Location-based texts to replace sirens for warning citizens of emergencies
The government has taken the first firm step towards setting up a national system capable of texting mobile phones with information about a terrorist attack or another major emergency. A consultation opening yesterday proposes a change in the law to enable every mobile phone in a defined area to be texted with emergency alerts.
In the immediate aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London, the City of London Police shut down mobile phone networks within a mile of Aldgate East, one of three stations hit by suicide bombers. Contingency plans for shut-downs were also part of the preparations for the 2012 Olympics.
Official thinking now seems to have swung behind the idea that mobile networks are more use in emergency situations when switched on. Especially for official communications. Today's consultation cites the need to disseminate information in situations such as floods or industrial accidents at chemical sites - and that the cellular network makes a vastly better information conduit than the traditional sirens.
One precedent is the Environment Agency's Floodline Warnings Direct System, which since 2010 has automatically enrolled subscribers in affected areas (0.1% exercise their right to opt out of emergency alerts).
According to the consultation document, 'location based SMS' would enable the police, the environment agency and 'in extreme cases the government' to send text messages quickly to people believed to be in the emergency area, informing them what they should do.
The document describes five "major types of incident" in which which the system might be used. They are: "no notice hazardous site incidents" such as chemical spills, "no notice incidents" such as explosions, "severe flood warnings", "rising ride events" and "national disaster'" Depending on the incident, responsibility for issuing an alert would lie with the police gold commander, the environment agency or "in extreme cases" Her Majesty's Government. Alerts would be used only where it would be "a useful and proportionate means of responding", the document says. "We would not expect the system to be used for peaceful and lawful protests or for school closures."
Following the decision, the alert message and target area would be passed to mobile network operators to send to handsets from the appropriate masts. Network operators would give the authorities data on the volume of messages sent but not about individual recipients.
Current law - the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations - requires people to give prior consent to such text spamming. The document proposes creating "a targeted and specific exemption... to allow operators to process and store traffic for the limited purpose of operating a public emergency alert system." The consultation closes on 26 January.
Pictured: alert bell | HAAP Media Ltd. ("freeimages")