Emergency alerting: alarming times

Philip Mason talks to Everbridge about the global rise of broadband-based public warning systems

Picture credit: Adobe Stock

While certainly not a pleasant thought, it would appear that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable.

In the past few years, for instance, we have suffered through a global pandemic, something which had a profound effect both on our health as a species and our collective way of life. At the same time, citizens across the world are now starting to feel the impact of climate change in earnest. This includes wildfires raging across Europe, both last year and this, and most recently, serious flooding in Scotland and New York.

While the natural world is seemingly turning against us, meanwhile, humanity is just as busy turning on itself, with the geopolitical situation also becoming increasingly dangerous, seemingly across the globe.

This obviously includes the ongoing war in Ukraine. And, of course, we can now add to that tragedy the violence taking place in Israel and Gaza, events which have not only impacted many civilians but also put the stability of the whole region at risk.

The implications of all this turmoil have been reflected in various recent public safety initiatives specifically centred around the use of technology.

If you are reading this issue of CCT from cover to cover, for instance, you will have already learnt how cutting-edge emergency communications are being deployed on the ground in disaster situations.

In this article, meanwhile, we are going to explore the ways in which governments are now able to alert whole populations to imminent danger before it happens. This could be within nation states themselves, or – as per one ongoing UN initiative – across borders.

Early warnings for all

The emergence of the latter ‘public warning’ technology has taken place in tandem with legislation across the world mandating its roll-out.

From a European perspective, the most obvious example of this is Article 110 of the European Communication Code. This requires that: “[EU] Member States shall ensure that, when public warning systems regarding imminent or developing major emergencies and disasters are in place, public warnings are transmitted by providers of mobile-number-based interpersonal communications services to the end-users concerned.”

As per the legislation, these measures needed to be in place by 21 June this year, and as such, we have seen high-profile roll-outs in countries including Norway, Estonia and the Netherlands. While no longer even a member of the EU, meanwhile, the UK has also recently deployed its own system, which received a first run-out in the form of a test in April.

The technology for many of these efforts was provided by Everbridge. Discussing the global move towards public warning systems, the company’s president and CEO, David Wagner, says: “Our mission is – broadly speaking – to keep people safe and organisations running, using tech to digitise resilience.

“These national alerting systems are an extraordinary application of technology to save lives, and we’ve been honoured to roll it out in over two-dozen nations. Our support in the EU in the past three or four years is probably the strongest example of that, but we also have projects at state level in countries such as India.”

While clearly pleased by his company’s work in this field across all parts of the globe, you sense that Wagner is particularly energised when it comes to efforts in developing countries. After all – as he says – when disaster hits, it is invariably the nations with the fewest resources that suffer most. 

The project he brings up with the most enthusiasm in regard to this is the United Nations’ ‘Early Warnings for All’ initiative, in which Everbridge is playing a contributory role.

The UN website describes the need for Early Warnings for All in this way: “The Global Status Report (2022) reveals that countries with substantive-to-comprehensive early warnings coverage have disaster mortality eight times lower than countries with limited coverage.

“According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, giving just 24 hours’ notice of an impending hazardous event can reduce damage by 30 per cent. Investing just US$800m in such systems in developing countries would prevent losses of $3-$16bn annually.”

The statement continues by describing Early Warnings for All as “bringing together the broader UN system, governments, civil society and development partners” in order to “enhance collaboration and accelerated action to address gaps”.

According to Wagner, from a technological perspective, the aim is essentially to deliver a cloud-based version of the technology. He describes this as “easier to operate and deploy in a sustainable way” than the public warning system as it is deployed in, say, the UK, which functions via physical MNO data centres. (More on which later in the article).

Discussing the progress of the UN initiative, he says: “We’re still working with potential donor and recipient nations. And when I say we, I don’t mean Everbridge, I mean the international telecommunications
arm of the UN and the UN secretary-general themselves.

“We’re advocating for prioritisation of funding, and of course sustainability. Not implementing technology just for technology’s sake.”

Cell broadcast or SMS?

Returning to the ‘nation state’ model and in particular the technology involved, the most popular (which is actually to say, pretty much ubiquitous) method of message delivery is currently based on something called cell broadcast.

For those who don’t know, cell broadcast is a specific, one-to-many alerting channel, enabling the emergency message to be delivered to every mobile phone within a chosen location. One benefit of this – unlike SMS-based functionality – is that it avoids any potential congestion on the network during times when the message is being sent out.

According to Everbridge vice-president of international public warning systems Valerie Risk, meanwhile, other advantages of cell broadcast include the speed with which an alert can be delivered. Elaborating on this, she says: “Cell broadcast is a one-to-many technology. SMS is a point-to-point technology, meaning that one message will only reach one mobile device. Cell broadcast takes 10 seconds, whereas SMS can take between 30 minutes and several hours.

“If you want to reach one million people with SMS, you need to send out one million SMS messages. With cell broadcast, you can send out one message to reach a million people within a certain area.”

As might be expected, Risk worked closely with the British government on its recent roll-out of the technology, tested – as mentioned – on the day of the London Marathon in April.

While not necessarily a complete success (some devices failed to receive the alert on the day, while others received the message up to a minute early), the test was valuable in the sense that it familiarised the British public with what until then had been an essentially alien technology.

More to the point, it also got them used to the reality of the alert itself, both in terms of the onscreen message and the deeply disruptive, 10-second tone accompanying it. This is something which Risk rather aptly refers to as the user’s “personal air raid siren”.

Going into greater detail about the UK public warning system from an operational point of view, she says that in the first instance, the messages are initiated by the Cabinet Office. This is carried out on behalf of the relevant government/public safety agencies,
via a central critical communications centre. The alerts themselves can either be bespoke or created via the use of a template.

Once drafted, the message is sent through via the major mobile network operators, by way of what Risk refers
to as “a cell broadcast centre embedded in the network”. It is then directed to specific geographic cells as required, with the appropriate location for the alert once again decided by the control room.

Discussing this, she says: “In the first instance, the warning will come into the centre to be assessed according to the proper operating procedures. They’ll have a menu of messages that they’ve already created, as well as the ability to create them from scratch. The message is known as a ‘broadcast cell entity’.”

She continues: “The cell broadcast centre is essentially a server running very specific software, located within the mobile operator network. That intelligent centre can take the message, understand the geographical location that the sender has indicated, draw a map of the area and literally identify the cells within it.”

Drilling down further into the role of the MNOs in all this, UK commercial operators were contracted for the project, with the aim of providing 99.9 per cent geographical coverage. These in turn have chosen their own partners, with Everbridge collaborating with EE, O2 and Three.

From the user side, meanwhile, the network subscriber does retain a certain amount of agency in that they have the option of turning their phone off altogether prior to an alert’s arrival or putting it in ‘airplane’ mode. This, needless to say, isn’t particularly practical when it comes to day-to-day use of the device; particularly if the recipient doesn’t know that the alert
is coming.

Bespoke deployments

Everbridge has been involved in over 20 roll-outs of this kind of technology across a variety of different nation states. That being the case, you can’t help but wonder what the key differences might be between each project.

Each country is different, after all, politically, culturally and, of course, economically. The buy-in from telecoms providers themselves, meanwhile, may also differ from place to place.

Discussing how the company approaches these inevitable disparities, Wagner says: “These public warning projects are entirely bespoke. Obviously, the telecoms infrastructures vary a lot from place to place, as well as the regulation around them.

“On one end of the scale, you’ve got somewhere like Norway, which is very advanced, technologically speaking, and doesn’t have a lot of people when it comes to its population. That means it’s able to be really agile in terms of implementing technology at a national level. The Norwegian project took us something like 100 days.”

He continues: “At the other end of the spectrum, we have a couple of Latin American customers, and those projects can take a lot longer. The politics are different from other places in the world, and the mobile network operating is much more complex, so projects can take years.”

While some of the roll-outs are clearly more complicated than others, however, Warner insists that none of them are exactly what you would call straightforward.

Taking the UK as an example, he says that it has “great technology people” alongside a co-operative government. At the same time, the company still had to co-ordinate across three different MNOs, “with technology deployed in dozens of centres across the country”.

“You get all the software and hardware lined up, and then you test it,” he continues. “And if you have any glitches, you fix those in the test”.

This complexity, he insists, was a key reason that not everything necessarily went as it should have on that fateful day in April. “Some of the glitches were right down at the individual cell phone level, with some people not having devices that were modern enough to accept an alert or updates”.

Emergency alerting is becoming an increasingly relevant technology when it comes to keeping the public safe.

At the moment, message delivery is facilitated by cell broadcast, which in Warner’s words “has the advantage of being simple, direct and highly accessible”.

Looking to the future, however, he is not discounting the possibility of SMS becoming the dominant standard in the field, despite its current drawbacks. “SMS has a little bit more complexity,” he says, “but it could give a huge advantage when it gets to the next level of maturity, with citizens having the ability to respond back to emergency communications”.

He continues: “The other really big uplift with it is that you can communicate with cell phones days
and weeks later, over the whole period of recovery. Of course, that needs to take privacy concerns into account, which is both a cultural and a technological hurdle.”

With the global situation apparently deteriorating on a monthly basis, it will be instructive – and also sobering – to monitor where public warning technology and its deployment evolve from here.