Tue, 09 Aug 2022

The French government has launched an alert system to notify everyone with a mobile phone in the event of an emergency.

A full-screen notification, accompanied by a shrill sound called FR-Alert, has been deployed by the French authorities to issue a warning to anyone in the country with a smartphone.

On conventional phones, an SMS notification is received.

Several experiments have been carried out across France in recent months, with the exercises - which sometimes surprised the inhabitants of the towns which were participating in the tests - consisting, in one instance, of warning the population of a leak from a petrochemical site.

According to France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, FR-Alert will be fully operational for use in a real emergency situation by the end of the month.

The alerts will cover several types of emergencies: natural disasters, industrial, chemical or nuclear accidents, serious road accidents or terrorist attacks.

Technological advantage

The advantage of the FR-Alert system is that it targets a precise population area, to warn people in immediate danger..

The messages will mainly be used to specify the nature and location of the emergency, as well as instructions on what to do.

The warnings are sent using a technology called "cellular broadcasting" and based on a dedicated broadcast channel.

That means the notifications are not likely to be slowed down in case of mobile network congestion, unlike simple SMS messages.

The French government has assured that no personal or geolocation data will be collected by the authorities during the broadcast.

Notifications will appear on all 4G or 5G compatible smartphones, even if they are locked.

However, mobiles that are switched off or in aeroplane mode cannot be reached.

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The use of mobile networks and the functions integrated into smartphones makes it possible to reach a large part of the population, without requiring the installation of a specific application.

This is a significant advantage, after the failure of the SAIP application, launched by the government after the 2015 attacks, which was only installed by a handful of French people.

The application had also been criticised for its inefficiency.

During the Nice attack on 14 July 2016, it only issued alerts a few hours after the tragedy.

The FR-Alert system is far from new. It has been used for 15 years in Japan, for 13 years in Sri Lanka and for a decade in the United States.

Other countries such as Canada, Peru, Chile and New Zealand also use it.

However, because of its high cost - several tens of millions of euros - the technology was long rejected by France.

The rolling out of FR-Alert is in line with a European directive dating from 2018, which obliges all EU countries to deploy this technology by 21 June 2022 at the latest.

According to the Ministry of the Interior: "All the tests will be completed by 28 June. We are currently working to raise awareness among the population and the prefectures on this subject."

Originally published on RFI

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