A cause for alarm

Despite having the technology available for sophisticated mass disaster warning systems, the UK government has so far ignored recommendations for trials.

Whether it is a poisoned water supply, a nuclear reactor going intomeltdown or a terrorist attack due to hit London in half an hour, the UK does not have the public warning systems needed to alert people to impending disaster.

Emergency planners today are relying on cobwebbed sirens decommissioned after the cold war, sluggish autodialling telephones and police with loudhailers to avert deaths. The technology exists to mass-inform the public in seconds and major utilities are planning trials around high-risk plants. But the government has so far ignored recommendations for trials that could save thousands of lives, the telecoms industry claims.

The recent disaster in the Indian Ocean shows just how difficult it can be to get life-saving information out to those in jeopardy, but the need for rapid and reliable ways to disseminate warnings is not just restricted to countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

While natural disasters on such an unimaginable scale are unlikely in the UK, nuclear accidents, flash floods — as we saw in Boscastle — or terrorist bombs are plausible hazards. People are easy to reach if they are sitting in front of the television on a week night, but warning people at 3am on a national holiday poses significant problems for emergency planners.

In 2002 independent government advisory panel the National Steering Committee for Warning and Informing the Public (NSCWIP) published a report recommending a raft of technologies for Cabinet Office backing and trials — but three years later no action has been taken.

One of the technologies put forward was ‘cell broadcasting’. Phone networks have a feature that could allow authorities to send a message simultaneously to every mobile phone in a danger area. By simply consulting their phone manuals mobile users could activate an emergency channel, one of 64,000 unused information streams currently set aside by networks. This would tune their phones in a similar way to a radio, to instantly receive a broadcast without the warning system needing to dial their number.

The feature does not jam the network like SMS messaging, which like phone autodialling used for flood warning is slow and requires a database of subscribers. Neither does it require additional hardware or transmitters. The same signals could also be used to generate messages on TVs and electronic signs.

However, the cell broadcasting feature is today largely unused because of a lack of commercial applications for networks, although in China the technology is used for advertising, in Turkey as a call to prayer, and the Dutch government has decided to pioneer it for flood warning.

Mark Wood of the Cellular Emergency Alert Service Association, which is developing the Cell Alert system, said it can warn millions of people quickly. ‘A message can be sent out to an unlimited number of mobiles in under 20 seconds,’ he said.

‘It could have got the tsunami warning out in a minute.’

The system would be simple to install, because all that is needed is the knowledge to activate the feature on existing phones, said Wood.

‘The amount of money needed to install sirens in one small town would be the same as putting in cell broadcasting for the entire country,’ he said.

So if cell broadcasting technology is already available, why isn’t the government backing it? ‘A lot of government advisers we spoke to didn’t know about cell broadcasting. The government didn’t pay attention when we told them,’ said Wood. ‘They know about it now but say they are not convinced it will work.’

Chris Samuel, technology chairman of NSCWIP, said cell broadcasting needs support. ‘If you’re going to put cell broadcasting in place it would be best put in nationally, and a national initiative would need help from central government,’ he said. ‘I think it is a system that should be developed further and is a step forward for emergency planners.’

However, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said cell broadcasting is not being considered on a national basis. ‘It is useful just for specific areas, but it’s not something we’d look at for reaching everyone at the same time,’ she said.

‘Clearly it is not for the government to impose a single system across the country. Indeed, NSCWIP made this clear in its recommendations “local solutions for local problems”.’

Cell Alert researchers have been forced to rely on a paucity of commercial interest. At the time of going to press the organisation was in talks with a network operator, which is understood to be T-Mobile, and a field trial is planned with Kent County Council for flood warning.

Cell broadcasting is not the only technology abandoned after the NSCWIP report. Paul Burns, head of emergency planning specialist Symbol Seeker, has developed a device that fits into a household plug and receives emergency warnings via power-line communication, described by NSCWIP as ‘particularly exciting’.

The plug-in, which transmits an audio warning, a strobe and messages on a small screen, costs £50-100 and is triggered in a similar way to remote electricity meter reading used by power companies.

Burns said that his Nimbus system with 4WarnAlert plug-in is essential if a disaster were to happen at night, because antiquated methods like TV broadcasts and sirens would fail to reach anybody. ‘Civil defence notification hasn’t moved on since the cold war and most of that infrastructure has been stripped away.’

However, when Burns contacted the Cabinet Office for backing, he heard nothing. ‘What I can’t understand is that the government is not supporting me now,’ he said.

‘It’s waiting for the horse to bolt from the stable; the mindset is to only come in after the disaster happens. The NSCWIP chairman David Hay was just brushed off. The Cabinet simply wouldn’t fund the recommendations they put forward.’

Burns is now developing the system for an unnamed oil multinational, and plans a field trial with power company CE Electric in the north-east. Under EU law, high-risk sites such as refineries and chemical plants must be capable of transmitting rapid warnings to homes and businesses within a 3km radius, and there are over 450 of these sites in the UK — hence the commercial interest in Burns’ device to replace low-tech systems such as sirens.

But the government cannot rely on business to keep emergency alert technology research afloat. NSCWIP’s Samuel maintains that the government is open to new technology, and said the key goal of NSCWIP has been new legislation, which it has won. He is confident that when the Civil Contingencies Act comes into force in April, emergency planners will have a stronger voice to call for what is needed.

‘It will take a while for the act to bed in on a regional level,’ he said. ‘We need to see how the local resilience forums due to be set up will determine risks and prioritise hazards, and then decide what package they want.’ Technologies like cell broadcasting and Nimbus are not panaceas, he said.

Qinetiq’s Neil Briscombe, NSCWIP adviser and leader of a study for the Environment Agency and DEFRA on emergency alerts, said that multiple warning outlets are needed to reach all of the population and also to convince people that they are in danger. ‘There definitely isn’t one magic bullet, you need a number of robust channels,’ he said. ‘We see a need for as many technologies as possible.’

Alarmingly for the UK public, however, today there appears to be scant support from the government for any of the new technologies on offer.