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EECC public warning system regulation

Population alerting – Is the message getting through?

Critical events can affect the general public in a variety of different ways. In the last month, for example, a community in the UK’s peak district faced homes and businesses being flooded from a burst dam. In Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, in July, the highest ever temperatures were recorded during an extreme heatwave putting vulnerable citizens at risk. These situations required public agencies to help evacuate people to safety and use mainstream media or house-to-house contact to keep residents informed.

When it comes to emergencies in which people are faced with imminent danger, such as during the bombing in Lyon, France, in May or any terrorist incident, the response needs to be immediate, communication must be authoritative and accurate and the general public should be compelled to act quickly.

Assessing the level of risk for different types of critical event and deploying the appropriate communication plan can be an immense challenge, whether for public health agencies or emergency responders including the police and ambulance service.

The situation is being addressed by a new EU Directive, the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), which covers all the Member States of the EU, and the UK, under current legislation. Once the UK exits the EU, the government has committed to biding by this new EECC regulation.

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 the system in place by June 2022. The system will work by issuing alerts – not just to citizens but also to overseas visitors – if there is a risk from a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or an emergency in their area. Transmission of the public warning system alerts will be via mobile telephone networks so must be able to reach everyone with a mobile phone in the area affected, regardless of their choice of service provider or device.

The legislation is very clear about the aims of the public warning system:

  • Target those affected by geography to avoid unnecessary panic
  • Reach a very high percentage (ideally more than 95%) of all people in the targeted area in their native language
  • Deliver messages reliably and in real-time
  • Deliver messages without any need for the public to opt-in or download apps
  • Provide statistics on the number and content of messages sent and received for follow-up analysis
  • Ensure communication is two-way between the recipient and sender to determine if assistance is required

In the UK, several questions arise out of the new Directive, not least the government’s commitment to Article 110. In July, it published a consultation document in which it said: ‘implementation of Article 110 will involve input from a number of organisations that have responsibility for warning and informing the public. The article sets out that, by June 2022, when public warnings are transmitted in the event of imminent or developing major emergencies and disasters, those warnings must be transmitted by mobile networks. The Cabinet Office is conducting a review to establish whether there is a case for such a national mobile warning alert scheme, in addition to the systems already in place.’ The systems to which it is referring, under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, place a duty on responders to warn the public and provide information about emergencies through channels including phone, social and broadcast media platforms. The question is whether the current system meets the EECC regulation provisions and, arguably, the answer to that would be that it does not. 

In 2014 the Cabinet Office launched a pilot project to trial alerts to mobile devices which found that responders wanted to see the implementation of a national alert system and a majority of citizens involved in the trial agreed. Lord Harris of Haringey, member of the Joint Committee on National Security, last year said: “As the Cabinet Office pilots showed, the technology is there. It is already in use in Australia, in the United States, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. I understand that sophisticated refinements are possible with more detailed messages being directed to security officers and those who have a responsibility to help the public. There is really no excuse for further delay.” 

While the Civil Contingencies Act puts a duty on responders, Article 110 of the EECC Directive places a duty of care on the government to protect citizens in public places. A crucial part of this is that provision should be made to reach at least 95% of all mobile phone users within an affected geographic area. We have yet to hear how this will be measured and what the consequences will be if citizens are harmed because they have not received a vital message.

If government officials need to see an example of the difference that properly implemented, fit-for-purpose public warning systems can make, they could look at India, where a deadly cyclone hit in May. Over a million people were evacuated following extensive warning by the government using its recently implemented public warning system. According to official estimates, 64 people sadly lost their lives. During the 1999 cyclone which hit the same area 9,658 people were killed. The figures speak for themselves.   

Interested to read more?

This is the first in a series of blogs to address the issues and challenges of meeting the requirements of the EU Directive 110 on population alerting. 

Further reading about population alerting:

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