Monday, March 23, 2009

Obligation for Australian broadcasters to provide emergency warnings

In "ABC Mobile Web Site Failed Accessibility Test" I criticised the ABC for not providing a more planned emergency warning service to the public. As far as I can see, there is no legislation specifically requiring the ABC to provide emergency warnings (there is for commercial broadcasters) but they did volunteer for the job.

The ABC has used slogans such as: "ABC Local Radio, your emergency services broadcaster":
  • "During the Bushfire season, for regular fire updates, tune into ABC Local Radio, your emergency services broadcaster. ..." ABC Goulburn Murray, 16 October 2008
  • "ABC Adelaide is your Emergency Services Broadcaster. Stay listening on air and online for the latest information. ...", From: Index of Emergency Incidents Stories, ABC, 14/03/2008
  • "For more information contact your local CFA Branch and keep listening to ABC Radio, your emergency services broadcaster....", From: Fire Ready Victoria Meetings, ABC Goulburn Murray, 22 January 2008
This role seems to have been endorsed by the state governments, with their emergency web pages advising the public to listen to ABC local radio for emergency information:
  • "As part of an on-going partnership, 774 ABC Melbourne and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) provide listeners with quick, free access to the most up-to-date information and advice available during fire emergencies. ... Link to website: ABC Local Radio ..." From: "ABC Local Radio", Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner (OESC), Victoria, 15 November 2008
  • "During a serious emergency where life or property may be at risk, you can also obtain information by: Listening to your local ABC Radio station at 15 minutes past the hour and 15 minutes to the hour. ...", From: "Emergency Alerts", Fire & Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia (FESA), 2008

More formally there are Memorandums of Understanding between the ABC and the Victorian Emergency Services Organisations (4 February 2004) and the Queensland Department of Emergency Services (6 September 2005) for the ABC to broadcast emergency messages. While the MoUs are non-legally binding arrangements, it would seem to be a formal commitment by the ABC to provide an emergency service.

Emergency warnings are not mentioned in the ABC Charter. This is a curious anomaly, as it is a requirement for commercial broadcasters, under the BROADCASTING SERVICES ACT 1992 - SECT 61CE. However, under the ABC's ACT the Minister can direct the ABC to broadcast a "particular matter" in the national interest. An emergency warning would seem to be in the national interest.

The federal government is building a system to provide state governments with access to the phone directory for emergency calls. This is to cost $11.3M. It would seem prudent to spend a small amount on communicating the emergency warning to the broadcasters in a coordinated and reliable way.

While the carriers and broadcasters should be consulted about how an emergency warning is communicated, they should not be able to impede the work. Under the ABC, Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts the Commonwealth Government has the authority to direct carriers and broadcasters to provide emergency warnings.

Apart from the Broadcasting Act, the Telecommunications Act 1997 - SECT 335 contains provision for the government to require service providers to supply specific services for the management of natural disasters. In 1999, at the Defence Department, I got this ready to use, in case Y2K caused chaos.

The Emergency Management Agency moved from Defence to Attorney General's in 2001, but someone seems to have forgotten to change the Telecommunications Act to transfer the natural disasters authority from the Defence minister to the Attorney General.

The current ad-hoc arrangement of phones and fax machines for communication between the states, commonwealth and broadcasters is not a satisfactory "system".

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