Why Sunday's national phone alert will save lives

21 Apr 2023
3 min read
Woman cycling through floods

Did you know that on Sunday, April 23, your football match, late pub lunch or afternoon movie will be interrupted by millions of phones vibrating?

The Government is testing its emergency alert system by sending texts to all 4G and 5G enabled mobiles and making them vibrate for 10 seconds.

Even if your phone is switched to silent to enjoy a rousing version of the National Anthem on what is also St George’s Day, it will still buzz.

Phone users will be prompted to acknowledge the alert by swiping or clicking the message before being able to continue using their device.

Why is this needed?

Extreme weather events are nothing new, but the frequency with which they are occurring is changing

Because climate change is making floods and wildfires more likely in the UK. Therefore the emergency services need to let people know if their lives are suddenly in danger.

As we saw last year from the devastating wildfires, that risk is real and it’s here now. Fire services recorded at least 24,316 wildfires in England from June to August in 2022. This is almost four times the 6,213 in the equivalent period in 2021, and about two and a half times the 9,369 for June to August 2020.

Flooding is increasing too. A Met Office spokesperson said: “Extreme weather events are nothing new, but the frequency with which they are occurring is changing. For the UK, five of the 10 wettest years on record have happened since 2000, and the flooding in London in July 2021 is illustrative of the type of event we expect to increasingly see in future.”

The texts sent to phones on Sunday will tell us it’s a drill. The reality is, we’ve needed them in the UK for years.

They have been used for a while in the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, The Netherlands and France all have national alerts.

Some of these countries have experienced climate change disasters in ways that has taken life; flooding in New Zealand in recent months, Japan’s 2011 tsunami that claimed over 18,000 lives. Hundreds of Canadians died in the 2021 heatwave that saw 180 wildfires decimate the Pacific North West.

National alerts save lives because they buy time

We know time saves lives and that helps emergency responders too

They can’t change an outcome or trajectory of flooding or wildfires but they can give people in the path of them the opportunity to get to safety.

The Environment Agency has a website where people can sign up for emergency flood alerts but of the people living in areas that could be affected by flooding, less than 30 percent have signed up to that existing alert system.

We know flash flooding typically happens at night; people living in basements and flood prone areas need these alerts to save their lives and get them to safety.

In the event of a flood, these alerts could buy people time to move valuables upstairs, to make sure children and pets are evacuated and to ensure the elderly and vulnerable are taken care of.

In natural disasters like flooding and wildfires, we know time saves lives and that helps emergency responders too.

The drill this weekend is national and everyone will receive the alert on their phone, but going forward the system will be rolled out when it needs to be by location, so all the mobile phone masts in the area affected by catastrophic fire, floods, or extreme weather will sound and the alert will have instructions on what people should do next and how they can get to safety. 

It might feel like the test this weekend is dramatic and not really something we think this country will need much or benefit from but the fact is, national alerts save lives and they’ll save UK lives now we have our own system in place.


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