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The miserable failings of emergency alert – UPDATED

By johnboy - 30 September 2011 39

mitchell fire from gungahlin

Simon Corbell has announced the release of a review into all the ways the emergency alert system went wrong during the Mitchell Fire.

What strikes me as particularly clear is that anyone with a basic knowledge of primary school maths and the wit to apply it could have predicted these limitations and yet it was never tested.

But here’s what the Minister has to say:

“The national Emergency Alert telephone warnings system was used by the ACT to issue to warnings during the Mitchell chemical fire on 16 September. The report, which I have released today, has found there are some limitations when using Emergency Alert,” Mr Corbell said.

“The first message at 1:38am was targeted to Mitchell to advise of fire and subsequent implementation of an exclusion zone around the suburb. The second message at 3:19am was intended to be sent to people within a 10 kilometre zone of the fire identified as within a shelter zone.

“Unfortunately, the second Emergency Alert message did not reach a number of people within the intended area. This is because it would have taken six to seven hours for the system to deliver the message to all phones within the zone.

“The ACT ESA has advised that Emergency Alert will be best used in the future for sending targeted messages to small areas rather than for large scale use as was done on 16 September where time is a critical factor.”

Mr Corbell said that he would be writing to the Federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, to raise the issue of the system’s limitations and will also raise the issue at the Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management in November.

The report has made five recommendations around additional training, review of procedures including quality assurance processes, better utilisation of system functionalities within limitations and provide written advice to the system administrators and national governance bodies about the ACT experience with recommended enhancements.

[Photo by Thisisaname]

UPDATE: Senator Humphries has taken this up as a rod to beat the Federales:

“It’s just not good enough,” Senator Humphries said today.

“If the fire had indeed been toxic, this failure could have resulted in illness or death on a large scale.

“A national emergency warning system cannot be based on trial and error. This system deals with matters of life and death.

“It’s simply unbelievable that the ACT Emergency Services Minister was told after the emergency that the system would have taken up to 7 hours to contact everyone affected. I’m incredulous that this limitation of the system has never been raised with state and territory emergency agencies.

“The Federal Government has spent $26 million developing what we now know to be a system with severe limitations.

“Only a month ago the Attorney-General Robert McClelland issued a media release saying ‘Australia’s emergency alert system working well’.

“I urge the Attorney-General to explain why the system failed so catastrophically when called upon in an emergency,” Senator Humphries concluded.

Meanwhile local Liberal Brendan Smyth is having a fair whack:

“The ACT’s emergency management system is in disarray,” Mr Smyth said.

“Emergency alerts did not even reach the necessary ten per cent of Canberra’s population during what could have been a potentially life-threatening situation.

“The alerts system was untested, and Simon Corbell admitted he did not confirm its technical capabilities.

“This is an unacceptable oversight that should have been dealt with long before this emergency. Emergency management cannot be a process of trial and error.

“Instead of taking full responsibility for this failure, Simon Corbell suggested Canberrans should have listened to local radio instead of relying on the emergency alerts. This is completely unrealistic and irresponsible, given the fire occurred at around midnight.

“Simon Corbell clearly doesn’t take his role in protecting Canberrans from potentially dangerous situations seriously.

What’s Your opinion?


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39 Responses to
The miserable failings of emergency alert – UPDATED
Kdowgg 2:51 pm 30 Sep 11

My brother, who has a pre-paid mobile phone and has been in Queensland for the past 6 months received the txt.
I live in Kaleen, have a phone registered at a Kaleen address and was in Kaleen at the time and received nothing…

Gungahlin Al 12:45 pm 30 Sep 11

Stuffed if I know why they don’t just send all the mobile messages out via the in scope towers…

KaptnKaos 12:23 pm 30 Sep 11

Better watch out, in typical actgovco style, stresscorb will be out for a scapegoat now.

Deref 12:19 pm 30 Sep 11

kennardly said :

I don’t get it. Why were they the only two words spelled out phonetically? What about Suberb or Kemicul?!

Yep – it sounds like a crock to me.

sepi 12:10 pm 30 Sep 11

Interesting. Maybe this explains why I am yet to meet a single soul from Hackett who got the SMS.

There are other issues – it doesn’t go to pre paid, it apparently didn’t go to transact numbers, and it relies on correct billing addresses.

If it takes them 7 hours to contact a handful of suburbs, then a Canberra wide incident would be interesting.

shirty_bear 11:55 am 30 Sep 11

Watson said :

Thought all the commotion over it was quite typical of snobby Canberra.

So being awake to the threat of scams is “snobby” now? Prejudiced much?

Grrrr 11:54 am 30 Sep 11

What I don’t understand is why the procedure is to send out the SMS to numbers registered for a billing address in the area. It’s a pretty dumb to imagine that the billing addresses largely overlap the location of the phone and vice versa. Work phones, people visiting the area, people with old billing information .. they’re all in the area and not getting an SMS.

ESA should be working with the mobile providers to simply broadcast the SMS to all phones currently registered on the tower(s) in the area.

GardeningGirl 11:51 am 30 Sep 11

kennardly said :

I don’t get it. Why were they the only two words spelled out phonetically? What about Suberb or Kemicul?!

Good point. And can SMS do the characters in real phonetic spelling anyway?

Watson said :

Also, since when was ‘insadent’ the way to phonetically spell ‘incident’? I would think something like insidunt would be more like it. Would have looked even funnier in the text too.

I think what’s needed is the upside-down e?

shirty_bear said :

Kindergarten blunders.

Equally hard to believe that,
a) the spoken message is computer-generated speech from custom-crafted phonetically-written text (so those in charge have determined that having someone trained in phonetics immediately on hand to craft a message for computer interpretation is preferable to having someone simply read and record said message. And,
b) those in charge thought that this custom-crafted text would form a good basis for SMS distribution

Clearly the plans were written up without any intention/expectation of actually being used. Classic bureaucracy – a string of committees and sub-committees going through the motions.

Exactly!

Watson 11:39 am 30 Sep 11

kennardly said :

I don’t get it. Why were they the only two words spelled out phonetically? What about Suberb or Kemicul?!

lol, valid point. And mitchul, linehum and hakkut.

Trying to blame the spelling mistakes on technology has made things much worse. I personally didn’t mind the spelling when I thought it was typed by a firie who dropped out of school at the age of 14 and was run off his feet trying to deal with the insadent. Thought all the commotion over it was quite typical of snobby Canberra. But trying to cover up a pretty innocent mistake with such an unbelievable excuse is really asking to be ridiculed.

Thumper 11:17 am 30 Sep 11

Why can’t we have emergency sirens installed at various locations throughout suburbia

Sirens are so cold war.

Can’t have that with such a progressive government as we have now. Have technology, must use, even if it is completely and utterly useless.

You’d think they would have learnt after 2003, but obviously not.

kennardly 11:09 am 30 Sep 11

I don’t get it. Why were they the only two words spelled out phonetically? What about Suberb or Kemicul?!

s-s-a 10:39 am 30 Sep 11

Why can’t we have emergency sirens installed at various locations throughout suburbia? When $hit of various predetermined levels hits the fan, the sirens go off to alert residents (even ones who don’t have phones with billing addresses in the area) that they should wake up and pay attention to what is going on – ideally switch on the radio or TV or check the ESA interwebs for information about what action is advised.

When I was a kid, we could hear the siren at our local bushfire station (on the edge of Sydney suburbia) from home even if we were inside with the doors shut. It was about 750m away. Hearing it was always a good prompt to check for smoke/fire approaching.

Watson 10:19 am 30 Sep 11

Also, since when was ‘insadent’ the way to phonetically spell ‘incident’? I would think something like insidunt would be more like it. Would have looked even funnier in the text too.

shirty_bear 9:56 am 30 Sep 11

Kindergarten blunders.

Equally hard to believe that,
a) the spoken message is computer-generated speech from custom-crafted phonetically-written text (so those in charge have determined that having someone trained in phonetics immediately on hand to craft a message for computer interpretation is preferable to having someone simply read and record said message. And,
b) those in charge thought that this custom-crafted text would form a good basis for SMS distribution

Clearly the plans were written up without any intention/expectation of actually being used. Classic bureaucracy – a string of committees and sub-committees going through the motions.

Spectra 9:46 am 30 Sep 11

What I found particularly interesting was the explanation for the misspellings in the SMS. As explanations go, I have to admit that it was a lot more satisfying than “the guy who wrote it can’t spell at a 4th grade level”. Still shouldn’t have occurred, of course, but humans make mistakes.

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