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Cell Broadcast Alerting

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) is leading the implementation of a new nationwide channel for sending alerts about emergencies to mobile phones, called cell broadcast alerting.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) is leading the implementation of a new nationwide channel for sending alerts about emergencies to mobile phones, called cell broadcast alerting.

Cell broadcast alerting is on track to be up and running by late 2017.

Details about exactly when it will be available and what people will need to do to make sure they can receive the alerts will be provided later this year.

What is Cell Broadcast Alerting?

Cell broadcast alerting is a new way of sending information about emergencies to mobile phones in a set area without people needing to download an app or subscribe to a service.

The alerts appear similar to text messages. They are received automatically and for free by all cell broadcast enabled mobile phones in the area.

How Cell Broadcast Alerting will work:

  1. Once the cell broadcast alerting system is up and running, people enable their phones through a software update, or buy a new phone that is enabled
  2. An emergency happens (or is about to happen)
  3. An agency sets up an alert
  4. The alert is sent through the cell towers in the area affected by the emergency
  5. If your phone is switched on, cell broadcast alerting has been enabled, and you are in an area to which an alert is being sent, it will receive an alert for free
  6. The alert will be similar to a text message, telling you about the situation and what you should do
  7. Follow up alerts with more information may be sent as the situation changes
  8. The emergency ends.

It will take time to enable cell broadcasting across the wide range of makes, models and ages of phones used in New Zealand.

Some makes and models will not be able to receive the alerts if their software cannot be updated or they don’t have the technology needed.  A list of which handsets able to receive the alerts will be available before the launch.

When Cell Broadcast Alerting will be used

Cell broadcast alerting will be used anywhere in New Zealand when life, well-being or property are in imminent, serious danger. It is not just for tsunami warnings. It will also be used in emergencies such as major public health issues or local police incidents. The alerts will be sent by authorised government agencies.

The alerts will be one new channel added to the range of emergency communications channels already used. It will complement, not replace, existing channels.

No technology is 100% failsafe or equally suited to all conditions and emergencies, so multiple channels are used to send warnings and alerts in New Zealand. These channels include radio, television, websites, various social media, smartphone apps, sirens and others.

Cell broadcast alerting will not replace the need to take action if you notice natural warning signs. For example, for earthquake or tsunami, if you’re near the coast and you feel a long rolling earthquake that lasts for more than a minute or one that makes it hard to stand up, don’t wait for a cell broadcast alert or any other official alert, move immediately as far inland as you can or to the nearest high ground.

Why Cell Broadcast Alerting?

A range of alerting methods was assessed before cell broadcast was chosen. Every system has pros and cons, cell broadcast alerting gives the best combination of reach and reliability.

Cell broadcast alerting:

  • Will get information about an emergency to a community at risk faster and more reliably than ever before.
  • Will strengthen New Zealand’s readiness for and ability to respond to disasters such as a tsunami, increasing the potential to save lives and property and reducing risks to emergency services staff.
  • Is not vulnerable to network overloading. Alerts are sent using a different frequency to phone calls or texts (SMS).
  • Is a ‘push system’, mobile phones will automatically receive cell broadcast alert for free, without needing to download any apps or subscribe to a service.
  • Is extremely secure and private. It does not need telephone numbers to send messages nor does it store any data about the phones to which the message is sent.
  • Is very reliable: alerts will be sent by every working cell tower within the target area.
  • Is well established elsewhere in the world. Other countries that use cell broadcast include the USA, Japan, Israel, Chile, Netherlands, and Taiwan. Countries such as Peru, Canada, the UAE and the Philippines are in the process of implementing cell broadcast alerting.

Making Cell Broadcast Alerting happen

MCDEM is leading the implementation on behalf of a number of agencies, including the New Zealand Fire Service, New Zealand Police, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry for Primary Industries and Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) Groups.

Work on a national mobile based public alerting system began in 2014. Since then it has developed to make the most of available technology. The decision to use cell broadcast alerting was made in 2016.

Work so far includes:

  • Securing the support of the three mobile network operators (2degrees, Vodafone and Spark) to enable cell broadcast technology in New Zealand for the first time
  • Working with Fire, Police, Ministry of Health, Civil Defence, and Ministry for Primary Industries to design and begin developing a system that will work for the whole-of-government
  • Developing a Common Alerting Protocol for New Zealand, to help make sure alerts are consistent.

Details about exactly when cell broadcast alerting will be available and what people will need to do to make sure they can receive the alerts will be available later in 2017.