October 21, 2020

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A robust Public Warning System is a must-have to augment citizen safety measures

Every country across the world today is dealing with at least one, if not more critical events at this time. Besides the pandemic, citizen safety is constantly being threatened by bushfires, cyclones, floods, earthquakes, etc. In times like these, a system that informs and alerts all citizens that are threatened by any calamity, with the final purpose of enabling them to prepare and act expediently, is of great value.

Knut Gjerde, Senior Director and Chief Technical Officer, Public Warning System, Everbridge

To understand the potential and importance of a Public Warning System (PWS), OpenGov Asia spoke with Knut Gjerde, Senior Director and Chief Technical Officer for Public Warning System at Everbridge. Watch some of the highlights of the conversation on OpenGovTV.

Knut, a veritable trove of information and a specialist of public warning systems, began by noting the plethora of options a public waning system can have. It can range from shouting from rooftops to warn the citizens of an impending threat to sending out organised nationwide alerts through various tech-channels of communication.

He was quick to point out that a public warning system is not only relevant during the alerting phase of a critical event; it can also play an important role in a preparation phase as well during recovery from a critical event. Also, it can be used to keep citizens informed in situations that are not necessarily critical or dangerous.

Knut explained that there has been a colossal evolution in the channels/methods of reaching out to the public. The modern public warning system is no longer limited to sirens and broadcasts on TV and radio. PWSs can utilise parts of telecommunication networks that have been earmarked in addition to legacy channels. By employing options across the spectrum – low tech to high tech – a public warning system can have a far wider reach and application areas.

However, despite the technology (Cell broadcasting, SMS based alerts, etc) being available since the late 90’s there are very few South-East Asian countries that have deployed a PWS. Commenting on the reasons for this low adoption/ uptake rate, especially in South East Asia, Knut opined that it was a combination of reasons that was responsible.

Governments’ might fear regulative issues and privacy concerns, the lack of sustained funding and the complexity of working in tandem with the telecom industry (and the dependency and accountability it implies). Moreover, the main technology used (Cell Broadcast) has had a long journey towards wider adoption. Over the years the challenge has been lack mobile device support and the need for users to configure their own phones to make it receive alerts from the networks. So even if these challenges to a large extent have been solved, and there are also additional channels that can be used in combination with Cell Broadcast to broaden the reach and use-cases, it has been one of the reasons that have been inhibiting governments from seeing a clear path along the PWS direction.

Knut explained that the biggest driver for most of the countries that have adopted a system early has been a major critical event/situation that has commanded immediate action. The trigger event that drove authorities to take concrete action in this regard has been different for each country – wildfires in Australia, strong winds in Sweden, earthquakes in the US and tsunamis in Asia.

He went on to share that the countries that have implemented PWSs already had a sound structure in place to enable harmonious coordination between governments and the multiple telecom companies that need to work together to create an effective warning system.

Another major driver to have a public warning system in place was mandates that were issued for blocks of nations. He used the example of the European Union to underscore this point. With mandatory guidelines for all EU countries to have a nationwide warning system in place, countries had to start plan and implement strategies for a PWS.

Knut emphasised that they encourage their customers with preexisting legacy alerting channels in place to fully utilise them rather than abandoning them altogether.  Apart from the obvious cost and time involved in such an undertaking, it is also the best way to ensure that no citizen is left behind in case of an emergency – especially those who are not tech-savvy and do not access or do not have access to the latest technology or devices. Any vendor of modern public alerting systems should be able to accommodate legacy alerting channels along with deploying the key telecom channels of Cell Broadcast and alternatively Location-based SMS.

“Look to cover what you already have but find a way to include new technologies as well,” said Knut.

He revealed that at Everbridge they have a wide range of solutions for countries to choose from depending on their needs and purpose of deploying the warning system.

Having a robust public warning system has become the top priority of many governments today. And when it comes to ownership, governments are responsible for their citizens’ safety along with managing data privacy and security issues.

However, the private sector (including the telecom companies) is coming forward to support governments in these endeavours. There is potential for the private sector to invest in infrastructure that can strengthen the public warning system.

Looking to the future, Knut felt with enhancements made with telecom technologies, improvement in handset support for Cell Broadcast, the rollout of 5G, and introduction of device-based geofencing technologies, it would enable them to improve accuracy and overcome the challenge of lower reach and expand it to 100%  – ideally what a PWS is aiming for. In countries like the Netherlands where Everbridge has had its Cell Broadcast systems deployed for many years, the population reach is now almost at 95%.

Additionally, Knut was enthusiastic about how key technologies such as Cell Broadcast and Location-based SMS can be combined to increase the usability and efficiency of PWS. “We have only seen the start of how we can shape these systems for the future,” he said.

He also shared a few examples of how some countries have customised their solution – depending on the weather and climate conditions, geography, layout and relevant context. They may opt for a nationwide system or something local/regional.

Countries like Australia and Sweden, for example, uses a multi-channel PWS for specific regional alerts about weather, fires, etc. Norway, on the other hand, uses their Location-based SMS system extensively for regional and local alerting – giving out specific regional alerts and updates about pandemic as well as for nationwide general alerts. Countries like New Zealand and Greece have used their Cell Broadcast alerting extensively during Covid-19 to keep the population informed.

Knut signed off by sharing that he sees a lot of awareness amongst governments who are keen to deploy the system in future to ensure public safety. Keeping with these trends Everbridge is also determined to curate more sophisticated solutions that will help keep people safe and nations running.

 

Watch some of the highlights of the conversation on OpenGovTV.