As the UK prepares for its first nationwide Emergency Alerts test this Sunday, here’s everything you need to know

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Following the official unveiling of itseEmergency Alerts system last month, the UK government is preparing to launch the first nationwide system next Sunday (23 April). The system is designed to warn the public of imminent danger to life in a specific area.

At 3pm, all 4G and 5G-enabled smartphones in the UK will receive a message directly to their device, accompanied by a siren-like sound and vibration for up to 10 seconds. The message will say:

This is a test of Emergency Alerts, a new UK government service that warns you if there is a life-threatening emergency nearby. In a real emergency, follow the instructions in the alert to protect yourself and others. Visit for more information. This is a test. You don’t need to take any action.

Similar alarm systems have been used in other countries for some time, including the Netherlands with NL-Alert; the US deploying Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) for more than a decade; and Canada, which launched its Alert Ready system in 2015. There has been a steady increase in recent months in other countries rolling out nationwide warning systems, including in Germany, Spain, Denmark and Norway.

The must to know

The new alert system is built around cell broadcast technology, which means it will send messages even if a phone is on silent, and even if it’s not connected to mobile data or Wi-Fi. However, it will not work on devices that are turned off or in airplane mode; devices connected to 2G or 3G networks; or devices that do not have built-in cellular functionality (e.g. devices that are Wi-Fi only). Also, mobile iPad models do not support emergency alerts.

But if you have an Android smartphone or tablet running Android 11 or later that’s at least 4G capable, or an iPhone running iOS 14.5 or later, you’ll automatically receive an emergency alert test at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Since this is just a test, receivers don’t actually need to do anything and the sound and vibration will automatically stop after 10 seconds. To delete the message, simply swipe it away as you would any other home screen notification, or hit the “OK” button.

UK emergency alert in action

Only the emergency services or government agencies can send these alerts to people’s devices, and in the future users can receive alerts about critical or dangerous events, such as floods, fires or terrorist attacks.

However, there have been a number of false alarms regarding emergency alerts around the world, including in 2018 when Hawaiian residents were informed of an imminent missile strike, which turned out to be a simple case of human error. And just a few days ago, Florida residents were awakened at 4:45 a.m. local time by a test alert that would have been sent to televisions instead of smartphones.

red alert

The UK launch has been a long time coming. In 2010, the former Conservative-Liberal coalition government published The Strategic Defense and Security Review, a paper covering many facets of UK defense strategy, including the response mechanism to national emergencies. To this end, the government said it would “evaluate options for improved national public warning systems for use in major emergencies.”

In the end, the focus was on developing the ability to send alerts to mobile devices in defined areas where an emergency occurs. In 2013, the government launched a series of trials in partnership with three of the country’s mobile network operators (MNOs) and emergency responders, using different methods to see what was most effective. It initially concluded that location-based SMS was probably the best solution given the existing MNO infrastructure, plus no device-level configuration was required as all mobile phone numbers registered with a cellular network are capable of receiving alerts.

Not much happened to the UK’s emergency alert system in subsequent years, although in 2020 the government did use an SMS-based system to send messages about pandemic-era lockdown rules, as well as vaccine accessibility warnings the following year .

But there are drawbacks to location-based SMS mechanisms. For example, peaks in traffic load (e.g. during an emergency) can affect the speed at which messages are delivered, while privacy issues surrounding SMS’s reliance on access to individuals’ mobile phone numbers can be a concern. Cell broadcast technology, on the other hand, allows transmitters to broadcast messages to all phones in a given area (i.e., near a cell tower) without requiring access to cell phone numbers.

In addition, mobile broadcasts circumvent concerns about traffic load, as mobile broadcasts operate on a different channel than voice and SMS.

And that is essentially why the UK has opted for a cell broadcast based system. Some users in the UK received cell broadcast-based test alerts in 2021, which were part of an early pilot in preparation for the wider rollout and nationwide test this weekend.

Sign out

The government estimates that its Emergency Alerts system will cover about 90% of all mobile phones in a given area. And while it goes without saying that they prefer people not unsubscribing to maximize reach, there could be a myriad of reasons why someone would want to do this. Here’s how to do this.

On iPhones, go to notifications in the Institutions menu and then scroll all the way down where you will see sliders for Extreme warnings And Serious warnings which you can switch to Out position. On Android, in settings you can navigate to Safety and emergenciesscroll to Wireless emergency alertsand then enable the Allow alerts slider.

Android emergency alerts

Android emergency alerts Image credits: Screenshot/AapkaDost

There have even been some concerns raised by organizations representing vulnerable groups, such as women and children who may be victims of domestic violence and who may have secondary phones that they hide from their perpetrators.

“We are concerned about the impact of the Emergency Alerts system on survivors of domestic violence,” Lucy Hadley, Women’s Aid’s chief of policy, said in a statement posted online. “For many survivors, a second phone that the abuser knows nothing about is an important form of communication with friends or family, as some abusers confiscate or monitor and control their partner’s phone. It can also be their only lifeline in emergency situations. The emergency alerts pose a risk not only because an abuser could discover a survivor’s second phone, but also because they could use it as a reason to escalate abuse.”

The government also says it is working with the UK transport industry to ensure drivers are aware of the warning and don’t accidentally panic and check their devices when the alarm goes off. Needless to say, normal traffic rules apply to emergency alerts – no looking at or interacting with phones while driving a moving vehicle.

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