Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Emergency Warning Systems Inquiry

concerns have been raised in the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry over the adequacy of Australia's telephone and broadcast based Emergency Alert System ("Tempers flare over national emergency warning system" (14 June 2011, ITNews). There is also a federal parliamentary inquiry underway into "The capacity of communication networks and e to deal with emergencies and natural disasters" by the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications.

In the past I have criticized reliance on a telephone based emergency warning system and on the arrangements for warning to be issuer through radio stations. Phone based warnings are issued as voice messages to fixed line phones and as text messages to mobiles. However, increased used of cordless phones and IP phones (which need mains power) reduces the effectiveness of fixed line phones. The sending of text messages to customers with a billing address in an area misses out on visitors. However, in practice the system has worked well in recent disasters.

The recent Queensland floods stretched the capacity of the telcos to continue providing a service and Telstra have made a submission to the Senate Inquiry on this. However, it is not clear if the new NBN based phone system will have battery backup.

There are also problems with messages sent through broadcast radio, with the procedures unclear and an uncertain communication path. Canberra startup Advance Alert, propose to automate this process with their with their Yellow Bird Alert system. This would operate in a similar way to the USA Emergency Alert System (EAS), which transmits warning messages from the US Government through broadcast radio stations to specially equipped receivers.

However, EAS is a techncially complex and expensive system and one which does not take into account "social networking" aspects of emergencies. Australia would be better off building a simpler system which would get messages to radio stations rapidly, without an automated interface.

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