The UK government has decided that it’s going to remotely set off alarms on your smart phone and tablet from 23rd April, for severe weather, terrorism, and other emergencies. This blog outlines everything you need to know about these new Emergency Alerts, how they work, devices affected, and importantly, how to turn emergency alerts off. Not least so you’re not distracted at work!
Short version: Turn off emergency alerts by going into your device notification settings, watch video below (from 3 mins) or skip to last section for how. Long version: You may have other questions about these alerts, why they are happening, what they look/sound like, when they start and more information. If so, read on!
Why Are Emergency Alerts Being Sent?
The government says this new emergency alert system is a smart way to warn people about nearby extreme threats, with the ultimate aim of saving lives. The main goal of these alerts is to provide timely and accurate information to people in affected areas, allowing them to take appropriate action to protect themselves and their property.
The scheme is part of a wider strategy to improve resilience against a range of ever-evolving threats. Here’s the main rationale from a government spokesperson:
“We are strengthening our national resilience with a new emergency alerts system, to deal with a wide range of threats – from flooding to wildfires. It will revolutionise our ability to warn and inform people who are in immediate danger, and help us keep people safe. As we’ve seen in the US and elsewhere, the buzz of a phone can save a life.” – Oliver Dowden, MP
Opponents argue that it’s an unnecessary and intrusive invasion of privacy, an extension of the nanny state, unnecessary fear-mongering, and could actually cause harm in certain situations (read on for reasons to turn them off).
There are also fears that, as with many new government initiatives, the scope of such unsolicited messaging will expand in future. Either by expanding the definition of what constitutes an ‘emergency’, or by using similar mechanisms for marketing or other purposes.
This system itself is an extension of the unsolicited government public health messaging in relation to Covid-19. For example, ‘track and trace’ schemes, ‘stay at home’ directives, local ‘tiered lockdown’ information, mask wearing reminders, local testing availability, promotion of the NHS Covid-19 app, and automated messages requesting people sign up for the vaccines authorised for emergency use.
Overall, research suggests that sending emergency alerts to people’s phones during severe weather events is an effective way to increase awareness and motivate people to take protective actions. For example, Kurniawan et al. (2019), published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction compared the behaviour of 536 participants. They found that people who received mobile alerts about severe weather were more likely to take protective actions such as seeking shelter, evacuating, or taking other precautions, compared to those who did not receive alerts.
The core purpose of these schemes existence is saving lives, for which they are sometimes credited or reported as doing. However, there’s no clear research evidence to identify how many lives have in practice been saved by such schemes, peer-reviewed or otherwise. It would therefore be good to see the business case and cost/benefit analysis for this no doubt expensive initiative.
Emergency alerts to mobile devices have been reported as useful to evacuations in relation to hurricanes (e.g. Hurricane Harvey), Californian wildfires, tornados, and other natural disasters in the USA (albeit with some panic-inducing mishaps along the way). Similar systems are in place in Canada, Japan, and the Netherlands. Their relevance to the milder climate of the UK, the green and pleasant land of which also lacks extreme geological hazards like earthquakes and volcanos, remains to be seen.
What Do Emergency Alerts Look and Sound Like?
So what do the UK emergency alerts look and sound like?
The siren-like sound is like an annoying, repetitive phone dial tone, and lasts around 10 seconds. I’m surprised they didn’t just pick the old air raid siren from World War 2! The sound is accompanied by vibrations of your device. Alerts may also be read out automatically, if you’re using these accessibility settings.
The Emergency alert will also appear as a visual notification on your device home screen. Like an alarm clock, it won’t quit until you acknowledge it. You also won’t be able to use your phone or tablet until you close the alert. The emergency alert will include instructions on what to do, and may include numbers and links for further information.
Below is another, even shorter, video published by the Cabinet Office, demonstrating what the first alert will look and sound like. Comments are switched off, so it seems they’re not open to any feedback on this one…
Various media outlets have been helping the government communicate this new system, repeating & regurgitating various facets of the Cabinet Office’s press release fanfare about the system. But the video I’ve embedded above gives you more of a flavour of what the alerts will generally look and sound like.
What Devices are Emergency Alerts Sent To?
The emergency alerts are sent to iPhones, Android phones, and Android tablets with 4G or 5G data capability.
For Android devices, that means Samsungs, Google Pixel phones, Blackberry, Amazon Fire, Huawei, Motorola, LG, Sony, Asus, OnePlus, or any others using this operating system (full list here).
The emergency alerts don’t need your phone number to be sent. Instead, they’re sent en masse via 4G and 5G phone towers and only relate to 4G and 5G data use. So if your smart phone or tablet is WiFi only, or only has 3G data, it won’t be affected. While both smart phones and 4G/5G tablets are affected on the Android operating system side, it’s only the iPhone on iOS (not iPad) for Apple users.
The government have stated that the system does not reveal or track your location, or collect any personal data about you or your device (e.g. phone number).
Of course, there’s nothing stopping the government changing these parameters in future. They could get rolled out to more devices, operating systems, possibly even laptops. But that’s the situation as it currently stands!
When Will I Receive Emergency Alerts?
The new emergency alert system starts on Sunday 23 April 2023, at 3pm. So if you thought you were getting a ‘day of rest’, think again! The first test message will be sent on that day to millions of people around the UK, scheduled for 1500, and will say the following:
This is a test of Emergency Alerts, a new UK government service that will warn you if there’s a life-threatening emergency nearby. In an actual emergency, follow the instructions in the alert to keep yourself and others safe. Visit gov.uk/alerts for more information. This is a test. You do not need to take any action.
Thereafter, you will automatically receive alerts whenever the government or local emergency service deems there to be a ‘threat to life’ worthy of an alert (e.g. severe weather, terrorism, flooding). There are ‘EXTREME‘ alerts, which are the most serious and will be very infrequent, then ‘SEVERE‘ alerts which will be more frequent.
Alerts will most likely be in relation to severe weather events, such as flooding, wind, and snow. To give you an idea, the Met Office publishes 100s of severe weather warnings per year across the UK.
You can also read up on the sort of things which constitute a ‘severe weather event’, and so will prompt authorities to send emergency alerts. The Met Office publish guidance on what exactly severe weather warnings mean and their varying levels. For example, I provide an extract below of the new warning system for ‘Extreme Heat’ and what it means, which was recently added to their repertoire of severe weather warnings in 2021.
Given that definition, should the mercury be very hot in Summer, the sun shining, and the beach beckoning people to make the most of it, you’ll probably be alerted of an emergency and be told to dive for cover!
Who Sends the Emergency Alerts?
The government have announced that emergency alerts will only be sent by the emergency services, or any other government departments, agencies and public bodies that deal with emergencies. These public agencies may be local or national, and applies across the whole United Kingdom.
This definition includes all local authorities and councils, police forces, fire services, ambulance services, NHS trusts, UK Health Security Agency, Highways Agency, Environment Agency, coastguard and many more. You can read more about the UK’s approach to emergencies, including various roles and responsibilities, in the Cabinet Office publication on emergency planning. Here’s a fuller list of the organisations defined as Category 1 and Category 2 responders.
Reasons To Turn Emergency Alerts Off
Some people like the idea of being personally informed when there are emergencies nearby and what to do about it. Some find being told what to do reassuring, without having the inconvenience of having to think for themselves. Or would just find it useful to know what’s going on.
However, a cursory thought provokes plenty of ideas and reasons why many others don’t want these alerts, and so might want them turned off. Here are just some examples of why you might want to turn emergency alerts off. A few even pose serious risks:
- Domestic abuse victims who have been given secret phones for security.
- Driving distraction: When hearing this unusual siren, many drivers will be trying to pull over (often unsafely), or worse, clamouring for their phones while driving!
- Disruption to work, meetings, the workplace, or classrooms and other educational environments. I dread to think of the noise in the local library! Or what panic may ensue in hospitals when alarms are going off all over the place?
- Distraction: When you’re ‘excelling at the office’ and working on an important document, the last thing you want is the distraction. There may be a reason you wanted your phone on silent. Plus, interruption to content creation and inability to use your phone until the alert is acknowledged may also be unappealing.
- Mental health: Some people simply don’t want to be subjected to additional messages about hazards, when there’s already plenty of ‘fear-porn’ coming through TVs, radios, and other news outlets.
- Elderly people: Many elderly people have smart phones and can just about do the basics and send their loved ones messages. Goodness knows how they’ll feel or panic when it flares up with warnings about imminent threats to their life.
- Spam and scams: No doubt opportunistic scammers will make use of this new scheme, creating nefarious ‘Emergency Alert’ branded messages and emails with hazardous links for confused people to click. After all, the main reason tactic scammers use is creating a sense of urgency or worry about something, so their victims act unthinkingly. I’m sure after April, Action Fraud will see a surge of scam reports.
Generally, if you ever have reasons to put your phone on silent (e.g. to avoid sleep disruption, avoid distractions), then you probably want to also make sure these alerts are also switched off. That’s because despite being set to ‘silent’, when these alerts are sent out, your phone will still party harder than Brazilians at the Rio De Janeiro Queen concert in 1985. Even the National Autistic Society have warned how these new alerts may be distressing to those with Autism Spectrum Conditions.
The domestic abuse point is the most important one worth emphasising. If you weren’t aware, domestic abuse victims often receive secret phones as a part of a safety plan to protect them from their abusers. These phones are often provided by police, domestic violence shelters, hotlines, or victim support organisations.
Having a secret phone can be crucial for a domestic abuse victim who may need to call for help or communicate with others without the abuser’s knowledge. It can also provide a sense of security and autonomy for the victim, as they are not completely cut off from the outside world.
It would be a dreadful scenario and such alerts present a clear risk of serious violence, injury, or even death. Police and other security organisations should be aware of this risk; not just for vulnerable domestic abuse victims of course, but of any other smart phones given to covert intelligence or other assets. If not, on Sunday, 23rd April, their cover will be blown and carnage may ensue!
On a lighter note about the distraction, I’m reminded of the comedian, Will Franken. One of his comedy sketches is about clubbers at a rave, where a disastrous fire breaks out; unfortunately some party-goers weren’t able to differentiate the fire alarm from the repetitive futuristic house music. Further, it’s generally good practice to save your phone battery, to turn off such settings whereby the device is constantly seeking information or updating things in the background.
You might be interested in reading more about privacy, for example this popular book on Why Privacy Matters.
Can I Opt Out of Emergency Alert Contact?
No. The government has decided it will send emergency alerts to every phone and smart device of every citizen. There is no means to opt out individually; the scheme is a broad-brush approach to reducing risk of inaction and harm in relation to hazards in an area.
“In an emergency, your mobile phone or tablet will receive an alert with advice about how to stay safe.” – UK Government
They are sent using 4G and 5G phone masts to all connected phones/devices in that area, so it is not possible to opt out. However, there’s nothing stopping an entire community served by a phone mast to collectively petition authorities to cease any alerts relating to that mast, as it is technically possible for the organisers to choose which masts send and don’t send emergency alerts.
How to Turn Off Your Emergency Alerts
Given there is no opt out of this intrusive yet impersonal scheme, you instead must turn them off manually in your notification settings. Switching on ‘Airplane Mode’ will work, but of course that’s not a practical solution for an intermittent alert. Since the scheme works by utilising 4G and 5G, you could also relegate your devices’ data settings to 3G or WiFi-only. But again, while that’s a useful temporary data-saving tool when it’s approaching your monthly data reset, most won’t want that as a permanent set up.
So here’s the steps and screenshots of how you can turn off emergency alerts in your settings, without affecting anything else…
Samsung and Android
For Android devices, the kill-switch for these emergency alerts is buried deep within your settings. I’ve used a Samsung phone to go through the steps and screenshots for you…
- Open your ‘Settings’ and choose ‘Notifications’
- Go to ‘Advanced settings’
- Choose ‘Wireless emergency alerts’
- Switch off ‘Allow alerts’ (or just the ones you want)
- Emergency alerts all now turned off
iPhone and iOS
For iPhone, there’s fewer steps but a little more scrolling…
- Open your ‘Settings’
- Go to ‘Notifications’
- Scroll all the way down to ‘Emergency Alerts’ section
- Turn off ‘Extreme Alerts’ and ‘Severe Alerts’
On iPhone, you might want to also turn off the ‘Tracking Notifications’ while you’re there.
Also note that sometimes with significant software updates, it resets settings that you had previously adjusted. So it might be worth checking in again when you have installed a new iOS or Android update.
I hope you’ve found this blog a helpful, balanced perspective on the various pros and cons of emergency alerts and collating the pertinent information for you. Plus of course how to turn them off if you do not wish to be disturbed. Feel free to comment below with your ideas or point out anything I’ve missed.
Kind Regards, Adrian
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