Why public alerting technology should be part of the national emergency armoury

The response of the emergency services during the COVID-19 crisis has been tireless and we owe them a debt of gratitude for keeping our communities safe in what has been a difficult period. Nobody expects life to go back to ‘normal’ immediately, but it will be necessary for all organisations, including fire, rescue, ambulance and police services to navigate the complexities of the next phase as the workforce returns and society reopens.

Words: Javier Colado, Head of International, Everbridge

Everbridge has been working with thousands of organisations, including governments, businesses, healthcare systems and emergency services to help them protect people and operations during the crisis. Our Critical Event Management (CEM) platform has been widely utilised to access push notification updates on the virus and its impact, and as a result it has sent hundreds of millions of messages over the past few months alerting recipients to risks and providing information about how to keep safe.

Of course, communicating emergency information has to work at all levels, from governments, national and local authorities down to public and private businesses. What has become apparent however during the crisis is that there is little in the way of a cohesive, planned approach to alerting the general public in the UK and that has a knock-on effect on emergency services.

The UK has no public alerting system, so when the government needed to communicate the important ‘stay at home’ message to all citizens at the beginning of the crisis, it worked with the various mobile network providers to send a text. This was long overdue. Other countries had been using mobile alerting, apps and online updates from the moment the pandemic began. Later on, a Coronavirus information service was launched on WhatsApp, to ‘provide official, trustworthy and timely information and advice about Coronavirus (COVID-19), and further reduce the burden on NHS services’.

People were looking to the Government to lead them during this period, and delivering emergency information through a commonly-used channel was the right thing to do. In fact, during research carried out by Everbridge among over 9000 people in 13 countries during February, 72% of UK respondents said that texting was an excellent channel for communication. However, unless the text was one of a series of messages, which it would now seem not to be, it would only ever have a limited impact, and it could raise more questions than it answered.

Mobile technology has much more to offer than a single text blast to everyone, delivered at different times depending on the network they use. Technology exists to reach people specifically and simultaneously and with meaningful, targeted messages. This could mean texts to those at risk due to their geographic location; those that are in public areas who should not be; and instead of a single communication with no means to reply, two-way alerting that allows vulnerable citizens to respond if they are safe, or more importantly, if they need help.

The UK Government has investigated the adoption of public alerting. The Cabinet Office ran a project in 2014 to trial alerts to mobile devices and those involved were positive about implementing a national alert system. There is also a commitment to complying with the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), an EU directive, which requires that a system of this kind is in place by June 2022.

It’s understandable that dealing with the COVID-19 crisis has been the priority for governments, but as we move into recovery, the focus is on avoiding a second wave pandemic.

The Coronavirus caught most countries off guard, and now is the time to invest in technologies for the long term which can keep people safe no matter what crisis occurs.

It’s not only the ability to communicate with entire populations across multiple channels from SMS/texts to e-mails and phone calls, that is important. These systems also aggregate situational intelligence by collecting information from many different data sources. They then consolidate this data to generate a unified view or ‘single pane of glass’ of the entire situation.

This technology would be immensely valuable in the hands of the emergency services, allowing them to manage crisis situations more effectively by reducing the pressure on 999 services, preventing people from entering danger zones, giving targeted instructions to those who are impacted in order to guide them to safety and allowing for two-way communications with those in most need. One thing is for sure, it’s unlikely that anyone in the fire and rescue, ambulance or police services would dismiss technology that can help them to work more effectively and save lives. It’s time for all stakeholders to come together and make this happen.