A “loud siren-like sound” will blare from cellphones for up to 10 seconds across Britain on Sunday as part of a test for a new emergency alert system launched by the British government.
Governments and institutions across the world use similar alert systems in life-threatening situations such as terror attacks and dangerous weather. The alerts, which in many cases are sent as notifications or text messages, warn people in the path of danger to take shelter or to get to safety.
In Britain, the test of the warning service has prompted a backlash among some, with some officials and organizations encouraging people to turn off the service.
Here’s what to know.
People with smartphones across Britain, including visiting tourists, will receive an alert that the government described as a “loud, siren-like sound” accompanied by a vibration, on Sunday at 3 p.m.
“It will appear on your device’s home screen and you must acknowledge it before you can use other features,” the British government said in an announcement about the alerts.
The alerts will be sent via cellphone towers, which will broadcast warnings to anyone in danger. They are intended to be used “very rarely,” the British government said in a statement, adding that the alerts will only be used when there is an “immediate risk to people’s lives.”
Who else uses similar alert systems?
Similar warning programs are used across the world, including in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. They have not always been met with favor, as happened in Florida on Thursday when a test alert was sent at 4:45 a.m.
Like how they will be used in Britain, the alerts are sent out in emergencies, such as a mass shootings, floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other natural disasters. When a gunman opened fire on the campus of Michigan State University in February, students were alerted about the situation through a text message and many waited for emergency system updates throughout the night.
In some cases, they have also been used to warn residents against using city water when operations at a water facility has been disrupted.
Some in the U.K. are not happy about the alert.
Sunday’s test of the new emergency alert service has already prompted some backlash. For some, the alert, which could sound for up to 10 seconds, is seen as an annoyance. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a member of Parliament for North East Somerset, told his followers on Twitter to “switch off the unnecessary and intrusive alert.”
For others, the alert has prompted serious concerns about privacy. Refuge, an organization that helps women and children suffering domestic abuse, is advising survivors of abuse to turn off the service, out of concern that hidden phones within their homes could sound off.
Responding to such criticism, the British government said it has been collaborating with organizations that work with “vulnerable women and girls to ensure they are not adversely affected by the introduction of emergency alerts,” adding that it will be possible to opt out if they need their phone to stay hidden.
Others have been worried that the alerts could access personal information on phones, such as location data, but the British government has said that should not be a concern because the alert system works through cellphone towers. Personal data and exact locations won’t be collected or shared, the government said.
How can people avoid the alert?
The alerts can be turned off by searching a phone’s settings for “emergency alerts,” and turning off “severe” and “extreme” alerts.
Britons can also avoid receiving the test alert on Sunday by turning off their phones or putting their phones in airplane mode for the duration of the test.
Not everyone will receive the test alert.
The alert will only sound on phones with the latest available software, such as iPhones running iOS 14.5 or later and Android phones and tablets running Android 11 or later.