France sends first emergency weather alerts: how do warnings work?

The system was used for the first time in relation to the weather when violent storms lashed parts of France last week

France is now using a mobile warning system to help residents keep safe during emergencies
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France’s system of sending alerts to people’s smartphones to signal an emergency was used for the first time in relation to bad weather last week.

It came as Haute-Saône, Doubs, Jura, Belfort and Haut-Rhin in the east were issued with a tier-four warning for storms on July 11.

Pour la première fois en métropole, le dispositif FR-Alert a été enclenché hier pour les vigilances météo rouge.

Concrètement : si vous êtes présent dans la zone, quelle que soit votre nationalité, vous recevez instantanément une alerte sur votre smartphone.

— GRZ (@GuillaumeRozier) July 12, 2023

People in these departments received phone messages warning of very strong and violent winds, storms and hail.

They were advised to:

  • Stay inside and avoid outside activities
  • Keep away from trees and running water
  • Take refuge in a secure and protected place
  • Close doors, windows and shutters and take down any objects that could fly away.

They were then told to follow official advice and stay in place until the authorities said the alert was over.

For Arnaud Wilm, spokesperson for France’s civil defence agency - Sécurité Civile - the warning system was a success.

“The state’s action is effective when the advice to be careful is followed and that is clearly what happened as there are no victims,” he told BFMTV.

What is France’s emergency alert system?

This phone message was sent out via the FR-Alert system.

#Orages ⛈️ Dans les 5 départements placés en #VigilanceRouge, le dispositif #FRAlert a été déclenché par les préfets.
Une notification envoyée sur les téléphones portables vous permet d'être informés de la situation et des comportements à adopter pour vous protéger.

— Sécurité Civile (@SecCivileFrance) July 11, 2023

This system, in place since June 2022, means local authorities can warn anyone with a smartphone within a certain area of damage and the steps they should take to keep themselves safe.

You do not need to install an app or sign up to get notifications, you merely need to have your phone turned on and not by on plane mode. It does not matter if you have a foreign sim card, or if your phone runs on the Android or Apple operating systems.

This is because notifications are sent by phone network antennae. If your phone is on silent, it will make a sound to draw your attention to the message, said France’s interior minister.

When the authorities want to alert residents of a danger, for example, extreme weather, fires, a terrorist incident, high pollution levels or a flood, they draw up a message and then send it to mobile phone operators. The operators then transmit the message out over their network systems, where it is picked up by people's phones in the affected areas.

FR-Alert fulfils an European directive dating from 2018 which requires member states to set up a mobile warning system so people can be told of any potential dangers.

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

Equivalents in other countries

France is actually a bit behind other countries in setting up this warning system. Similar systems exist in Lithuania, Greece and Italy.

Outside of the European Union, mobile warning systems operate in Chile, Japan, Israel, Sri Lanka, the US and the UK.

On April 23, the UK tested its own mobile warning system, with a loud siren or vibration lasting around 10 seconds set off at 15:00 BST (16:00 CEST).

Like the French system, it is designed to be used to alert people to emergencies.

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