18 August 2019
The chaos following super typhoon Mangkhut (left) and the MTR service breakdown highlights the need 
for an emergency alert system for Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters/HKEJ
The chaos following super typhoon Mangkhut (left) and the MTR service breakdown highlights the need for an emergency alert system for Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters/HKEJ

Hong Kong should set up an emergency alert system

MTR Corp., Hong Kong’s railway operator, came under fire after an unprecedented service breakdown along four rail lines left hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded in traffic jams during the morning rush hour on Tuesday last week.

Citizens monitored the latest information about the subway service breakdown on TV, radio and social media platforms. However, many of them received the information while already on the way to the office and consequently got stuck in probably the city’s worst-ever commuter chaos.

Shortly before that, another transport chaos occurred after Typhoon Mangkhut wreaked havoc on the city. The widespread confusion resulting from these two developments has sparked criticism about the way information is disseminated in the city during emergencies.  

Is there a better way for the government to handle the situation?

In 2007, the US Federal Communications Commission adopted the “Wireless Emergency Alerts” system, which enables government agencies and other institutions to send emergency alerts to mobile phone users in the shortest time possible.

On Oct. 3, 2018, the system sent out a test message, “Presidential Albert”, that was received by more than 200 million mobile phone users across the United States within 30 minutes. It was a “push message” that was beamed from cellphone towers along with an alert buzz to all mobile devices.

All telecom operators in the country are requested to participate in the Wireless Emergency Alerts system.

In Taiwan, the government has taken reference from the Wireless Emergency Alerts system to build its own national emergency alert system. In 2016, Yilan County in northeastern Taiwan was hit by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake followed by a 6-magnitude aftershock. Local residents immediately received an emergency alert through the system,

During a visit to Taiwan in June last year, I also received a similar emergency alert about an annual military exercise that was about to start. The message advised people to stay indoors during the drill.

Hong Kong’s Anti-Deception Coordination Centre also sent a text message to mobile phone users through three local telecom operators during the Christmas holiday last year. In the message, the ADCC reminded Hongkongers to stay alert for telephone scams.

The government has been talking about building a smart city. But I think of all the measures and initiatives being planned or implemented, top priority should be given to building an emergency alert system that will enable residents to get the latest information about important developments and situations via text messages.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 24

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Information Technology Federation honorary chairman

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