telecoms infrastructure
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Javier Colado, SVP of International Sales at Everbridge discusses how the UK is under pressure to ensure its telecoms infrastructure is fit to enable the transmission of emergency alerts to mobile phones

In the UK, like so many parts of the world, we have been targeted by terrorist attacks, often with catastrophic impact. In March 2017, five people lost their lives on Westminster Bridge and outside the Houses of Parliament when a terrorist rammed his vehicle into pedestrians and fatally stabbed a policeman. This was followed in May with the horrendous bombing at Manchester Arena with the loss of 23 lives and in June by the atrocity on London Bridge which again involved vehicle ramming and stabbing.

The suspect packages found just a couple of months ago on the Glasgow University campus and at Heathrow Airport, London City Airport and at Waterloo Station serve to remind us that this threat is constant. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but these incidents still led to extensive evacuations, disturbed passengers and businesses, and necessitated a major effort by the emergency services.

Of course, it’s not just terrorist attacks that deliver threats or disruption. Extreme weather events, such as floods or snowstorms can cut off entire communities in a matter of hours, for example. In these cases, it is not just the emergency services that are called in to help, but public service agencies, local authorities and in extreme cases, national government departments.

The success, or failure, to deal with each event, depends largely on how quickly it can be managed and how efficiently the general public can be alerted. Currently, communication with the public is administered by the agencies involved and through broadcast media and social messaging. Inevitably this can lead to delays and confusion if the most important messages are inaccurate or misleading. What we lack is a central public alerting system, but this is about to change.

The European Electronic Communications Code Directive (EECC Directive) is now in force. What this means is that all European countries, including the UK under current legislation, will be obliged to set up a public emergency alerting system regarding imminent or developing major emergencies. The warnings will mainly be distributed by mobile network providers and with the Directive due to become law in December 2020, we have only eighteen months’ left to ensure it works well.

The Cabinet Office has already run trials to determine the appetite for alerts amongst responders with good results, and the UK can look to other countries where national alerting systems are working well for guidance. In Sweden, residents and visitors receive text notifications on their mobiles if they are in danger of extreme weather or a terror attack. All mobile operators in Sweden can send text alerts enabled by using a unified messaging system, which provides information about where to go in the event of an evacuation, and when it is safe to return. The same systems are in place in Norway, the Netherlands, Singapore and Greece. In the USA, use of public alerting is widespread across many states.

There are challenges for the UK in terms of aligning emergency services with the multiple mobile telecoms operators and these will need to be overcome first. However, should Government opt for the tried and tested central unified messaging system already powering public alerts around the world, we can expect communications to provide a multi-modal approach featuring Location-Based SMS, as an optimal solution. Leveraging the telco infrastructure, messages can be sent anonymously to everyone in an area connected to a cell tower without predefined databases of mobile phone numbers.  

Reaching populations in their native language

By automatically detecting the nationality of a person’s SIM card, messages are sent in the appropriate language to improve the effectiveness of communication to visitors and international travellers.

Two-way communications

Two-way communications enable the benefit of checking on people to check if they are safe or have requests for assistance. People can simply respond to SMS messages or polls that are sent. This level of engagement makes for a far more robust system for protecting people. The simple and unobtrusive nature of SMS technology, which has a sense of familiarity and reassurance for people can avoid panic during evacuations and other similar situations.

Amplify situational awareness

The total number of SIM cards in an area can be seen and by extension the number of people, without any personally identifiable information, connected to a cell power at a specific time and whether they are still there at a later time. This information is available in the system before sending an alert.

By having visibility to the number of people in an area, estimates can be made of crowd sizes for planning purposes and deployment of emergency personnel. This feature also enables the emergency services to confirm, for example, if an area has been successfully evacuated and allows them to watch the movement flow of people over time to plan out resources needed along different routes as an event unfolds, or to plan for a future one.

Multi-agency Alerting

In addition to location-based SMS, address-based and directory-based alerting are available in order to distribute messages using geo-coded national address registers or address registers of companies, as well as for emergency services and other agencies. Additionally, when it comes to national-scale alerting, multiple stakeholders can use the same solution, tailored to their jurisdictions. The solution can be scaled from national to a regional level, all the way down to local areas, with each agency having their own defined set of templates, roles, hierarchies and directories.

Many would argue that, given the frequency of terrorist attacks and the growing incidence of emergency weather events, the UK is long overdue for a public alerting system. Combined with a critical communications platform, it will be powerful enough to reach the right people, in the right place, with the right message and result in improved security for the general public at a time when all of us are looking for extra reassurance.


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