Lord Harris: Ministers must introduce alert technology to keep the public safe
During a terrorist incident, relying on social media feeds is not enough. It is essential that civic agencies are able to provide swift, authoritative information, says Lord Harris
Where were you at 1.00pm on 18 September 2013? If you happened to be in Easingwold in North Yorkshire and had a suitable mobile phone handset, you would have received an alert on the home screen of your phone saying “North Yorks UKAlertTest. No Action Required”. Similarly, if you were in Glasgow on 3rd October 2013 at 2.00pm or in Leiston in Suffolk on 20th November 2013, you might well have received similar text messages.
These were all part of a Cabinet Office project on mobile alert systems for use in an emergency. The report of the trials concluded that: “emergency responders are still very keen to see the implementation of a national mobile alert system. Views from members of the public also suggest that the vast majority of people (85%) felt that a mobile alert system was a good idea …. it would be an effective way of getting people to take specific protective action during an emergency”.
The report recommended further trials, but three years later when I produced my review for the Mayor on “London’s Preparedness to Respond to a Major Terrorist Incident” it was not clear what further work, if any, had been done to take this forward.
Therefore, I have tabled an Oral Question in the House of Lords to ask the government when they will authorise the use of public alert technology for mobile phone systems for use by the police and emergency services in the event of a terrorist incident.
Social media already plays a huge role in the event of a terrorist incident or indeed any other emergency. Sometimes, of course, the result is that misinformation is spread, as members of the public caught up in an event and the media try to make sense of what may be a very confusing situation. Twice at the end of last year, this led to panic and stampedes in Oxford Street as people responded to erroneous reports that gunshots had been fired. Usually, this is not deliberate, but there have been instances where malicious and provocative rumours have been propagated and disseminated.
It is essential that civic agencies are able to provide a swift, authoritative voice during such events. That should include rebutting misinformation and ensuring the media is fed with regular information to relay to the public themselves.
During my Preparedness review, I was encouraged by the way in which the police and other emergency services were ready to use their official Twitter accounts to put out clear information in a speedy and timely fashion. We saw them do this in the last year during the various dreadful terrorist attacks (and also during the false alarms in November and December).
However, relying on social media feeds is not enough. Many people do not look at Twitter or other social media on a continuous basis. However, an alert direct to your mobile phone’s home screen associated with a distinctive tone and vibration would rapidly reach most people in an affected area. This could be targeted to all mobile phones in particular cell sites (without compromising personal privacy).
The alerts could warn people to avoid a particular area, provide reassurance that the police and emergency services were on the scene and perhaps proffer more specific advice.
As the Cabinet Office pilots showed the technology is there. It is already in use in Australia (since 2009), in the United States (in use regularly since 2012), in the Netherlands (again since 2012) and elsewhere. I understand that sophisticated refinements are possible with more detailed messages being directed to security officers and those who have a responsibility to help the public.
There is really no excuse for further delay.
Lord Harris is chair of the Labour Peers and a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. His Question is on Monday 16 April