Explainer: What is the “severe” emergency alert that is being tested by Indian government

    Receiving these emergency alerts is a proactive measure by governments to ensure that people are prepared and take necessary precautions when facing potential dangers or crises.


    Several mobile users in the country have recently been hearing a loud, startling beep on their phones only to find themselves reading an ‘Emergency Alert: Severe’ flash message. This has raised some obvious questions like what is this flash message, who is sending these, is there a need to panic, and more. Well, firstly, there is no need to panic as the government of India is testing an emergency alert system that will provide timely alerts during emergency situations such as natural disasters, security threats, etc., and enhance public safety. For this purpose, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has collaborated with the National Disaster Management Authority and various telecom service providers.


    “This is a SAMPLE TESTING MESSAGE sent through Cell Broadcasting System by Department of Telecommunication, Government of India. Please ignore this message as no action is required from your end. This message has been sent to TEST Pan-India Emergency Alert System being implemented by National Disaster Management Authority. It aims to enhance public safety and provide timely alerts during emergencies,” read the flash message that appeared as a popup window on mobile devices. This message was accompanied by a riveting noise which could be turned off only when the user pressed the “Ok” option. Some users have received the message in both English as well as Hindi languages.


    These emergency alerts come with a loud, startling beep of Android phones, while some iOS users only get the message.
    These emergency alerts come with a loud startling beep of Android phones while some iOS users only get the message

    It is still unclear how, up until now, the government has determined who will receive the test message or who will/ will not receive the alert in the future. However, what we do know is that these emergency alerts sent by the Indian government are primarily directed at Android users. The decision to focus on Android devices is likely because of their penetration in India’s mobile market and also due to the compatibility of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system with Android devices. But the effort has also expanded to some iOS users who have also started receiving the emergency message.


    These tests will be performed periodically in various regions across the country and during the testing period, people may receive emergency alerts on their mobile devices, the Ministry of Communications said in a release on July 20. The ministry clarified that these alerts are a part of the planned testing process and do not indicate an actual emergency. To avoid confusion, each test alert will be clearly labeled as a “SAMPLE TESTING MESSAGE”. The aim of such evaluations is to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the emergency alert broadcasting capabilities of Mobile Operators and Cell Broadcast System already in place.


    Talking about the Cell Broadcast System, it is a mobile-based alerting system implemented by the Government of India for disseminating critical and time-sensitive information to a large number of people simultaneously. This system allows the authorities to send text messages to mobile devices in a specific geographic area in the event of emergencies, irrespective of whether the recipients are residents or visitors. The Cell Broadcast System is a common yet essential tool used by several nations including the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, among various others, to deliver emergency alerts, such as severe weather warnings like Tsunami, Flash Flood, Earthquake, etc, public safety messages, evacuation notices and other critical information.


    According to a paper by Paul Klein titled ‘Cell Broadcast Technology for Emergency Alert Notifications’ and published by the Federal Communications Commission, Cell broadcast technology enables a government to securely transmit an emergency alert regardless of the size of the area or the subscriber’s carrier. Additionally, in case of emergencies when load spikes tend to crash networks, this technology works fairly well. Meaning, it is not affected by traffic load and will operate during a disaster. “Cell broadcast is already resident in most network infrastructure and in most phones, so there is no need to build any towers, lay any cable, write any software, or replace terminals. Once the wireless carriers have agreed to support cell broadcast, all that is required is then the subscribers activate the functionality, opting in to the alert notification service,” the report noted.


    Receiving these alerts is a proactive measure by governments to ensure that people are prepared and take necessary precautions when facing potential dangers or crises. The messages can cover various emergency scenarios, including severe weather warnings, terrorist threats, and pandemic updates, ensuring that citizens are aware of potential risks. It facilitates a coordinated emergency response by keeping the public informed and prepared, allowing authorities to manage crises more effectively. These emergency messages help reduce panic and misinformation during emergencies by providing accurate and official information directly to the public. Furthermore, mobile alerts have a wide reach, reaching a large portion of the population across urban and rural areas, ensuring that as many people as possible receive critical information.


    Despite how useful the technology is, the Cell Broadcast System does have some drawbacks like limited targeting and cultural/language differences, among others. While penetration of mobile phones in the country is nothing but soaring, the Cell Broadcast system’s dependence on functioning mobile networks is a noteworthy con. In case of network failures or outages, the system may become ineffective. In addition, Cell broadcasts typically provide concise information and at times of complex emergencies, such as natural disasters or public health crises, the limited message length may not convey all necessary details. In addition, while these emergency alerts could work wonders in reaching the masses, especially in hugely populous countries like India, these could also cause chaos and panic. This could result in difficulty in maintaining law and order at an already vulnerable time.


    Meanwhile, users can disable wireless emergency alert notification settings to stop receiving these updates but it is advisable to keep this feature enabled to help you in emergencies. To receive emergency alerts, mobile phone users should ensure that their device’s settings allow for the reception of these alerts.


    author avatar
    Monika Asthana




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