The death toll from the horrible floods in western Germany and Belgium has already risen to almost 200 and 150 people are still missing. Living in Germany, I ask myself: How many lives would have been saved with a proven cell broadcasting platform sending out broadcast SMS alerts to all connected phones in the affected areas?
A warning on tv or radio, in a country where the population generally feels safe and protected from weather adversities, will never be as effective as a message describing the specific and imminent threat. This automated SMS message would pop up on the user’s mobile phone screen, in combination with an alarm and vibration, to maximise attention.
I will never forget when I received an alarm SMS announcing a flash flood warning while hiking with my family in the Antelope Canyon in the United States. I couldn’t be more thankful to the authorities for sending that alert. Such a service could have prevented the loss of life in this disaster and many other similar situations.
How this SMS alerting service works
With this type of cell broadcasting solution, an SMS is sent from the mobile base station antenna, rather than from an SMS centre. The base station provides service to any connected devices or network visitors within a specific coverage area. It works without the need for a subscription and can target a specific geographic area.
This method should not be confused with mass or bulk SMS services using standard operator connections, where network bottlenecks make a timely mass delivery impossible. It is an effective way to alert every single person with a mobile phone in a geographical area, regardless of their mobile service provider. Many countries around the world use this SMS alerting service in critical situations.
Why SMS is one of the best methods
SMS is supported by all mobile phones; it does not require any installation, configuration or registration to receive the message in a noticeable alarm format. That’s already a good start. The devil is in the detail when it comes to network components and mobile devices. It will never be perfect, but the alternatives are far from reaching the effectiveness of SMS alerts. Alarm channels such as the World War II-inherited sirens or the multiple alarm apps have not been effective when it comes to warning a population in danger.
There is no need to look into geographies which are naturally threatened by volcano or earthquake activity. Even neighbouring countries of Germany, such as Poland and the Netherlands use cell broadcasting to announce life-threatening risks to its population.
Germany may implement SMS alerting services soon
Finally, German politicians and Deutsche Telekom have committed to the cause and forecast up to 18 months to launch a cell broadcast solution. I fear the initiative is turned into a public ‘do it yourself’ project, where speed and pragmatism are overruled by compliancy and cautiousness.
I highly recommend the ministries to investigate proven third-party solutions and other large-country deployments. It seems as if our Dutch neighbours launched their broadcasting service within six months. Let deployment speed, redundancy and security prevail when it comes to minimising the death toll caused by the next force majeure phenomenon.
18 months have passed, and the cell broadcast for civil protection has been implemented in Germany. Its first usage is scheduled for December 8th in a planned nationwide warning day.
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