantime, a collaborative effort has emerged, promoting the implementation of systems that are able to handle the dangers threatening people.


See also: Population alert: what mechanisms are active in the world?