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Should the UK use Mobile Alert Systems?

22 August 2018
 August 22, 2018

On a Friday evening in the run up to Christmas 2017, panic spread through one of London’s busiest shopping areas, Oxford Street, as rumours of a terror alert began circling on social media.

Amongst the chaos that ensued, singer Olly Murs became an unlikely source of public safety information, telling his 7 million Twitter followers that gunshots had been heard in department store Selfridges.

Some time later Police confirmed the incident to be false, having reportedly originated from an altercation between two men at a nearby tube station. However, by this time it was too late. Scenes of mass-hysteria were described as armed officers evacuated the area, with screaming crowds ‘running for their lives’ resulting in a stampede which injured several people.

This case quite clearly highlights the importance of controlling the misinformation that can circulate in these situations, especially on social media.

What are mobile alert systems?

One possible way to do this is using mobile alert systems, which in the event of a real emergency can disseminate safety information quickly to a mass audience straight to their phones using SMS. Around the world these have already been implemented in the US, Netherlands and Australia, although so far in the UK only a pilot scheme has taken place.

Mobile alert systems can warn people in the vicinity of danger and provide safety guidance. For example, in the Icelandic town of Vík, should the nearby Katla volcano erupt those in the local area will receive a text with instructions on evacuating to a safe location.

Other uses of emergency SMS alerts include environmental dangers such as severe weather, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis as well as potentially nuclear incidents, pandemics, warfare and terrorist attacks.

Government worker ‘pressed the wrong button’

Despite their many benefits, on the reverse, a false alert via the system could cause unnecessary panic on a large-scale, the consequences of which could be devastating.

When a government worker in Hawaii ‘pressed the wrong button’ residents received an emergency alert by mistake telling them to seek shelter from an incoming ballistic missile. It took 20 minutes for a correction to be issued by which time people in the US state were in a frenzy, fearing an attack from North Korea.

Reliability is also a big issue as when a nationwide public alert system was tested in Canada, mobile users in Quebec and Ontario didn’t receive the messages. In a real-life emergency scenario the cost of such failures could be drastic.

Target for hackers

The very existence of these systems raises the question of what could happen should this technology fall into the wrong hands? There is a risk that it could become a target for hackers and those attempting to ‘spoof’ messages and manipulate the technology for their own means.

Could the increased terror threat lead to mobile alerts in the UK?

As the threat from terrorism intensifies, so does the need for new ways to address the issue of public safety and it seems as if with the right implementation, mobile alert systems could be effective in the UK at warning people of nearby danger.

Although further trials have been recommended by the Cabinet Office, after the pilot test, they concluded that emergency responders are still very keen to see a national mobile alert system in the UK.

85% of the public also agree that this would be a good idea and an efficient way of getting people to take specific protective action during an emergency.

With the technology already being in place, those in the UK shouldn’t be surprised if a similar system to that used in the US is rolled out within the next few years. However as a Cabinet Office spokesperson said, it is very important that this is ‘only used in times of genuine emergency.’


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