New UK emergency alert has roots in Hull

First public trial and research completed by researchers at the University of Hull

A nationwide trial of a new public safety and emergency response alert – part of a recently-announced government warning system – will take place on Sunday 23 April 2023 with a test message to mobile phone users. Two lecturers from the University of Hull have been key players in the research behind this alert.

The ‘Emergency Alerts’ system will alert mobile phones with a sound and vibration whenever there’s a life-threatening emergency nearby, such as severe flooding, fire or extreme weather. The first national alert will be sent as a trial over the weekend.

While the release of this new tool may seem sudden for some, two University of Hull researchers have been working behind the scenes on the research since 2019.

Dr Robert Thomas, Senior Research Fellow in Geomorphology and Flood Risk, and Dr Kate Smith, then working as a Researcher in the Flood Innovation Centre, collaborated with the Environment Agency before launching an on-campus trial in November of 2019.

Speaking on the research ahead of the alert, Dr Kate Smith said: “We worked with colleagues from the Environment Agency, as well as technical experts from Fujitsu and EE to develop the trial. This involved testing public responses to cell broadcast messages sent to mobile handsets.

“The trial showed that these kinds of messages are a really effective way of alerting people to imminent danger, and the research we presented to DEFRA and the Cabinet Office was instrumental in the government’s decision to commission a national cell broadcast service for delivering emergency messaging.

We are delighted that our work supported this important step in improving public safety in the UK, and look forward to the success of the forthcoming mobile alerting service.

Dr Kate Smith

Ahead of the alert, Dr Kate Smith has highlighted five things you need to know about the new alert:

  • Cell broadcast messages can be loud! The specific tone reserved for cell broadcast messages is supposed to be loud – these messages are only sent when a risk is imminent, likely and severe so the alert tone they make is designed to be noticed.

    Each handset is different, so how your handset behaves if it is on silent or ‘do not disturb’ is hard to predict but cell broadcast messages are beamed out directly from mobile phone masts and don’t require your phone number, so if you can make an emergency call (e.g. if you don’t have a sim card in your handset) you will still receive an emergency alert if you’re in the range of a mast which is sending out cell broadcast messages. You can, however, quieten emergency alerts on most handsets by switching on ‘aeroplane’ mode.
  • Because cell broadcast messages go out directly to all handsets within the range of a given mast, they will go to everybody - that includes children, young people and more vulnerable members of society.

  • Test messages will be sent at 3pm on 23 April, and will clearly identify that they are sent as a test, but it would still be a good idea to talk to children or more vulnerable people to explain when they will receive this and why. There are options for opting out of messages if they will cause harm.

  • Cell broadcast is used around the world to deliver these kinds of emergency alert messages. In the UK it has been tested widely, including research conducted at the University of Hull about using emergency mobile messaging to deliver flood warnings. The Environment Agency currently sends messages via their opt-in service as SMS messages, but moving to cell broadcast means that warnings can now be responsive to place-based hazards.

  • Messages sent by cell broadcasts integrate with the emergency warning systems already in use by the Environment Agency and other emergency responders. The same kind of system is used successfully in other countries around the world to send life-saving messages. The plan is to only send these kinds of messages when an event is at the highest levels of likelihood, severity and certainty.

Click here to read more about emergency alert testing.

Read more about the challenges faced by researchers and volunteers testing emergency alerts on campus here.

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