Israeli Army Tardy in Providing SMS Rocket Alert System

Israelis still rely on old-fashioned sirens two years after a state-of-the-art system was promised.

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
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Drivers take cover beside their cars on a highway as an air raid siren, warning of incoming rockets, sounds in Tel Aviv July 9, 2014.
Drivers take cover beside their cars on a highway as an air raid siren, warning of incoming rockets, sounds in Tel Aviv July 9, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

Nearly two years after the Israel Defense Forces promised otherwise, its Personal Message system for alerting civilians about incoming rockets is still not operational.

Developed at a cost of 400 million shekels ($117 million), the network is supposed to complement — and improve on — the sirens that send Israelis scurrying into bomb shelters when rockets are on the way. The principle is a simple one: alerts over smartphones and other mobile devices.

The system would be employed for all kinds of emergencies, whether rockets, an earthquake or an overturned oil tanker truck. The urgency has become evident in recent days as Hamas rockets have pelted southern Israel and have hit well north of Tel Aviv. The big problem: Many people in the center of the country say they don’t always hear the sirens.

On Thursday, the army announced that it had launched a very limited version of the service — what it described as the first stage of the system’s rollout. In that phase, the IDF would inform users once a day, based on their location, how much warning time they would need if a rocket were launched toward their area; for example, 40 seconds in Ashdod and 90 seconds in Tel Aviv.

“Citizens who have devices that support the system will receive a message by cellphone that will notify them of the time they have for a missile to strike,” the IDF said. “At this stage, the network will not operate as an alert system.” The system is compatible with Samsung, Sony, HTC and LG phones, it added.

Beyond that, the IDF had little to offer about what’s behind the delays or when the system might go online full-time. “At this stage, the Personal Message system is not operational, but steps are being taken to make it so very soon,” a spokesman said this week.

The system is part of a broader network dubbed National Messaging — a warning system that employs the whole range of channels from mobile telephony and the Internet to more traditional outlets like television, radio and sirens. The technology used by Personal Message is called Cell Broadcast.

But Israel’s Operation Protective Edge marks the second round of Gaza fighting with Hamas in which the system has not been in full operation. During Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, the IDF announced that the “personal texting system is in its final stages of development and not fully operational. Thus it was decided not to activate it during this round of fighting.” Now, more than a year and a half later, it’s still not ready.

Early last month, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan instructed cellphone companies to set up mechanisms for interfacing with the system; he also amended the terms of their licenses so that providing emergency services would become part of their contractual obligations. “This move will assist in disseminating emergency warnings, thus saving lives,” Erdan said.

The ministry also instructed Apple to update its software so that its iPhones supported text messages for the system. The deadline was September 28, but all providers are already linked to the system.

In a 2013 interview with TheMarker, Lt. Col. Gil Hoffman, who heads the alerts branch of the Home From Command, said “the goal is to improve alerts across the country so that they are pinpointed and personalized.” According to Hoffman, so far the alerts weren’t focused enough; he cited as an example a missile aimed at Jerusalem during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09.

The warnings covered the whole city, sending a million people into shelters, Hoffman noted. A better system would have affected only a few thousand people near the targeted area.

Hoffman also spoke of an application called iOref (iHome Front) under development. It too has not been released, but apps stores carry privately developed alternatives such as Red Light, the term (tseva adom) repeated by loudspeakers in many communities instead of a siren.

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