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Itís time to narrowcast emergency and health warnings

By Andrew Laming - posted Monday, 14 February 2011


Whether it is bushfires, flash-floods, cyclones or dam-release inundation, early, accurate and targeted emergency advice is paramount. Traditional solutions like television, radio and even mass sms notifications are increasingly inadequate because they can’t be targeted to household.

At the heart of this challenge lies the "fight or flee" dilemma. Households often do what emergency planners don’t want. That’s because we place different emphases on loss of life against saving property. A key reason is that individuals optimistically self-assess, as being either more capable or less at-risk than generalised messaging portrays.

That’s why specific information tailored to individual circumstances is far more effective than blanket messaging. Not everyone listens to media all the time, but virtually everyone has a land line or mobile handset which can receive targeted messaging. That opens the door to delivering household-specific disaster information. Additional upgrades now allow messaging to all handsets within range of particular towers, regardless of where owners have registered their phones.

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There are many architects of the sorry situation where two years after the Victorian bushfires, Brisbane had no effective targeted alert system. Some locals were prepared, but many didn’t or couldn’t respond in time. Thanks to a combination of flood-proof mindset and previous floods failing to reach predicted heights, thousands were caught out. Anecdotally, some went shopping for perishable foodstuffs, only to be cut off by floodwater on return and unable to save everything they owned.

So why no narrowcast messaging? The Federal Government set aside money. A feasibility study was completed. The Victorian Government lead talks with mobile phone networks. Last October, Telstra was awarded the contract to build a national telephony-based emergency warning system. Testing was to commence immediately. Emergency Alert has sent out over half a million messages up and down the east coast, but little more than generalised weather alerts. In the end, this activity led to nothing of any utility in Brisbane.

In the context of that delay, a frustrated Lord Mayor Campbell Newman went in pursuit of a Brisbane solution. The Gap storms in 2008 provided the city with plenty of reasons for a city-wide response. He launched a direct sms warning system for hail, flash flooding, damaging winds, cyclone and bushfires October last year. Newman's system had the capacity to tackle localised weather events and enable people to opt-in and receive alerts based on where they live, while providing information about the specific areas. In the end, without the support of the major carriers, opt-in provisions meant only 22,000 residents out of over a million had registered by the end of 2010, though that spiked to 37,000 after the floods had come and gone.

When the crunch came, at least Campbell Newman had a system in place. Anna Bligh didn't. At the launch of the Brisbane system last October, Bligh called for a "unified approach to the warnings," which was code for having nothing to do with the Brisbane initiative. Newman's recollection was that from Sunday October 10th 2010 onwards there were plenty of discussions between state and council officials. He reserved the right to issue his own warnings, based on what we think is going to happen."

With the arrival of Cyclone Yasi, Queensland was able to do little more than untargeted mass notifications. The result was little different to using TV or radio. Evacuation centres along coastal areas filled with many people from outside flood inundation locations. In the end, some of those who most needed evacuation had to be accommodated elsewhere. Desperately needed sms notifications regarding storm surges should have been localised to street, age of the resident, even the type of dwelling. Alerts need to be phased to evacuate those who most need assistance first. None of this was possible. Specific information tailored to neighbourhoods will save lives and property in a way which generalised messaging can’t.

In short, City Councils like Brisbane, Townsville and Mackay had a sense of urgency. They gave this technology a red hot go. Meanwhile state and federal Governments are still talking.  Sure, matters were aggravated by the ongoing feud between Canberra and Telstra, but that can’t completely explain the impasse. Everyone knew this 2011 summer would be an el nina super-storm season. That same rain will now translate into historically high fuel loads and record bush fire risks. That affords us a few more months to get such a system in place.

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In August 2010, the Coalition federal election campaign in the Brisbane locality of Redlands was the first to deliver targeted sms notifications to around 10,000 individuals, according to address, age, gender, occupation, even their issues of concern. It isn’t hard to do when it really needs to be done. Targeted notifications for national and regional emergencies are now years overdue and that’s unacceptable. The federal Government must make it a priority area and set a deadline which they keep. Narrowcast disaster messaging is too important to be bounced between jurisdictions at a bureaucratic snail's pace.

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About the Author

Andrew Laming is the Federal Member for Bowman in Queensland and the Shadow Spokesperson Regional Health and Indigenous Health.

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