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An emergency alert system for Europe

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What would you do if a toxic gas cloud were released during an industrial accident in your area? How would you find out about the risks and how to respond, if necessary? EU-funded researchers have developed the foundations of a new multi-channel public warning system for natural and man-made disasters that could help save lives.
Disasters have no boundaries. Emergency situations – such as earthquakes, toxic industrial accidents, or forest fires – often affect several regions, even several countries. National and regional authorities need to cooperate when using today’s technologies and devices to alert people – in the languages they understand best – and advise them what to do. People with special needs – including those with disabilities and the elderly – must also be taken into account.

The EU-funded Alert4All project considered all these aspects – and more – by designing the foundations of an end-to-end alert system capable of delivering effective warnings to as many people as possible by all means available.

“In the event of natural or man-made catastrophes, alerting the population quickly and keeping them informed during the course of the situation can reduce injuries, save lives and help to protect property,” says Cristina Párraga of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), which coordinated the project. “However, this potential can only be realised when alert information reaches the people at risk and they can understand and trust the message.”

By the end of the project in December 2013, the team had demonstrated the concept could help alert communities during a crisis, says Párraga. Based on Alert4All’s results, the former project partners are now taking the concept further by contributing to new standards that would allow manufacturers to develop commercial products for use by civil protection authorities.

How it works

In an emergency, civil protection authorities would be able to select the keywords from a pre-defined list that best describe the situation. The system then uses these words to automatically compose an alert message in a smart coded format. The message would have information about the time and place of the potential disaster, the current risks and recommended protective actions.

The system would send the message to people in the region potentially in danger, using any channels available at the time – including satellite and terrestrial TV, mobile networks and navigation devices. People would then receive easy-to-understand messages on their devices, as text or audio, in their own language.

For example, if an industrial accident led to the release of a toxic gas cloud, those at risk would receive the coded alert message on devices such as smartphones, car satellite navigation devices, portable computers and digital television sets.

These devices would be equipped with special software developed within the project that deciphers the code and translates it into a message in the desired language and format. This software could be incorporated by manufacturers, or added to an existing device later.

Working in cooperation with industry association Euralarm, Alert4All also extended the system so it could potentially be included as part of a building’s security or fire alarm system. People might see a message flashed on a security monitor in their office. Or in residential buildings, an alarm might advise people to check for alert messages on their nearest communications device. Alerts could also be announced over public address systems in public buildings, university campuses and shopping centres, for example, says Párraga.

The ability to use both terrestrial and satellite-based communications means the system would continue to work even when parts of the infrastructure may be damaged.

Monitoring social media

The Alert4All team also created software for screening social media channels, to assess the impact of alerts during an emergency situation in real time. The tool searches for keywords related to a crisis on channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. The information on how people perceive and respond to a crisis allows civil authorities to make educated decisions while an emergency is ongoing. The analysis could also be used to improve future public alert communications.

The project has developed a simulation tool that helps predicting the impact of alert messages as well as training materials for those working in the field of civil protection, including tutorials and e-learning courses. The Alert4All system can also be used in training mode, with the message transmission function disabled.

For a live demonstration in Germany on 15 October 2013, the project developed prototype software systems for the automatic dissemination of alerts over terrestrial and satellite digital television. The alerts were also sent to prototype satellite-connected smartphones and tablets as well as to satellite-activated sirens.

The simulation was conducted at the German Aerospace Centre’s premises in Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich. It showed that the system is technically feasible and could be used in any country, independent of language or technology.

Getting the message out

Now that the project has ended, the partners are developing common standards that would allow Europe’s manufacturers to create compatible commercial products for use by civil protection authorities.

They also plan to raise awareness across Europe about the importance of deploying a harmonised public alert solution for all European countries based on the Alert4All concept.

“Europe in particular features a challenging socio-demographic landscape when it comes to communication,” says Párraga. She adds that each EU country usually follows an independent and often different crisis alert strategy.

“Within the EU we see different technologies and approaches, and we have different governance structures, requiring effective cooperation frameworks for communicating to citizens across multiple countries,” she says.

Párraga says investing in disaster preparedness and response will pay off in the long term. “It will deliver a reduction of economic impact, but more importantly it will reduce human suffering and save lives,” she adds.

“Every single citizen in an area where the Alert4All system would be deployed could benefit from it. The number of natural and man-made disasters is increasing worldwide. Meteorological disasters in particular are now affecting regions not previously known as disaster-prone. The question is not whether people could benefit from Alert4All, but how often.”

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