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When telecoms fail, BE-Alert system also fails, proved today’s incident

15:46 08/01/2021

The BE-Alert system, whereby residents of Belgium receive an email or text message informing them of any local or national emergencies, did not perform to expectations in the early morning hours of Friday. The system was used to alert residents that the emergency numbers 100, 101 and 112 were out of service.

Because of a technical problem at Proximus, the emergency numbers were out of service for several hours overnight. They were all back up and running by 6.30 this morning. The BE-Alert system was activated to let residents know that they should call local numbers instead of the three-digit emergency numbers in case of an emergency.

While all of the emails went out flawlessly, many subscribers to the text messaging option did not get the message. In Antwerp province, only half of all subscribers received it, and in East Flanders the message didn’t even reach one-third of subscribers.

Even in provinces where everyone received the message, it happened much too slowly, according to Cathy Berx, governor of Antwerp province. It took hours for everyone in Flemish Brabant to get the message, for example, which is “unacceptable,” she said, for an emergency alert system.

Communication breakdown

The problem had to do with the same technical breakdown that took out the emergency numbers. The sending of the BE-Alert put pressure on a telecoms network already experiencing problems.

“The problem with the landline network had an impact on the mobile lines,” said Berx this morning on Radio 2. “4G went to 3G and then to 2G, which was much too slow.”

The National Crisis Centre eventually stopped sending out the messages, she explained, because it was making the telecoms situation worse. “Proximus really needs to look into this because it cannot be allowed to happen again.”

Of course most emergency messages sent out by BE-Alert have to do with incidents like fires or storms, not with a problem with the telecoms network itself. There is, thus, not a structural problem with the alert system. Still, Berx expects a full analysis of the incident.

She did emphasise that everyone living in Belgium should subscribe to the system, which requires creating an account on the dedicated website.

Written by Lisa Bradshaw