There are few areas of our lives that cannot be facilitated by smart phones. Whether it be keeping in touch with loved ones, travelling, or leaning something new – there is probably an app for it. We frequently upgrade our software and phones to enhance our experience, but could these technologies serve a greater purpose?

Introducing: accelerometers.

They have existed in phones for years and detect changes in motion such as tilting and shaking. This is why your phone knows which way you are facing when navigating, and how many steps you’ve done. However, the high sensitivity of accelerometers means that they are now being used to detect earthquakes and even warn people before they happen. These warnings were seen by people during earthquakes that occurred in California in 2022 and Philippines in 2021.

How does it work?

The operating systems of our smartphones have been set up to combine crowd sourced data. When a phone detects an earthquake, it sends a signal to a detection server along with its location. The information is then combined with that received from other phones to decide whether an earthquake is occurring before alerting users. Following the previously mentioned California earthquake in 2022, many android users reported that they received alerts of the quake 5 to 10 seconds before feeling it, compared with iPhone users who received the alert as the quake hit. This prior warning is due to phone signals travelling faster than seismic waves, hence the alert reached the users vital seconds before the shaking did.

Wider applications to Emergency Preparedness?

Given how accessible smartphones are, it makes sense to question whether they could play a part in how we plan for and respond to emergencies. To set up a new detection point in a particular area could be as simple as buying and fitting smartphones in early warning to protect assets such as hospitals, schools, nuclear power plants (NPPs) and other high hazard industries. A mesh of such sensors could be set up for SMRs which might be deployed in traditionally remote locations. Additionally, receiving a 10 second warning of an incoming earthquake could play a significant part in transport industries such as aviation and rail –  trains could be slowed down and prevented from entering bridges or tunnels, and planes could have their landings or take-offs postponed.

Shifting from industries to individuals, users could have the option to opt-in for their location to be shared with emergency services in the event of an earthquake, allowing emergency services to locate those who need help. Crowd sourced data could therefore be highly accessible and used to aid populations across the world, offering widespread benefits and potentially preventing numerous injuries and damages.

Another way in which crowdsourced data could influence our emergency planning is by monitoring  how we respond to these events. For example, we may not always follow the correct evacuation procedure when in a high-stress situation. If smartphones can track our movements, we could determine if there is a common way in which groups evacuate that deviates from procedure and use this data to develop optimal response plans based on real behaviour.

Is this realistic?

An obvious downside is that the time to react to an alert is incredibly short, which leads us to question whether it would have a practical use in emergency response plans. For example, if a NPP were to commence shutdown procedures upon receiving an emergency alert, the response might only be effective if triggered automatically. Removing operator involvement raises some issues:

  • Protocol. Some shutdown states can have significant consequences, such as chemical industries venting off holdings of chemicals. Would there need to be agreed and practiced protocols for these applications, and how would they differ between sectors? The impact of suddenly halting a train and shutting down a NPP are significantly different. Given that plants are already designed to withstand certain magnitudes of earthquakes, we would have to apply risk management strategy to determine whether this technology would have a significant effect on plant safety.
  • Security. Adopting this technology into emergency response plans could leave recipient systems vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Is the possibility of unnecessary shutdown an acceptable risk?
  • Societal unease. The public’s perception of risk is greatly important in high hazard industries, particularly in the nuclear sector. Considering the points above, it would have to be proven that implementing this technology into emergency planning would offer safety improvements and be resilient against threats.

Closing remarks

emergency alerts are undoubtedly useful for individuals, even if those 10 seconds are only used to mentally prepare for what is to come. Applying this technology to high hazard industries and adapting our emergency response plans to use these alerts could have an array of advantages. However, it would require careful risk management to ensure we maximise the benefits it offers.


About CRA’s Security & Resilience Capability

CRA is the integrated risk and safety specialist. For over 20 years, CRA has been supporting operational leaders and technical directors working in critical national infrastructure sectors including Nuclear and Defence with working spanning projects in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

We offer our clients a unique integrated offering featuring Security and Resilience, Safety Cases, Probabilistic Risk Models, Human Factors and Engineering Substantiation. This provides a 360-degree view of risk, with which CRA can offer robust solutions and distribute essential knowledge and training to clients’ teams, enabling them to operate under optimum safety conditions.

Our specialist team of security and resilience practitioners have experience across a range of sectors performing reviews of security and resilience, helping organisations to make effective and enduring improvements.

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