Why NDRRMC alerts arrive late
This morning’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Looc, Occidental Mindoro, has put the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council’s (NDRRMC) SMS alerts in the spotlight as most of them arrived almost an hour late. But how do NDRRMC alerts work, and why does it arrive late?
R.A. No. 10639 or “The Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act”
The reason we’re getting these alerts is because of the Republic Act No. 10639 or “The Free Mobile Disaster Alerts Act,” signed in June 2014. It mandates mobile phone service providers to send out free alerts at regular intervals as required by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) and other relevant agencies, in the event of an impending tropical storm, typhoon, tsunami, or other calamities.
How does it work?
In July 2015, via a joint memorandum circular, the NDRRMC released the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) pursuant to R.A. No. 10639. Section 3 details the General Measures and Guidelines:
1. In the event of an impending tropical cyclone, tsunami, earthquake, or other calamities, Mobile Phone Services Providers are mandated to send out Emergency Alert and Warning Messages at regular intervals as required by the NDRRMC and other relevant agencies;
2. All Warning Agencies shall be the source of the Emergency Alert and Warning Messages, which shall be submitted to NDRRMC for validation and confirmation for transmission by the Mobile Phone Service Providers;
3. All processed Emergency Alert and Warning Messages shall emanate from the NDRRMC through the NDRRM Operations Center (NDRRMOC);
4. The Emergency Alert and Warning Messages shall cover emergency announcements and up-to-date information from the NDRRMC. The alerts shall include up-to-date information, contact info of LGUs and other agencies that can respond to the situation, and other relevant info like evacuation sites, relief sites and pick-up points, storm warnings, tsunami alerts, evacuation directives, and other related disaster management services.
5. The alerts shall be free to the consumers and shall be included as part of the service provider’s auxiliary services. The alerts may be in the form of SMS, MMS, email, and/or Push notification.
6. The alerts shall be sent to all cell phone subscribers in the affected areas at any time, whenever necessary.
What’s the procedure?
Section 4 of the circular details the procedure for the transmission of the alert:
1. The alert message will be sent to the NDRRMOC as soon as possible using available communications means. Such information must clearly specify the explicit nature of the emergency, the specific locations and/or exact areas to be affected by the impending hazards, and the urgency of dissemination for mobile alert transmission.
2. Mobile Phone Service Providers shall provide the NDRRMC a web portal through which they can directly send the alert to avoid delays.
3. Upon receiving the Emergency Alert and Warning Messages, NDRRMOC will then immediately forward the same to the Executive Director of the NDRRMC.
4. Once the information is approved by the Executive Director for mobile alert transmission; the NDRRMC shall immediately relay the message to the Mobile Phone Service Providers.
5. Mobile Phone Service Providers shall disseminate the Emergency Alert and Warning Messages to their respective mobile subscribers within the target area. The content of the message should indicate the target area or location of the impending hazards or alert.
In the event that a Mobile Phone Provider cannot comply due to an act of God or any situation of Force Majeure, the provider is exempt from any penal liabilities under the Circular. Once the provider’s services are restored, the provider shall comply within a reasonable period.
We can summarize the flow of information in these steps:
Step 1) Warning Agencies (PHIVOLCS/PAGASA) complete template-based emergency alert/warning message, and forward to NDRRMC.
Step 2) NDRRMC receives the alert/message and approves transmission to broadcasters or service providers.
Step 3) Broadcasters or service providers then transmit validated alert/warning messages to subscribers in the target areas.
While the steps can be simplified, it’s worth noting that there are multiple steps involved before the information is passed on from one agency to the next. Even Warning Agencies have protocols to follow. In the case of earthquakes, PHIVOLCS has to collect and validate data before they forward a warning.
How long does the whole procedure take?
In a report by Rappler in 2018, the NDRRMC said that it takes up to 10 minutes to draft an alert message and send it to telcos. The messages have to be hazard-specific, area-focused, and time-bound. But also said that it’s “just a reminder to the people of what you’re supposed to do.”
In July 2021, in a report by Manila Bulletin, the NDRRMC said that network congestion is also a factor and is a consequence of sending messages to many subscribers at the same time, and is a technology limitation that telco partners are still trying to solve.
Given the process and factors for the delay, there’s a big chance that you’ll get the alerts late.
Versus Google’s Android Earthquake Alerts System
Following this morning’s earthquake, many have compared NDRRMC’s alert system to Google’s Android Earthquake Alerts System, which arrived in Android phones in the Philippines in June 2021. It basically turns any Android phone into a mini seismometer, joining millions of other Android phones out there to form the world’s largest earthquake detection network.
The system uses the tiny accelerometers in smartphones that can sense signals that indicate an earthquake might be happening. If the phone detects something that it thinks may be an earthquake, it sends a signal to Google’s earthquake detection server, along with a coarse location of where the shaking occurred. The server then combines information from many phones to figure out if an earthquake is happening.
Google compares the speed of the process to “racing the speed of light against the speed of an earthquake.” Some users have experienced receiving Google’s alert before they felt the earthquake. NDRRMC’s SMS alerts arrive almost an hour later.
As of the moment, there’s no system or technology developed that can predict an earthquake. The best we have right now are early warning or alerts systems, like Google’s earthquake detection network and our government’s protocols. While NDRRMC’s alerts are slow, we should take advantage of both to stay well informed of any disaster. And remember to DUCK, COVER, and HOLD, if there’s an earthquake.