Estonia rolls out location-based SMS threat notification capability

The new location-based threat notification service will include storm warnings.
The new location-based threat notification service will include storm warnings. Source: Vaarandi

A location-based Short Messaging Service (SMS) notification system has been rolled out, which will enable short threat notifications to be sent by the state to members of the public. These will carry information on the nature of that threat, and instructions on what actions should be taken.

The notifications can also be set to specific locations within Estonia.

These scenarios could include those experienced in recent months, including an oil slick off the coast of Hiiumaa, and the recent Storm Birgit, which downed power lines and left thousands without electricity.

Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) says the development was an unavoidable one, and will provide in future options to inform civilians about threats, quickly and specifically.

Läänemets said, via a press release: "The SMS notification indicates the risk and the specific danger area, the main recommendations as to actions, the anticipated time-frame, the notifying authority and the possibilities for obtaining additional information."

The tool has been developed in conjunction with several public authorities.

From today, Thursday, January 19, the messaging system is operational, and is sent from the EE-ALARM center to cellphones held by residents in areas designated as danger zones.

These threats can range from natural disasters, to civil unrest, public health hazards and more.

Another minister, Kristjan Järvan (Isamaa), said that the necessary tech preparedness to ensure strong cooperation between the relevant state agencies was in place even before the Christmas break, though the legal basis for the SMS system had not entered into force until Thursday.

The Electronic Communications Act required amending, Järvan, who holds the IT and Foreign Trade portfolio, said.

Järvan pointed to the State Infocommunication Foundation (RIKS) in developing the technical solutions needed, noting that this was done at an accelerated pace, without a trade-off in terms of quality, and makes: "A significant contribution to the development of the state."

Viola Murd, Interior Ministry Secretary General for rescue and crisis noted that further rehearsals will be developed over time, in relation to which situations require which specific notifications, but in any case, residents of Estonia need to be prepared anyway.

Murd said: "The individual or authority managing an incident can make the decision on whether to send a threat notification. Recent examples from close by to Estonia include the recent ruptured gas pipeline in Lithuania and the floods in Latvia.

"Last year, we also saw events [in Estonia] where the notification could have been used: For example, various fires in warehouse, wildfires, Storm Birgit, or the pollution off the coast of Hiiumaa.

The new service is but one piece of a broader civil protection jigsaw, Minister Läänemets added, noting sirens, shelters, awareness raising among residents, crisis preparedness with local authorities, the sufficient availability of necessary supplies and other national threat notifications as accompanying topics.

Läänemets added that 0.5 percent of GDP should be put towards permanent cifil protection funding, across all types of emergency situations and crises.

The SMS threat notification solution was co-developed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, the Ministry of the Interior, RIKS, the Emergency Response Center (Häirekeskus) and the interior ministry's IT and Development Centre (SMIT).

The three main private sector cellphone network operators, who alone retain the right to process customer data in order to send the notifcations, also played a key role.

SMIT will remain responsible for maintenance and new development, while the emergency center will oversee the communications with residents side.

Should cellphone users require additional information after receiving an SMS threat notification, they can get this by calling the national helpline on 1247.

The interior ministry carried out a short message notification feasibility study ahead of the new solution, polling over 5,000 members of the public on the visibility, urgency and intelligibility of test messages.

A comprehensive overview of this feedback will be completed by the end of February.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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