May 22, 2018
Guest blog post by Gary Machado, executive director of the European Emergency Number Association.
When the European Parliament voted on reverse-112 last September, it seemed like we had taken a massive step forward for public safety. Agreed: telephone networks should be used to save lives with public warning. But what has happened since? Quite simply: a lot of talk, not much action.
Months later and we still can’t make a decision on deploying a solution. The trilogue on 22 May on the European Electronic Communications Code marks a turning point for public warning legislation. What will be the obligations of national authorities? It’s time for Europe to make the right decision on reverse-112.
Last August, we asked “How many attacks until Europe acts on public warning?” Clearly, the correct answer was: still more.
If reverse-112 is deployed across Europe, authorities can rapidly warn citizens in a targeted area about a danger. They can give urgent advice to the public in times of emergency. And all directly through people’s phones, using telephone networks. But a lack of action means lives will continue to be lost.
In the last year, we’ve witnessed tragedies in Trèbes, London, Manchester, Barcelona… Vulnerable citizens were not alerted to ongoing threats. Those at imminent risk were not given lifesaving information when they needed it most. And a solution is still not implemented.
For many of us, there is no reason to debate whether we need modern public warning systems. Reverse-112 can and will save lives. The capabilities are there to deploy it, the technology is available, and citizens are more than ready to receive it. We are now waiting for the powers that be to commit.
Debating the details, diluting the impact
Over the past months, the institutions have been discussing the European Electronic Communications Code, the EU’s telecoms proposal. As reverse-112 passes through the legislative procedures, some countries are trying to water down the public warning mandate. The upcoming trilogue will decide how public warning will be written into legislation. But ultimately, it will define how big an impact the legislation will have on people’s safety.
The main point of contention is whether national apps can be an alternative to other modern public warning systems. Apps have an important role to play in public safety, but they should not be seen as a replacement for reverse-112.
Apps alone are not enough
Past tragedies have demonstrated the we should not rely only on apps to alert people of imminent threats. We have seen issues with their effectiveness: in Nice, the alert arrived hours after 86 people had already lost their lives. But even if an app is used and works effectively, is it a single solution for public warning?
Going straight to the point: no. Countries that depend only on apps for public warning are putting their citizens in danger.
For authorities to reach the population, people need to actively download the app. Figures published in June 2017 highlighted a restriction on the French public warning app SAIP: only 500,000 people had installed it. With a national population of over 67 million, the statistics are far from encouraging.
Add into the mix the fact that apps like SAIP are not interoperable and do not work beyond a certain country or region. Think about the Westminster Bridge attack last March. Not all those who lost their lives were UK residents. Do we really expect every tourist to download a different app for each country they visit?
This is not to say that apps have no role in public warning. They should work alongside other systems and complement other technologies. With reverse-112, citizens don’t need to prepare in advance. There are no downloads, no limitations for tourists, and there should be no excuses for authorities not to implement it.
Is public safety really optional?
Moving forward means learning from previous tragedies. How many more need to lose their lives before we accept that we need efficient public warning systems deployed across Europe?
Reluctance to implementing modern public warning is particularly frustrating because the systems are not only lifesaving, but also cost-effective. Lithuania spent €5 million deploying cell broadcast, plus €500,000 every 3 years after.To put it in perspective, France’s budget for updating their antiquated siren system was €35 million. A similar lump sum could have deployed reverse-112 across the country.
If we want to keep people safer, we need to be honest and realistic about the value of different systems. And authorities should not keep relying on the same methods once flaws become clear. As the trilogue approaches, we can’t allow reverse-112 to be just an option for national authorities. Keeping the public safe is not optional.
At our finger tips, we have the ability to reach those in danger and warn them of threats. No more diluting the mandate. No more stalling. Reverse-112 can and should be a reality. It’s now up to our institutions to decide.
 Cell broadcast is also considered one of the more expensive options for modern public warning, compared to other technologies like localised SMS. Moreover, Lithuania’s costings included research costs, which would be reduced as more countries deploy the system.Guest contributor