As I write this the Victorian Premier estimates the loss of more than 200 lives, the ABC reports 750 destroyed homes, equivalent numbers of displaced families, and more than 2,200 square kilometres of Victorian land is now a burnt wasteland. Some days have passed and chatter of recriminations, royal commissions, life sentences for “arson terrorists” flood the media from all sides. One question stands out from the regular Australians I’ve spoken with.
If the government is able to generate and send robo-calls, emails, SMS, and faxes for their election campaigns; if they have to ability to target those messages right down to a specific street in any given electorate, then why couldn’t they make the same tools available to the first responder heroes we watched struggle with two-way radios on the battle front while Australians die?
If you were an ordinary resident in Marysville Victoria waking up on Saturday, February 7, 2009 maybe to mow the lawn or take the kids to sport you would have been blissfully unaware of how badly the government would let you down should a deadly bushfire suddenly arrive at your door.
Initially you may have heard a radio or television announcement of extreme fire danger or several fires close to your area. If you were concerned you could have immediately sought advice from any number of different hotlines and websites such as Department of Sustainability and Environment, Country Fire Association, State Emergency Services, Emergency 000, VICRoads, or your local council. You would have received a range of confusing instructions from how to “stay and defend” your home to which roads were still open for evacuation. Quotes from survivors of the weekend fires have a common theme of people in a similar situation not getting the right advice, the right way, fast enough to act on it.
As part of the Australian Early Warning Network* (EWN) I have worked with an expert group of people to set up and encourage the use of a multi-channel alert system specifically for severe weather and disaster alerts. It’s a simple combination of using the same satellite mapping you might find on Google Maps, the best forecasting from the Bureau of Meteorology, weather stations and experts across the country, and a distribution system to send phone or electronic messages with the click of a mouse.
The system has been offered to the public for free since 2007 with thousands signing up. Commercial organisations have contracted versions of the system to protect their staff and customers. Our team has spent the last nine months proactively asking all levels of government to implement our system or any number of similar technologies to ensure first responders and community leaders have the right communication tools.
The case is simple. It is that severe weather and disasters will continue to occur and the community needs a targeted warning system that combines the best macro forecasting from the Bureau of Meteorology, weather stations, and so on, with a micro component that lets the local first responders add or clarify how this information should be conveyed to their community and then delivered in real time.
Similar systems operate successfully overseas. Some are managed by government-owned entities and commercial entities in others. Reverse 911 in the USA is a good example of a commercial system that provides these disaster alerts along with other applications such as crime prevention alerts that can be sent from a federal enforcement body of the local sheriff’s office.
When I’ve proposed such a system to government representatives I often hear words to the effect of “don’t Telstra have everyone’s phone number and shouldn’t they do this for us if something really bad happens?” The short answer to that is no. Telstra do manage the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND) which lists all phone number along with their geographic location but the conditions under which this list can be used are impractical. For example, if you are the regional SES commander in Small Country Town Australia and you called Telstra to advise them you had a life threatening ember storm approaching your town that required an immediate recorded phone message be sent to every resident number, it simply would not happen.
The legislative changes required to make the use of the IPND are complicated by the Privacy Act and many other issues and if this course of action is followed the delay would be unacceptably long with no guarantee the result would be adequate. A permission based “opt-in” alert system that utilises existing technology is the most effective and pragmatic step we could take to protect our communities.
As part our ongoing work The Australian Early Warning Network will continue to offer free severe weather alerts to the public as the exponential daily sign up growth dictates it’s in high public demand and we see it as part of our corporate social responsibility obligations to help. We will also continue to offer first responders their own local alert channel on request at no cost.
It’s clear the commercial sector, the public, and the first responders are all pulling their weight and government is the only missing partner. Their role could be as simple as assigning responsibility to an organisation in each shire or SES region then making community service announcements urging the public to call, email, sms, or visit the website to list their family contacts so they can receive the alerts when required. We have the technology. We have the expertise. The time to act is clearly past due.
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