Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Victorian Internet Bushfire Warnings

A Proposed Interim Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was presented by the Counsel Assisting on 2 July 2009. The draft report in a 63 page PDF document (536 kbytes). Several of the key findings and recommendations relate to the use of the Internet, the web and other ICT.

The commission has done a very thorough and thoughtful job in collecting, analysis and collation of a large amount of information and making sensible relevant recommendations. The recommendations for having a single bushfire emergency web site and using visual as well as text based information and to be designed to function during periods of extreme demand are key. For several years I have been teaching students of the Australian National University how to design emergency web sites.

One criticism I would have of the recommendations which relate to the use of ICT is that they are made peace meal, under the various topics. A key problem which this therefore does not address is the peace meal nature of the resulting systems. What is needed is one system which is used to prepare one consistent collection on bushfire which can be disseminated using different technology to different people.

As an example the commission recommends that warnings be read on air on the ABC, but I suggest that these warnings should also be available via the ABC's web site and particularly their mobile web site and via the RSS and other feed systems the ABC uses.

Also while the commission recommends one single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria, in my opinion, this does not go far enough. Bushfire is not the only form of emergency which Victoria is subject to. Therefore the Victorian government should provide one emergency information website for all forms of life threatening emergencies in Victoria, including bus fires.

One issued raised by a submission to the inquiry, but not taken up by the commission in its recommendations is the resilience of the proposed National Broadband Network in an emergency. As I have pointed out, the government has not set does not have use of the NBN in an emergency as a priority. If the NBN is not designed to operate during a power failure or in other emergencies, as it beings to replace conventional PSTN telephones, the risk to the public will increase as a result.
2.2. Construction, content of warnings
Key findings ...

(e) CFA bushfire warnings are assigned three “levels”: Awareness, Alert and Urgent Threat. Ideally, each such warning is posted (in a timely fashion) to the CFA website, read aloud on ABC radio and provided to the VBIL. The evidence before the Royal Commission is that on 7 February 2009 this did not always occur in a timely fashion. ...

2.3. Specific methods of delivering warnings.

2.3.1. Single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria.
Key findings

(a) The public rely on fire agency websites for accurate and up to date information about fires in their area. ...

(b) Currently CFA and DSE maintain separate websites. CFA and DSE are working to present bushfire information on a single website. ...

Proposed recommendations

(a) A single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria be established and operational for the 2009‐2010 fire season.
(b) The website must provide timely, accurate and up to date bushfire information posted by the fire agencies, that is consistent with the bushfire information being delivered through other modes, including the VBIL and ABC radio. The website must be designed to communicate information quickly and simply, using visual as well as text based information and have the capacity to function during periods of extreme demand.
(c) The website be designed to allow Incident Control Centres (ICCs) to post bushfire information directly to the website.

2.3.2. Standard Emergency Warning Signal
Key findings
(a) The Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) is not itself a ”warning”. Rather, it is a distinctive alert tone or signal broadcast prior to warnings for major emergencies. It is designed to “alert listeners/viewers of radio/television that an official emergency announcement is about to be made concerning an actual or potential emergency which has the potential to affect them”. ...

(b) The current protocol for the use of SEWS requires the control agency to request the police to authorise its use. Victoria Police (via the Divisional Emergency Response Coordinator) then sends an “Emergency Warning Notice” to the media. On receipt of that formal request to issue a warning, the media are expected to broadcast the warning message, preceded by the distinctive “SEWS tone” for 15 seconds.
(c) SEWS was not used on 7 February 2009 in Victoria. Its use is not referred to in the Emergency Management Manual. Indeed, SEWS has not been regularly used in Victoria, because of concerns that it can be overused and thereby become ineffective and the possibility that it might cause “confusion”. ...
(d) There is no research to suggest that use or “overuse” of SEWS has caused any significant confusion or inconvenience in the community. ...
(e) The Commonwealth has been considering a “relaunch” of SEWS, however it ceased that work in anticipation of the findings of this Royal Commission. ...
(f) SEWS is useful in alerting people to the content of a warning message to follow, and it has been used in South Australia (since 2005) for that very purpose. ...

Proposed recommendations

(a) The Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) must be used in Victoria to precede each Urgent Threat message in relation to a bushfire and in all circumstances where lives are at risk by reason of bushfire.
(b) The Emergency Management Manual Victoria should be amended to provide that:
(i) the use of SEWS is to precede each urgent threat message issued in relation to a bushfire;
(ii) the use of SEWS is required in all circumstances when lives are at risk; and
(iii) the use of SEWS may be authorised during bushfires by the Chief Officer of the CFA or the Chief Officer of DSE.
(c) The State Government to commence an intensive education campaign to inform the Victorian community that the distinctive SEWS signal will be used before each Urgent Threat message for bushfires and in all circumstances where lives are at risk by reason of bushfire.
(d) The ABC, CFA and DSE to implement a streamlined process for the use of SEWS on ABC radio and television.
(e) The CFA and DSE to invite commercial operators to enter into a Memoranda of Understanding in relation to the dissemination of bushfire warning messages and a process for the use of SEWS by those operators.

2.3.3. Community Information and Warning Systems and Dissemination of Warnings
Key findings

(a) In 2005, the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner (OESC), in partnership with Telstra, ran a successful trial of an opt in land line telephony based community warning system in two communities in Victoria. ...

(b) Since the 2005 trial, Victoria’s position has been that a national community information and warning system should be implemented. Victoria has advocated this position forcefully at the highest levels, including in communications between the Premier and the Minister for Police and the Commonwealth. ...

(c) The use of a nationally consistent community information warning system drawing on such technology is supported in an AFAC Discussion Paper: “A National Systems Approach to Community Warnings”, 3 June 2009. ...

(d) On 2 October 2008, COAG formally noted that “A nationally – consistent community emergency warning system will enhance the current capability to provide timely and accurate warnings in the event of emergencies and provide useful information and advice on individual and community responses. COAG has requested that all remaining tasks, including a cost – benefit analysis, be completed by the end of 2008”. ...

(e) But the period between 2006 and 2009 was largely characterised by delay. There was extended debate between Commonwealth departments about the need for legislative amendment to facilitate access to the Integrated Public Numbers Database (IPND). ...

(f) On 3 December 2008, the Attorney General wrote to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy stating: “As noted by COAG, a telephony based warning system has the potential to save lives”. ...

(g) During the period 2004 to 2009, the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy maintained the view that changes to the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) were necessary to permit access by emergency services to the IPND. ...

(h) The delay was also in part due to the fact that until after the 2009 fires, the States and the Commonwealth had not agreed on the appropriate model for a national system. ...

(i) In March 2009, the necessary amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) were made. ...

(j) On 2 March 2009, after the February 2009 fires, and before the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) amendments were made, Victoria Police and the OESC determined to issue a mass warning message via SMS in order to warn of predicted severe weather.

Telstra was instrumental in the arrangements for the dissemination of the message. A review conducted in relation to this event revealed a high rate of recall by recipients and “success” in terms of the message delivery. ...

(k) The SMS message was able to be sent by Telstra because access to the IPND was not required, as Telstra simply sent the message to its customers using their billing addresses. Out of "an abundance of caution", Telstra was also supplied with a certificate from Victoria Police which stated that the message was necessary to be sent by reason of a "serious and imminent threat" to life. Although this certificate echoes the wording of the exception in s287 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth), Telstra did not in fact purport to rely on that section. Indeed, Mr Consolo accepted in evidence that Telstra has always possessed the capacity to send such an SMS message to its customers, though this message offers no "geo‐coding" function. Mr Esplin, in his evidence, noted that the agreement of carriers to take such a step was, in his view, unlikely to have been obtained prior to the events of 7 February 2009. ...

(l) On 30 April 2009, following a COAG meeting, the Commonwealth announced that COAG had agreed to implement a national telephone emergency warning system. The first stage (which COAG said would be in place by October 2009) will provide warnings in the form of recorded voice messages and SMS messages to the billing addresses of landline and mobile phones. A second stage of the system that would permit sending of
phone messages based on the location of the telephone handset is to be investigated. ...

(m) Despite the development of this new technology, it is clear that multiple methods of dissemination of warnings should continue to be used for the following reasons:

(i) members of the community may obtain information in a variety of ways including websites, telecommunications, radio and informal networks – and tend to like to confirm information received with other sources; and
(ii) it is advisable to preserve multiple modes of disseminating warnings (including old technology such as sirens, door to door visits, radio and new technology such as SMS, official websites, informal websites, Twitter, Facebook) to reach the broadest possible audience and to guard against failure of any single mode of communication. ...

(a) The Commonwealth and COAG should ensure that implementation of stage one of the new national emergency warning system prior to bushfire season 2009‐2010.
(b) The State of Victoria should be an active participant in the development, implementation and operation of the new national emergency warning system.
(c) The State of Victoria should immediately commence a program of community education in order to ensure that Victorians are well informed about the proper use of and response to the use of the new national emergency warning system, particularly in the event of bushfire, prior to the 2009‐2010 season. Such community education program to draw on the experiences of the “Community Information and Warning System: The Report of The Trial and Evaluation”, OESC (2006) ...
(d) If by September 2009, it appears unlikely that the first phase of the national system will be operational, the State of Victoria to make representations to the Commonwealth Government with a view to securing a commitment that the system will be available at least in Victoria’s Bushfire Risk Zones by bushfire season 2009‐2010.
(e) Multiple means of disseminating warning message should be retained including the continued use of ABC broadcasts, a single multi agency website (see proposed recommendation 2.3.1) and sirens where adopted by particular communities (see proposed recommendation 2.3.4).

2.3.5. Publication of Fire Danger Index forecasts
Key findings

(a) The Bureau of Meteorology routinely forecasts the Forest Fire Danger Index and the Grass Fire Danger Index (collectively the Fire Danger Index or FDI) and provides these forecasts to the fire agencies. ...
(b) The FDI forecasts are not included in the general weather forecasts posted on the Bureau’s website or distributed to the media. They are made available to the public only in the fire weather forecasts posted on the Bureau’s website on the afternoon before the day in question. ...
(c) A number of lay witnesses wanted to see the FDI forecasts published more widely. ...

Proposed recommendations
(a) The Bureau of Meteorology include the Forest Fire Danger Index and Grass Fire Danger Index in its fire weather warnings and general weather forecasts posted on its website and distributed to the media. ...

4.9. Application to those in places other than homes – e.g. schools, nursing homes, hospitals

Proposed Recommendations – stay or go (key findings 4.1‐4.9)

(ii) that before the commencement of the 2009 ‐ 2010 fire season they be revised and enhanced to clearly convey the following ...

(M) Advice about when to leave, incorporating a cascading series of triggers
(noting that a warning may not be received and should not be relied upon)
namely ...
• When you are advised to be on alert in relation to a fire that has
commenced. This requires that you pay attention to fire information sources (ABC, fire agency website) on days of total fire ban and extreme fire risk. ...

8. Detection of fires
8.1. Early detection, mapping and prediction of fire spread
Key findings ...

(n) Threat messages issued concerning the Kilmore East fire prior to 18.00 on 7 February 2009 made no reference to the anticipated frontal change. ...

(p) Kilmore ICC authorised at 16.10 on 7 February 2009 release of threat message warning communities from Kinglake to Strath Creek of fire. That message did not appear on the CFA website. ...

(r) Narbethong was the subject of a threat message on the DSE website at 16.45 on 7 February 2009 and Marysville was the subject of a threat message on the DSE website at 17.15 on 7 February 2009. ...

19.2. Communications infrastructure

Key findings

(a) Warnings, both formal and informal, are communicated by a range of means including mobile and fixed line telephones, radio, television and the internet. Members of the public need to be able to contact emergency services in an emergency.

Communications within and between emergency services agencies are vital to an effective and co‐ordinated emergency response. A reliable and robust communications infrastructure is therefore essential.

(b) The Commission has heard evidence that indicates that Victoria’s communications infrastructure was placed under great stress on 7 February, and that there were difficulties in communicating with and within emergency services, and generally. ...

(c) To date the Commission has heard evidence from the ABC, ACE Radio Broadcasters, Telstra, ESTA, DSE, CFA and Victoria Police in respect of public radio and television, fixed and mobile telephone networks, managed radio networks and the operation of emergency call services. Some of these communications media performed well on 7 February, others less so. ...

(d) The Commission has also heard evidence that indicates that communications in some parts of Victoria are less than optimal under normal conditions. ...

Proposed recommendations
(a) No further recommendation is proposed. Victoria’s communications infrastructure will be the subject of evidence in future hearings. ...

From: Proposed Interim Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Counsel Assisting, 2 July 2009.

1 comment:

pointyup said...

What about people on holliday or just travelling though from interstate?
If a mobile tower sent a txt to every mobile phone within range of a fire danger it would help. If every radio station posted the message at the same time it would help. a centraly located refuge is of ni use to a stranger in town or some one that is lost on the road. Peter.