8 recommendations to get the most out of Public Warning Systems

Here were are! Today is the deadline for the 3,5-year long-period for the Member States of the European Union to deploy telephone-based public warning systems. However, public authorities should not limit themselves only to the legal mandate but rather make sure to get the best possible system to alert their population.

This blogpost intends to provide tips on how to get to a well-functioning Public Warning system, which means a system which is able to send public warning alerts that are received and understood by everyone who should receive them and leads the population to do the actions they are required to do.

  1. Use both Cell-Broadcast and Location-Based SMS. The advantages and drawbacks of the two technologies have been widely discussed in the past years (more information on EENA’s document on Public Warning Systems). To make it short, cell broadcast (CB) allows sending instantly loud distinctive alerts (which can be heard even when a phone is on mute) to a wider population. Location-based SMS (LB-SMS) makes it possible to send alerts by SMS to everyone in a given area. And while the EU legislation requires implementing at least one of the two technologies, it is highly recommended to deploy both. By doing so, public authorities can use cell broadcast for more urgent emergencies requiring to alert a large population quickly (for instance: earthquakes, tsunami alerts, avalanches…) and location-SMS for more prolonged emergencies with regular updates (for instance: heat waves, pandemics…).
  2. Combine it with other technologies. For example, location-based SMS and Cell Broadcast are often considered the two main technologies for alerting the population on their phones but they are not the only ones.
    Talking about phones, several public authorities have also implemented registration-based SMS which consists in having people register their important addresses to be kept informed of any alert, even if the person is not located in the area at the time of the emergency. Additionally, when using location-based SMS, it is also possible for public authorities to warn their population travelling abroad in the country they are visiting. Furthermore, apps can also complement an alert provided by another channel by adding additional information (pictures, maps, safety tips…). It must however be kept in mind that an app will never be downloaded by all the population and this should never be used as the main channel. To maximise its reach, it is also possible to use apps that are already largely used for other purposes to disseminate public warning alerts. For instance, the public transport apps of a city can be a good way to alert the city residents of a danger.
    But while telephones are widely used in everyday’s life, emergency situations may keep people away from their phones or cause phone networks to be down. For this reason, it is essential to use as many channels as possible to alert people: sirens, media, social media, variable message signs, billboards… Even ATMs are used in some countries to disseminate Amber Alerts (for missing children).
    It should also be mentioned that European authorities are currently developing the possibility to alert people on their phones via the European satellite system Galileo, which would greatly help when phone networks are down. This feature, called Galileo Emergency Warning Service, should be available in the coming years.
  3. Use Public Warning Systems for better situational awareness. Using telephone-based public warning systems requires getting information on how many subscribers are connected to a cell base station (in a manner that complies with privacy legislation). Having this information also allows competent authorities to get information on how many mobile phone users are within a determined area (and one can assume that there is an average of one phone per person in use) and their country of origin (to be more precise the country where the SIM-cards are registered). Such information can be precious for emergency services to prepare for evacuations or adequate staffing of hospitals and also indicate in which languages the public warning alerts should be sent.
  4. Define a usage strategy in advance. Deploying technologies is only a small part of PWS, but a more important action is to define how this system will be used in practice when a disaster happens. This is a process that takes months and hence should start as early as possible. The definition of a strategy should start by identifying the main risks and defining scenarios based on these risks. For each of these scenarios, the following questions must then be answered:
    What: what message should be sent? What do we want from the population?
    Who: who will send the alert?
    Where: which area should be alerted? 
    When: at what moment should the alert be sent?
    How: through which channels should the alert be sent?
  5. Work on the message to be sent in advance. The main part of the strategy definition consists of preparing the message to be sent. The main part of the message should be defined in advance so that at the moment of an emergency, the authority sending the alert can either use it directly or complement substantially a defined message. Defining a message requires first understanding the different communities within a population: citizens, immigrants, visitors, linguistic minorities, people with disabilities… All these categories come with different requirements and may not understand an alert the same way. Hence, it is necessary to study the impact of a message on the population: are the instructions understandable? Do they provide all the necessary information? A good practice to work on the message definition is to involve the population during the tests prior to the deployment of the technologies and get feedback from them on the message.
  6. Use allies. Deploying and using PWS is not only a thing of civil protection authorities and ministries. Other actors can intervene and complement the action of public authorities.

The first category of allies should, of course, be the population, as the goal of a PW alert is to initiate an action from the population. People receiving an alert can also contribute to maximise its reach by alerting people around them who have not received the alert.

A second category of actors is volunteers who can complement the public authorities’ action. Interesting examples are the Virtual Operations Support Teams (read more about them here) or the Hackers Against Natural Disasters (read about them here).

A third category of actors are academic researchers who can help public authorities in the definition of the strategy; the risks & scenarios to be considered; the requirements of the population or the message preparation.

Finally, influencers in different sectors can also be involved as another channel to reach people. For instance, some public authorities partnered with Youtubers during the Covid-19 pandemic to inform targetted communities of safety measures.

7. Keep a coherent message across the different channels. As we have seen, a well-functioning PWS must consider different channels. However, using different channels comes with two important challenges. First, public authorities will not afford to lose time in filing alerts for each channel. Secondly, there is a risk that the message differs from one platform to another, which could cause confusion among the population. The Common Alerting Protocol intends to address these challenges by providing a unique standardised framework to send alerts through an infinite number of channels.

8. Prepare the population. If the public authorities want to get everyone to do what they are instructed to do during an emergency, they should prepare the population as well as possible (anticipating that visitors may not have the same degree of preparedness). Hence, regular tests should be done to prepare the population to receive an alert. Additionally, to make sure that everyone will follow the instructions, it is essential to build trust among the population in order to appear as a legitimate entity to send public warning alerts.

Hence, having a well-functioning public warning system is not only about having a technology, it is about making the most out of these technologies and using them correctly. Failing to have a strategy or failing to understand and prepare the population enough will result in similar consequences as not having technologies. While in the past, public warning systems were mainly a thing of countries that were particularly exposed to disasters, the past years have shown that no country in the world is now exempted from risks, and everyone should urgently take actions to get state-of-the-art public warning systems.

Edited by the author on 01 July to correct some technical inaccuracies in recommendation 3

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EENA. Articles do not represent an endorsement by EENA of any organisation.

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