SMS warnings dissected in floods report

Months after the flood waters have subsided from the streets of Brisbane and the Lockyer Valley, an inquiry into the disaster has handed down its interim report to the government, calling for smarter early warning systems.

Months after the flood waters have subsided from the streets of Brisbane and the Lockyer Valley, an inquiry into the disaster has handed down its interim report to the government, calling for smarter early warning systems.

(Flood — Road Closed image by
Morien Jones, CC2.0)

The Queensland Flood Commission's 266-paged interim report told Queensland government and emergency agencies to diversify the methods in which they warn people in dangerous areas.

During the December disaster, SMS message warnings were issued to residents whose billing addresses were registered within flood zones. There were also warnings sent via radio and TV announcements, Facebook and Twitter posts, websites and doorknocking.

The commission told the government in its report that all alert methods should be considered during an emergency to get the word out, with a particular emphasis on bolstering warning capabilities that don't require the use of electricity.

"No single warning mechanism is effective in all cases; some work well in some communities, or in some circumstances, but not others. Where flash flooding occurs or communities are threatened by rapidly rising water, a mechanism that can deliver immediate warnings should be used," the report said.

The report outlined how some areas had experienced difficulty getting reception from mobile networks due to rising floodwaters, making SMS warnings difficult to deliver. Vodafone, Telstra and Optus battled to keep their service alive, rolling out temporary towers and generators, as well as sandbagging and barricading exchange buildings to keep them dry. Telstra technicians even took to sealing their exchanges by covering them in plastic wrap and filling cracks and openings with waterproof resin.

Despite power loss issues, the Flood Commission recommended that local municipalities and emergency commands enhance their technology-based warning capabilities. The report recommended, for example, that emergency services at the helm of the national Emergency Alert SMS system prepare templates with adequate warning information so as not to confuse or frighten recipients.

"SMS alerts containing insufficient information are of little use, and can be positively harmful. An SMS alert sent to residents of Moreton Bay council region contained the following message:

Immediate Flash Flood Warning for Caboolture, Burpengary area. Very high water levels in rivers and creeks. Seek higher ground NOW.

It caused confusion and even panic in some of those who received it.

Other problems with the Emergency Alert system included how to identify those who needed to be warned.

"At present, Emergency Alert delivers SMS alerts to residents based on their billing address. This meant that during the 2010-2011 floods some residents received alerts about flooding in Queensland while they were overseas. Conversely, those who are visiting an area affected by flooding will not receive an SMS alert because their telephone billing address is elsewhere," the report said, recommending that Queensland's emergency agencies activate location-based warnings to deliver timely information to those in high risk areas.

A review is currently being conducted into the effectiveness of the Emergency Alert system, with findings due out later in the year.

Emergency services ministers from around Australia told ZDNet Australia after the Perth firestorm earlier this year that while the national Emergency Alert SMS early warning system was effective in natural disaster scenarios, it shouldn't be relied upon as a sole source of emergency and evacuation information.

Queensland's Minister for Emergency Services Neil Roberts told ZDNet Australia that during natural disasters such as Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which prompted a review of the system, 5.6 million messages were sent to landlines and mobile phones after 86 alerts were issued. Roberts admitted, however, that the system does have drawbacks.

"As with any warning system, Emergency Alert has its limitations. That is why we continue to educate the community that Emergency Alert is just one of a number of methods used to inform the community in times of natural disasters. Emergency Alert complements existing emergency warning methods, such as radio and television broadcasts, website updates and local notifications (such as doorknocking), and should not be seen as a replacement or sole source of information to the community," he said.

Different states are working on improvements to the Emergency Alert system, including the Tasmanian Government, which is working with the Department of Police and Emergency Management and the Department of Primary Industries towards faster and more detailed mapping systems for better early warnings. Victoria is currently working on a way to identify phones in a particular grid location to distribute better warnings to the right phones.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh accepted the commission's interim report yesterday and said at a press conference that the government would endeavour to implement all recommendations made.


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