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Published Monday 23 May 2022

Emergency Alert tests hitting Sunday evening at dinner time can be a bit disruptive, but it's a great service that can be a timely warning in event of a pending disaster or emergency...


If like me you were home watching television on Sunday evening you probably had a rude shock. The Civil Defence Emergency Mobile Alert system was tested and every mobile phone in the house went nuts. 

I say phone but of course it was every mobile device, including my watch, my wife’s iPad and because I had my laptop open it too joined in. 

The EMA is part of the system that helps warn those people in areas that are affected by some kind of disaster or impending Civil Defence emergency. The last time I heard it used in anger was the day Auckland went into lockdown during the COVID outbreak, but equally it is used to warn about tsunami, eruptions, earthquakes and anything else that triggers the Civil Defence actions. The official phrase is a “serious threat to life, health and property” which encompasses a huge number of triggers these days. 

Once upon a time we’d have sounded a siren and a police car might have driven around the streets with its public address system blaring away to alert you to trouble. Today of course we almost all have a mobile device that is capable of receiving an alert so it makes sense to use that. 

According to the Commerce Commission, there are around 115 active mobile connections for every 100 people in the country, so even if you yourself don’t have a mobile device someone nearby will (make sure you check in on older neighbours or relations who don’t if the system ever does go off in an emergency). 

Around 90% of Kiwis reported getting the alert or being near someone who did last time the system was tested and I think that figure will only have gone up since then, and each time it is used or tested the EMA team learn something new. Different phones, different operating systems, different versions of the same operating system – these are all elements that can mean the message might not get through, but generally speaking the system works well and most of us are able to find out what’s going on fairly quickly. 

If you didn’t get the message Civil Defence asks that you fill in a quick survey on this page so they can try to figure out why and resolve any issues the system might have.  

The beauty of the system is it applies evenly to everyone with a mobile device. Visitors from overseas or those of us with a new phone don’t need to download an app or sign up to a service – it’s automatically applied to everyone. But don’t worry about being inundated with alerts – they’re targeted, so if you live in Hamilton you won’t get alerts about a tsunami approaching the coast – unless it’s a very big one, of course. 

The telco sector works closely with Civil Defence and with NEMA (the National Emergency Management Agency) because these days telecommunications is rightly seen as an essential service. In times of crisis communication needs comes to the fore and staying connected is a number one priority. We are working with government to deliver coverage in remote parts of the country, particularly on our roads where the focus is on minimising black spots on the coverage maps, so you can call for help when you need it most. 

Hopefully the only time you’ll hear the EMA sound is when it’s being tested, but it’s good to know it’s there when it’s needed.