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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
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Deref 5:02 pm 13 Jan 12

Holden Caulfield said :

Did I just hear on Triple J news that an SMS warning system planned for use in Victoria during the bushfire season is a world first?

Presumably they mean it’s a world first to include a spell check.

Or to have one that actually works.

sarahsarah 2:47 pm 13 Jan 12

I would kind of hope that they would do it on both billing address and location. My partner and I were in Sydney when the Mitchel fire happened but getting that message allowed us to communicate with family in Canberra (in-laws are in the suburb over) to check on our pets and house.

Holden Caulfield 2:36 pm 13 Jan 12

Thanks sarahsarah, that makes more sense (on two counts).

sarahsarah 2:33 pm 13 Jan 12

Holden Caulfield said :

Did I just hear on Triple J news that an SMS warning system planned for use in Victoria during the bushfire season is a world first?

Presumably they mean it’s a world first to include a spell check.

The difference is that it will be based off actual location rather than the billing address of the phone.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-01-13/victoria-gets-new-location-based-emergency-warnings/3770884

Currently, emergency mobile phone alerts are sent to residents based on their home address, but do not warn people visiting bush-fire prone areas.

Acting Victorian Premier Peter Ryan says the Government has reached an agreement with Telstra that will allow the new, world-first warning system to be in place by November.

Holden Caulfield 1:06 pm 13 Jan 12

Did I just hear on Triple J news that an SMS warning system planned for use in Victoria during the bushfire season is a world first?

Presumably they mean it’s a world first to include a spell check.

Thumper 10:21 am 02 Oct 11

caf said :

Thumper said :

With regards to Gary Humphrey’s hyperventilating

Oh come on caf. It’s f***ing useless.

Did it not succeed in getting the message out to a large number of people who wouldn’t have got it otherwise? What’s your reasoning for declaring it useless?

Guess it depends on your meaning of success.

caf 12:02 am 02 Oct 11

Thumper said :

With regards to Gary Humphrey’s hyperventilating

Oh come on caf. It’s f***ing useless.

Did it not succeed in getting the message out to a large number of people who wouldn’t have got it otherwise? What’s your reasoning for declaring it useless?

Thumper 4:13 pm 01 Oct 11

wildturkeycanoe said :

Thumper – Yes, it was probably a safety concern that prevented a door-knock evacuation, but how is the safety of say a few tens of personnel, dedicated to preserving the lives of others, priority over the safety of an entire community, maybe thousands of innocent folk? If this is the way ESA operates [work from a safe distance, look after your own] then there’s no wonder they are getting a rap over the knuckles. Sounds to me like Occupational Health & Safety could cost more lives than what it saves.

As a long time SES member I am quite ready and willing to evacuate people if need be, regardless of the danger. I think you’ll find that most SES members have the same attitude.

Ian 12:09 pm 01 Oct 11

ESA/Govt lose credibility by making up bulls*** excuses for the sloppy spelling in the messages. Just admit that whoever did it is a poor speller. Phonetic spelling, hahaha. So they have a system which can’t handle “incident” and “resident” but then can magically figure out if Kaleen is kay-leen (as in okay), kar-leen (as in car) or kal-een (as in alcohol) without a problem? Sure!

And in all the planning and implementation of the system, no-one thought to ask questions about capacity of the system, throughput of calls and basic things like that?

wildturkeycanoe 11:35 am 01 Oct 11

Thumper – Yes, it was probably a safety concern that prevented a door-knock evacuation, but how is the safety of say a few tens of personnel, dedicated to preserving the lives of others, priority over the safety of an entire community, maybe thousands of innocent folk? If this is the way ESA operates [work from a safe distance, look after your own] then there’s no wonder they are getting a rap over the knuckles. Sounds to me like Occupational Health & Safety could cost more lives than what it saves.

Thumper 11:04 am 01 Oct 11

guess if the SES volunteers are all sitting around the depot waiting for a callout, they could be deployed pretty quickly. If not, factor in a delay of maybe an hour or more while they get called in to the depot and assembled for transport to the affected area.

I was a bit surprised that we weren’t called to do door knocking. However, given the nature and possible toxicity of the smoke there may have been a decision made not to expose SES workers to the potential hazards, God knows, we get plenty of them. SES were deployed, but in another capacity.

Having said that, a few years ago we evacuated Maitland which was about to get smashed by floods, and Queanbeyan as well just last year. And in 2003 a number of SES evacuated residents from Duffy/ Holder, etc when the fires hit.

I guess it comes down to ESA command and what was safest for the guys on the ground.

My person opinion is yes, we should have evacuated the suburbs by door knocks, however, that’s not my call and, as mentioned, there would have been a valid reason for this not being the case. You certainly can’t blame ESA for any of the stuff ups, subsequent or otherwise.

s-s-a 8:51 am 01 Oct 11

What’s wrong with door knocking? Start at the edge of the disaster area and go forth from there. How few SES volunteers, police officers, fire fighters and ambulance staff do we have that we can’t evacuate a suburb in a matter of hours?

I guess if the SES volunteers are all sitting around the depot waiting for a callout, they could be deployed pretty quickly. If not, factor in a delay of maybe an hour or more while they get called in to the depot and assembled for transport to the affected area.

Police *may* be available. Fireys and ambos have other priorities in a major insadent.

In the area where I grew up in Sydney, the bushfire brigade called in crews to all their stations on Total Fire Ban days so that they were available to respond as soon as a call was received. High risk bushfire days are relatively easy to predict. Other major insadents are a bit more random.

JC 8:44 am 01 Oct 11

sepi said :

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.

It did go to pre-paid, afterall when you get prepay you show ID and give an address, though of course the flaw is how many notify the carrier if they move?

Bottom line is no system is perfect. We all sit here, whinge, blame and talk in hindsight, but bet 3 weeks ago no one would have predicted the events that happened. With the whole thing about the only thing that is inexcusable is the spelling mistakes in the message that lead some people to believe it was a hoax.

Watson 8:19 am 01 Oct 11

shirty_bear said :

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?

We all know police and fire brigade staff aren’t the academic types, I thought? I might have been more suspicious if I would have received a text with perfect spelling and grammer actually. I couldn’t care less if they can spell or not, as long as they can put a fire out. Which they did.

The thought that anyone would send me such a far fetched hoax text, didn’t enter my mind. I’m just not that suspicious. And it came 2 hours everyone in North Canberra got woken up by a series of explosions.

wildturkeycanoe 7:00 am 01 Oct 11

What’s wrong with door knocking? Start at the edge of the disaster area and go forth from there. How few SES volunteers, police officers, fire fighters and ambulance staff do we have that we can’t evacuate a suburb in a matter of hours? It only took me and my wife, along with baby in stroller, a few hours of an afternoon to drop off “Amway” style brochures over half of a suburb many years ago. Double the number of people and you’ve covered the whole suburb. Relying on technology isn’t the way, when the technology isn’t designed to do the job.
Getting a text at 3 a.m. I’m sure many [like my wife, whose phone is still registered in Gungahlin even though we now live in Belco] just slept through. Unless you are on call, you usually turn off or silence your phone when in bed and a text with as many spelling mistakes can be taken as a hoax through blurry eyes.
From what I’ve heard, if the explosions didn’t wake you up in the surrounding area, a ringing phone probably wouldn’t have either.

I-filed 11:03 pm 30 Sep 11

Thumper said :

Sirens are so cold war.

Tell that to all the beachside councils with shark sirens. Very much in use.

sepi 10:09 pm 30 Sep 11

People in general didn’t receive the messages though – 80% of home phones in the affected suburbs did not get a msg and 32% or mobiles did not get a txt – that is 26 thousand people.

They system is crap.

thatsnotme 8:38 pm 30 Sep 11

Grrrr said :

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.

I can think of two possible reasons that this may not be possible. I don’t know if either really apply – just theorising here.

One is that instead of the broadcast of the SMS messages being in the control of the ESA, it becomes necessary to involve the owners of all of the towers in the area. So if a message needs to go out urgently at 2am, contact needs to be made with Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and any other tower operators. Then, they will need to actually carry out the broadcast – the ESA won’t have access to the infrastructure necessary to carry out a broadcast, so a 3rd party will have to do it.

Secondly, depending on the area, a single tower may provide coverage for an area that doesn’t need any warnings. So rather than being able to focus warnings on specific areas, they’re limited to the area that a tower services – whether everyone there needs the warning or not.

It may be that despite these limitations, a ‘blast everyone connected to this tower’ approach ends up being more effective than the flawed system currently in place. Perhaps the ESA needs to consider a hybrid approach, where emergencies needing large scale warnings use this type of approach, and smaller emergencies use their existing system.

What I can’t get over though, is that this system was borne of the bushfires, and is supposed to be able to handle that type of emergency in the future. If the bushfires hit again tomorrow, the number of homes and mobiles that would need to be contacted would dwarf the numbers we’re talking about here.

00davist 8:30 pm 30 Sep 11

caf said :

With regards to Gary Humphrey’s hyperventilating, it’s worth pointing out that 12 months ago this system didn’t even exist, and nobody would have received a message by phone. It’s not like this new system replaced some previous system that worked perfectly – it’s an adjunct to the pre-existing alert systems, so every additional person notified is a win.

Whilst I completely agree with your point (although some more testing would have been nice) At least Humpry’s Jab retained some perspective, as opposed to Smyth’s utter garbage;

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

1) While I am not what you would call a fan of Mr Corbell, I find it a pretty big stretch to suggest he take FULL responsibility for the failings of a NATIONAL system, sure, he has to answer for some definite oversight, but really, does Smyth actually stupid enough to swallow that?

2) The radio comment makes good sense, as people in general DID receive the first message, and while it was a bit ‘hoxey’ it’s not a bad idea to suggest that maybe if they receive a text like that in future, people might just want to have a quick check of the radio to see if it is a hoax or not. Again, does Smyth thing we are all dumb enough to believe Simon is telling us to forgo all sleep from now on, and just hit up the local stations all night instead???

Naturally this mud slinging is all just politicians looking to use a dangerous event to further their own standings, and nothing about that is in any way surprising, but jeez, Smyth, if you read this, try harder next time buddy, this is as subtle as a brick!

Oh, and Kdowgg, probably a good idea in future to get in contact with your phone carrier, and update your address with them, for both billing and residential (be careful, they might only do one, it happens allot)

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