Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Time for Simplified Standardized Emergency Warnings

A media report indicates that the Victorian Government is to review online fire warnings and rebuild the FireReady app ("The CFA app that has fires raging across Bass Strait"Melissa Fyfe, The Age, February 20, 2013). This is not before time as these problems were known about long before the FireReady and other current bush-fire warning systems were built. Regrettably the Victorian Country Fire Authority website, as recently as January had already identified problems which would have limited its effective operation.

In 2003 I gave a conference presentation on problems experienced with on-line systems in the Canberra 2003 bushfires. In 2006 I discussed work on systems for the 2004 Tsunami. In 2007 I summarized some suggestions for "Emergency Web Page Design for Local Government". None of these presentations contained anything which should not have already been know to any competent ICT professional working on emergency systems.

The Australian Emergency Alert system was originally designed to send text messages to mobile phones based on the billing address. This limitation of the system was known at the time it was developed. In 2010 the PM and AG announced that the system would be upgraded to use the location of the handset. However, I don't know how far implementation of this has advanced ("Fears rise over bushfire emergency system flaws", James Hutchinson, Australian Financial Review, ).

The standardization of the symbols used in maps is difficult, as different agencies are in charge of different forms of emergency and use different symbols. Symbols understood by experts may not be suitable for the general public. Also not enough use is made of standardized symbols (pictograms) in web sites, in preference to hard to interpret photos and complex diagrams.

Another area which has not received sufficient attention is the use of standardized language and templates for the text of warnings. A 2011 Canberra fire warning had spelling errors, resulting some thinking it a hoax.

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