Government is in discussions with cellphone providers over a new emergency alert system that will allow it to send instant messages to all smartphone users in the Cayman Islands.
Similar to the U.S. “amber alert” emergency broadcast response system, the mass notification system is expected to cost more than $1 million to implement.
It is part of a three-phase approach to improving emergency communications, which faced criticism again Tuesday night, following a tsunami scare.
Hazard Management chiefs are already working on a system that will allow them to commandeer radio airwaves with emergency updates. That is expected to be in place by March.
The second phase involves partnership with cable companies to allow government to interrupt television shows with scrolling updates.
The third phase, which is expected to take longer to implement, involves installing new technology and negotiating licensing agreements to allow Hazard Management to send immediate updates to every smartphone users on the islands. The messages would hit every smartphone in the vicinity, including cruise ship passengers’, but would not be viable for basic cellphones.
A previous experiment using more basic SMS text blasts – similar to the strategy used by cellphone provides to advertise sales – proved ineffective. In a tsunami-exercise experiment last year, some users did not receive the message until days later.
Lee Madison, deputy director for communication at Hazard Management, said SMS messaging was not an effective technology for emergency communications, which need to hit thousands of phones instantly.
He said implementing the new system would be complex and expensive but it was by far the best way to ensure the messages reached people immediately.
“It goes straight into the core of the system,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are on a phone call or anything, it will hammer it in your data channels as an emergency message. It is a process that is going to take time. There are lots of negotiating factors to get into the core systems of the phone companies and it has to be negotiated carefully.”
Raul Nicholson-Coe, CEO of Digicel, said the implementation of an alert system would be fairly easy to achieve from a technology standpoint.
He added, “We are currently working with the regulator to help them to agree on an implementation process and stand ready to work with all relevant agencies and parties to make these information services available to the benefit of the people of the Cayman Islands.”
Hazard Management’s Mr. Boxall said government was well aware of the concerns about the level of emergency communications. Similar issues were raised about communication during a mass evacuation of homes in South Sound last year following a fire at the Jackson Point fuel depot.
He said the new system would be effective not just for tsunamis, considered a realistic but remote threat, but for other rapid onset emergencies, including fires and major storms.
“It is an important public safety issue,” he said. “People expect us to make them aware in situations. We need the system and it is going to happen but people need to recognize that it takes a bit of time. It is not just government; we are engaging with companies Digicel, Flow – there are costs involved, there is planning.”