The case for turning off UK emergency alerts (a cynic writes…)

(In short, my main objection is taking away the user’s ability to silence or set a lower volume.)

  • there are a limited number of scenarios in which such alerts will ever be useful in the UK: the most common problem – severe weather in all its forms (which is, apparently, the initial focus) – is already well covered by Met Office weather warnings and flood alerts.
  • We already have good protocols for getting emergency quickly onto broadcast TV and radio – along with numerous news websites. Unless you’re making a significant effort to avoid the outside world (in which case you could well have you phone turned off anyway) you’ll hear about things. Quickly.
  • Potentially incidents with release of chemicals where people need to be advised to stay indoors or keep windows closed? Or a problem at a nuclear power plant? But again, there are already procedures for this – e.g. auto-diallers.
  • In the event of terrorist incidents – such as knife / gun incidents as we’ve occasionally seen in the UK – you don’t, as the police well know, want to cause someone’s phone to make a very loud noise if they are trying to hide from an attacker (people have been in such situations).
  • The maximal volume, non-reducible, non-mutable prolonged (10 second) siren sound is needlessly unpleasant and unsuitable or unsafe in numerous other general situations. Simply because it’s likely to startle people and make them hurt themselves if they are doing something risky (driving, using power tools, handling hot or dangerous liquids, somewhere where you might bump your head etc.) Sirens in wartime were different because people weren’t nearly as close to them. A phone is something people often carry in a pocket. If an alert is ever sent at night – intentionally or by accident – all it will achieve is needlessly waking hundreds or thousands people who do not need to know about it. My biggest issue is the lack of volume control. I cannot think of a valid reason why these alerts shouldn’t be delivered at normal volume or silently. (Remember that deaf or hard of hearing users have the ability to activate a strobe light on their phone when they receive incoming messages.) This is, seemingly, an entirely arbitrary decision by Apple, which governments have failed to push back on – Apple could have allowed control over the volume, and as a result fewer people would be turning the alerts off, and Apple has varied certain security and network settings for different territories according to local laws (I can’t speak for the Android situation).
  • granted, being a cell-broadcast message, the alerts will work if a 3G/4G/5G network is congested and you otherwise would fail to get a web connection or make a call, however it won’t help where a phone is out of the coverage area
  • you can guarantee that every other UK news organisation will send you a notification the moment an official government alert is sent (including – prediction for 23 April – the highly-advertised test) – or provide blank coverage or TV or radio – so you will end up being told multiple times about whatever it is.

Is there anything the UK has got right about this?

Well they’ve done the advance publicity about as well as they could.

And this – – is a handy page. (I’d quibble with why that can’t be in the top-level directory, but..) Also, which tells you the time each alert began and ended. Well done GDS. Impressively GDS still supports IE8 too, which most of the rest of us web-developers abandoned long ago.