public warning system
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Javier Colado, Senior Vice President, International Sales, Everbridge, discusses how governments can provide an all-important rapid and reliable public warning system

An effective public warning system must be rapid, reliable and require no prior action by the people it’s trying to protect. How can governments provide one? At a time of growing uncertainty and risk, it’s an increasingly important question. The short answer is through a multi-channel approach that can communicate effectively to diverse audiences facing multiple hazards and across all stages of the emergency.

This is a topic that has risen up our government’s agenda since the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) directive was introduced. One of the aspects that the Directive covers are public warning systems and it applies to all the Member States of the EU. Under Article 110 of the Directive, EU countries that are setting up a public warning system will need to comply with specific rules and have it in place by June 2022, including a provision to send messages to mobile phones.

Public Warning Systems 2019 v3

The latest report from the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), “Public Warning Systems 2019 v3”, includes a challenging statement that government departments involved in delivering the public warning system for the UK should be aware of: “For public warning, there is no single solution that fits all requirements to reach all citizens in case of an emergency. Therefore, multiple technologies need to be considered.” 

Adopting multiple technologies, however, does shine a spotlight on technology obsolescence. The pace of innovation in communications tech is undeniably relentless. 5G and subsequent advances will bring faster internet services even as more aspects of our daily lives become internet-enabled or enhanced through machine learning and artificial intelligence.

We need to ensure that a public warning system is not built on a solution that becomes unusable or outdated in a few years – it must be capable of adapting to developments and changes in the way the public communicates.

Against the backdrop of fast-developing technology, we must consider what we are trying to achieve with public warning systems through a new lens – one that points to the future – rather than focusing on the application of new technologies to old models.

In their earliest incarnations, public warning systems were focused on alerting a population to a specific type of threat – for example, a flood. This simplistic view is no longer applicable, the nature of threats has changed and how we respond must change too.

  • Multi-Channel, Multi-Hazard – There is now a common recognition that our citizens may be exposed to a multitude of threats that should be supported by a public warning system. Additionally, those citizens are diverse and communicate in a range of ways determined by socioeconomic and geographical factors. In short, alerting systems need to be able to reach all of these audiences – and leave no-one behind.
  • Transboundary crisis management – best practices are expanding to support incidents that cut across geographic, policy, political, cultural, language, and legal areas.
  • Balance – It is well recognised that whilst speed of response remains important, government decision-makers and other stakeholders need to balance this against managing the life-cycle of the incident, ensuring alerts reach the right people, at the right time and with a clear message that enables them to act, whether they are a member of the public or response teams and other stakeholders.

There are five key areas across which a future public warning system in the UK needs to perform to meet the requirements of reaching all citizens and ensuring a multi-agency response to an incident:

Communicate across all phases of an incident

From pre-incident drills to alerts, management, and post-event recovery, the public warning system has a role to play

Communicate with all stakeholders

From citizens and visitors to community volunteers, emergency services, support agencies and government departments. All resources available to support an incident should be known and contactable at the moment an incident occurs across multiple channels and with the ability to automatically send messages in the appropriate language to improve the effectiveness of communication to international travellers.

Leverage location intelligence:

Static location – Where do people live and work most of the time?
Last known location – Where are people now, historic ‘snapshots’ of where people were 6 hours ago?
Expected location – Where do people regularly spend time outside their home such as visiting family, dropping children at school, attending sports clubs, or in shopping centres.

By using location intelligence emergency services, authorities can track the location of those requiring assistance, the density of people in an incident area, or how they are moving as a result of the incident. Equally, a hazard may lay unidentified in an area, so it will become necessary to alert all individuals who have been in the area over the previous 24 hours using historical location data. Location information can be critical in determining the message to send to the public in any given area, or the allocation of emergency services. With geolocation, it’s even possible to build models related to population densities at given times or predict the likely location of an individual based on historical behaviour.

Communicate with the right people at the right time

At each stage of an incident, authorities need to be able to answer the questions: Who can help? Who is impacted? Who needs to know? For each category of stakeholder, authorities should know how best to contact them based on the incident and communication that needs to be sent and to seamlessly engage in two-way communication to check on whether they are safe and to receive requests for assistance.

The underlying technology

New and emerging tech also has a major part to play. 5G offers improved signal strengths, range, material penetration, bandwidth and location date. Machine Learning can analyse huge swathes of data to find patterns and make predictions that would take humans months. AI can be used to help with advanced decision making and situational awareness for authorities.

All these technologies will have a role in the UK’s public warning system. But, as the EENA report states, it’s how they work together that will define the success of any implementation, and ensure we leave no one behind.


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