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Six questions and answers about the new alert system coming to France

The system is set to be used in the event of major incidents and will work via 4G but only on newer models of smartphone. Here are more details

The system will send alerts via 4G cell broadcast technology and will alert people to major incidents Pic: FGC / Shutterstock

A new system of smartphone emergency alerts, which does not require an app to function, is being launched in France in the coming weeks. We answer more questions on how it will work.

The FR-Alert system is set to be deployed from the end of June. It is an EU obligation for member states under an initiative called “Reverse 112”.

It will use cell broadcast technology and enable authorities to quickly alert everyone with a new-ish smartphone in a particular area of a major incident, without recipients needing to download an app.

This is the second time that the state has attempted to roll out such an alert system. The previous one required users to download the SAIP app. Very few actually did, so the scheme was scrapped.

What will the alerts be like? 

The phone will emit a sound even if the phone is in silent mode and will only stop when the message is read.

The text may be spread over several paragraphs, specifying the nature of the risk, the outline of the affected geographical area, as well as what to do to protect yourself from the danger.

On Android phones, once the message is read it may be difficult to find afterwards (as it will only be logged in the phone’s settings). On iPhones, it will be found in the notifications.

The French interior ministry has said that the alerts can be sent out in several different languages, "especially in areas known for being popular with tourists". A spokesperson for Intersec, the company developing the software, told The Connexion that the alerts may also be in several languages during large-scale events such as the Olympics, or in cross-border areas. 

"The choice of the language(s) is at the discretion of the alert issuer," she added. 

When will the alerts be sent? 

They will be used to alert people to major incidents or emergencies. 

This may include flooding or violent storm alerts, terrorism threats or public security issues, major accidents on the roads or transport links, or pollution incidents such as the Lubrizol chemical blast in Rouen in 2019.

They will be sent only to the people who are in the immediate risk vicinity. This may include the entire country or only certain local areas. However, minimum coverage from one cell antenna is five kilometres, so it will be impossible to send alerts to just a single street, for example.

Yves Hocdé, deputy director in charge of FR-Alert for civil security, said: "In 2020, for example, a national alert would likely have been sent to signal the first lockdown.” 

The system will be used in addition to current communications from emergency services (such as those on social media).

Will the alerts work on all phones?

It will work on all newer smartphones, but not on older, ordinary mobile phones. Around one in 10 people in France still use an old-fashioned, non-smart model (especially the elderly).

Some older generation smartphones will also not receive the alerts.

  • Apple: Only models released after September 2015, when the iPhone 6S was released, will work, if their software is up to date
  • Android: Most of the models after 2021 will work, but those released before 2018 may not

Romain Moutard, the pompiers lieutenant-colonel who led the programme, has said that "time will do its work" when it comes to slowly phasing out these ageing models.

The government is working on an alternative solution for incompatible phones, such as using location-based SMS (texts). However, sending many of these at once can saturate the network and can take hours to get through compared to a few minutes for cell broadcast alerts.

Authorities are working on speeding up the delivery by sending the texts only to older-generation mobiles that cannot receive the cell broadcast alerts. 

Geolocation technology is also set to be used for some phones, with texts sent in the past tense if a user was in the affected area at some point during the alert (such as “You were in this area at X time, here is what to do…”).

Will the alerts get through without a signal?

No. The phone will need to be connected to a 4G signal to receive the alert due to the cell broadcast technology the system uses. Operators state that 91-93% of France is covered by 4G.

The messages will not work via 3G (which is present in slightly more places in France) because the technology does not work using this system. Making sure the system would work on both 3G and 4G would have been too costly and complicated, authorities said.

They will work on 5G, although this is still not widely used in France (three million people have a 5G contract).

Will the system be reliable?

After the failure of the previous SAIP system, questions have been asked about the reliability of this one, especially as it has been rolled out relatively quickly, in just 20 months. 

In contrast to the SAIP app, which only reached around 900,000 users, cell broadcast technology is capable of alerting several tens of millions of phones within minutes.

And cell broadcast technology has been used for more than a decade in other countries, including in Japan and the US.

Mr Moutard said: “I am not aware of any crashes of this technology.”

The system is also reportedly ready for testing and will guard against false alerts – such as that sent in Hawaii in 2018, which alerted residents to a (fake) nuclear attack that caused panic. Any messages sent as a test in France will “clearly mention that this is an exercise” authorities said.

Are emergency services and authorities ready for the roll-out?

The question comes after the SAIP system encountered other issues, such as alerts sent too late or not sent at all, due to “operational malfunctions”, the Interior Ministry said.

However, Mr Hocdé said that previous incidents have been used to improve the new system, and “50 standard messages have already been drafted”, he said. “All that remains now is to adapt them according to events.”

Local prefectures, which will issue the alerts, have started to prepare, including staff training and simulations of events to help with preparations for incidents.

All areas are set to be brought up to standard by 2026 if not before, with areas connected to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games especially seen as a priority.

Citizens are also expected to receive “two or three” educational alerts per year, Mr Hocdé said, in order to begin training the public to respond correctly in the event of a major incident. 

When these messages may be sent has not yet been revealed.

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Floods, terrorist attacks: New mobile alert system in France 

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