The UK is launching an emergency alert phone system

Mast in Strathconon
(Image credit: WHP Telecom)

The UK’s national emergency alert system will go live in October, finally giving the government the ability to send a text message to any mobile phone in areas where there is a risk to life.

Emergency alert systems powered by cell broadcasting technology are common in many countries, including the USA, Netherlands, Canada, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, and have helped save lives during natural disasters such as earthquakes.

However, the UK has never had such a system, despite trials in the early 2010s. This meant that during the early phase of the Coronavirus pandemic, the government had to enlist the support of the four major mobile operators to send text messages to their customers.

Mobile emergency alert system

Plans for an alert system were put into motion last year, with trials held in Reading and Suffolk, and the government believes 85% of the UK population will be able to receive a message if required.

Scenarios where messages would be issued include flooding, fires, extreme weather, public health emergencies and possibly terror attacks. Alerts can be sent across specific cells, meaning they are highly targeted for specific areas and incidents.

“To make sure that government continues to offer the best possible prevention and protection against threats, we are shaking up how we prepare for and respond to emergencies, strengthening the effective resilience capability we already have in place,” said cabinet office minister Kit Malthouse.

“We will launch a new public emergency alerts system in the Autumn which will focus on extreme weather, revolutionising our ability to ‘warn and inform’ people who are in significant and immediate danger. These alerts will be sent direct to people’s mobiles giving details of the emergency - such as local flooding - explaining what to do and how to seek help.

A publicity campaign will begin in September, with every compatible phone in England, Scotland and Wales receiving a welcome message the following month.

Messages will have a different appearance and a distinct sound to standard communications, and anyone will be able to opt-out of the system should they so wish.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.