Interview: ‘NL-Alert app makes a comeback in 2023’

The first NL-Alert app was not a success, but a new, more secure version is being worked hard in the background. This app is planned to be released in 2023, makers involved in the development say to iPhoned

Interview with the people behind NL-Alert

On June 13 you will receive another one: a test message from NL-Alert. This alarm system, sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘mobile air raid siren’, has been around for almost ten years and is used by the government to warn and inform citizens about a disaster in their area.

The message states exactly what is going on and what you can do best for your own safety. For example, in the event of a large fire with a lot of smoke, you will be advised to stay indoors and to close windows and doors.

That is NL-Alert in a nutshell. But, of course, there is much more behind this system. iPhoned got the chance to talk to two technical employees behind NL-Alert. John is a technical advisor and Patrick is involved in the alarm system as a service manager. A communications advisor from the Ministry of Justice and Security (JenV) also joined us.

NL-Alert interview

From disaster to warning

‘NL-Alert now reaches about 85 to 90 percent of the Dutch population aged 12 years and older,’ explains Patrick. That is a considerable percentage, especially when you consider that the first test message in 2013 only managed to reach 9 percent of the Dutch population.

John, who has been involved with the alarm system since its inception, attributes this growth mainly to the ever-improving collaboration with partners. To understand this, it is useful to know how NL-Alert works broadly.

When there is a large, spreading fire with a lot of smoke somewhere, an employee in the control room is instructed by the local fire chief, for example, to warn local residents via an NL-Alert. The operator in the control room then creates a warning message and indicates on a map where the NL-Alert should be broadcast.

The NL-Alert is sent directly to the providers with their own network (KPN, T-Mobile and Vodafone). They then broadcast the NL-Alert via their masts. All telephones that have contact with a transmission tower with range in the risk area receive the NL-Alert. This system is called cell broadcast.

Because this is a crisis situation, speed is necessary. John: ‘Within a few seconds after the operator in the control room switches off the NL-Alert, all telephones within the risk area start ringing.’

At least, it is important to which cell tower your phone is connected. It is possible that you are sitting next to someone and you do receive an NL-Alert, but the other person does not. Your phone is probably connected to a cell tower with range in the risk area and the phone of the person next to you is not.

Collaborate with Apple

Not only providers are important cooperation partners, because manufacturers also play a major role.

‘When setting up NL-Alert, we entered into discussions with all telephone manufacturers, including Apple,’ explains John. “They were willing to enable the system in iPhones, provided a number of conditions were met.” For example, Apple only wanted to activate NL-Alert if all Dutch providers would participate. The system also had to work sublimely, because users were not allowed to be bothered by it.

Many countries use a worldwide standard for cell broadcast for their national alarm systems, which is now standard built into smartphones.

This also applies to NL-Alert. Thanks to these rules, many technical details are arranged in the same way at an international level. ‘When you go to the United States with your iPhone and a disaster happens there, you will experience exactly the same penetrating tone and vibration as with an NL-Alert,’ explains John.

Why NL-Alert doesn’t go via SMS

John: ‘In Belgium people do not work with a system based on cell broadcast, but residents are informed by SMS. We have not opted for this, because SMS is a personal service. As a result, we are less able to guarantee the privacy of recipients, because we as the government need to know your telephone number. Moreover, with SMS you run the risk that messages will arrive too late if the network becomes overloaded. This is often the case in emergency situations.’ Patrick adds: ‘Then you get the situation you used to have with New Year’s Eve. You text someone a New Year’s greeting at 12:00 AM, but the message doesn’t arrive until much later.’

Speaking of which, Apple makes the settings for alarm systems via cell broadcast only visible in countries that have such a system, such as the Netherlands and the United States. If you cross the border into Belgium as a Dutch person, the settings in your phone will change automatically. “Apple has built in that you only see the option for NL-Alert in the iPhone settings when you are actually in the Netherlands,” says Patrick. ‘If you go to Belgium, that menu option disappears. That option comes back when you cross the border.’

Because countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France are working on a similar system to NL-Alert, you will soon be able to receive an alarm message there where your phone makes the well-known piercing alarm sound.

Also read: NL Alert iPhone setup: this is how you do it in 3 steps

Why not everyone receives an NL-Alert

Back to the Netherlands. The government sends out an NL-Alert test message twice a year: on the first Monday of June and December. If there is a public holiday (such as last week at Pentecost), the test message will be broadcast a week later.

Because NL-Alert works via cell broadcast, the government cannot see how many people have actually received the test message on their telephone. Instead, a representative survey of approximately 2,500 people ages 12 and older is conducted after each test message.

These studies show that the reach figure of the test messages has been between 85 and 90 percent for years. What about the other 10 to 15 percent?

According to the communication advisor of JenV, the answer is actually very logical: ‘Some people were on vacation at the time of the test message or had their device switched off and could therefore not receive the NL-Alert. There is also a small group of users who do not have a mobile phone, or who have an old model that is not supported by NL-Alert.’

The old NL-Alert app.
The old NL-Alert app.

NL-Alert app may make a comeback in 2023

At the beginning of 2020, the government released a real NL-Alert app, only to turn it around a month later. The reason: a possible data breach. At the time, citizens were advised to remove the application as soon as possible. from later investigation by the State Attorney It turned out that there was no reportable data breach, but the Dutch Data Protection Authority (AP) concluded that the security of the app was not in order.

To prevent these kinds of problems in the future, safety is now being hammered extra hard. Behind the scenes, a new NL-Alert app is being worked on. According to both Patrick and John, having your own app offers several advantages for users.

John: ‘With your own NL-Alert app, the government, for example, gains much more control over the user interface, ie what the design looks like. For example, you can show a very precise map of the risk area.’

Another important advantage has to do with accessibility. ‘You can, for example, build in a function for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the app so that the information is also understandable for them,’ says Patrick. ‘In the same way, you can make the app more accessible for blind and partially sighted people by adding specific functions for them.’

Don’t pin it on it, but Patrick hopes the app will be released in 2023.

More about NL-Alert

The following NL-Alert test message will be sent on June 13, 2022 at 12:00 exactly. You will also come across the test message on more and more digital advertising kiosks and in public transport.

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