Value of life saving alert forgotten amid furore

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New Zealanders got a rude awakening to emergency mobile alert notifications from Civil Defence.

When they checked their shrieking phones, in the early hours of October 4, they read: “Emergency Alert.

This is a test message for the Emergency Mobile Alert system that will be available by the end of 2017. Visit civildefence.govt.nz to find out more. Sent by the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management.”

Some, no doubt, headed to the website for more information. Those who went back to sleep were awoken again with two more notifications.

By the morning, social media was abuzz with chatter about the early hours test of the Civil Defence system. The story was picked up by mainstream media.

Director of Civil Defence Sarah Stuart-Black apologised on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report programme.

“What’s happened is test messages were sent to the public in error, when they were supposed to be in a restricted or a contained environment, and the result is that many New Zealanders were woken from their sleep from 1.30 this morning… some people may have received three messages,” Stuart-Black said.

Clearly whoever ran the test omitted to ensure that they were working within a test environment, hence they unwittingly launched the notifications on an unsuspecting public through a live version of the system.

“It was the provider that is supporting New Zealand with this technology with a European base so they were working on European daylight hours, which is why it was the middle of the night for us,” Stuart-Black said.  “It was supposed to be restricted to a test environment and those checks and balances weren’t in place.”

Talk at the Company-X coffee machine at Soda Inc in Hamilton was about who had received the Civil Defence notifications and how they had arrived. People had different experiences, depending on their telco, smartphone make and model, and their individual settings.

My fellow director, Jeremy, and I were among the chosen few. Our business analyst, Chris, was notified, although he was not awoken because he had switched his phone to silent mode overnight. However, the alert fleetingly appeared on his start screen when he switched his phone on. Software developers Marcel and Justin were roused by the early morning notifications. Marcel was thankful the five different smartphone models in his bag he uses to test apps we develop were all switched off. Justin was awoken from his slumber by a woman’s voice saying “emergency alert” since his phone was configured to read the notification aloud. Justin silenced the notifications before going back to sleep.

It appears, in the impromptu test anyway, the alerts only went to the newest phones on the Vodafone network.

In all the fuss and furore, the miracle of modern technology designed to keep the public informed and help save lives was forgotten. Few people thanked the ministry for their innovative approach to public safety. Had the alerts been real, and arrived during a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami, there might have been oodles of thanks as they might have just saved lives.

That’s why I’m encouraging my family, friends and colleagues to look for compatible smartphones when they next upgrade, and to always keep them by their beds and turned on loud and proud. Next time the emergency alert might be for real, and the nation forever thankful for being roused from their beds.

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David Hallett

David Hallett is a director of Hamilton software specialist Company-X, design house E9 and chief nerd at Waikato Need A Nerd.

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