WA defends SMS emergency system

The Western Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) has defended its use of the SMS emergency warning and evactuation system after residents panned the system's effectiveness during the Perth fire crisis.
Written by Luke Hopewell, Contributor

The Western Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) has defended its use of its SMS emergency warning and evacuation system after residents panned the system's effectiveness during the Perth fire crisis.

Emergency SMS notification

An example of an extreme weather warning sent via SMS by Telstra. (Extreme Weather SMS Alert image by
Andy & Anna Kelk, CC2.0)

The fires, allegedly lit by an off-duty police officer last Saturday, destroyed 72 homes and left 30 damaged. They were finally brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Some evacuees became highly critical of the way emergency information was distributed online and via SMS, with one woman who fled the fire front on horseback telling ABC News that FESA didn't send out evacuation notices until an hour after she and her family had evacuated their property.

Craig Hynes, chief operating officer of FESA, defended the SMS emergency system, but admitted there is more work to be done to make it more informative and reliable.

Hynes said that the emergency warning system used by Western Australia was developed specifically for the state, unlike the Emergency Alert system used by other states. Hynes did stress, however, that the system is being brought into line with the national co-operative system.

"[Our system] is multi-channel and integrates the public number database and dials all lines within the area we select but also gives an opt-in measure where people can register mobile phones with the same billing address as the area, as well as fax, email and RSS feeds," Hynes said.

Once an evacuation area had been declared via a state alert, FESA sent out emergency and evacuation warnings to all those in the area affected, managed by an emergency services team on the ground.

"What we've reserved this system for is life-threatening situations. This was one. We don't initiate it until there is a team on the ground to manage that," Hynes said.

According to Hynes, the area selected always includes people evacuated via alternative means.

"What happens with the system is that we always include areas that have already been impacted. People get messages when they're in evacuation centres and wonder why. That's because they're in the zone we send the messages to on the opt-in system," he added.

Hynes was at pains to remind residents that while the emergency SMS system is designed to get emergency and evacuation information to those in the path of the fire, it was still a technological tool and not something to rely on.

"It's an extra tool. We tell people not to just rely on that. We didn't have this [system] two years ago and we're always in development to make it better," Hynes said.

"We can't ask people to rely on it, you have to be informed in emergencies. Technology is great but technology can crash," he added.

Other agencies around Australia share FESA's position on the SMS warning system, with Victoria's State Emergency Service saying that in smaller communities, it prefers to door-knock to spread evacuation information, as technology behind the Emergency Alert system had been "unreliable".

FESA plans to conduct a review of the system in the wake of the bushfires and draw up plans for what else can be added to make it more effective for people in dangerous areas.

Improvements including geo-positioning of mobile phones to bypass the need to opt-in, integrated social networking like Twitter hashtags, a solution for reaching home phones that are affected by power cuts and better prediction tools to get ahead of a fire front are all being considered, said Hynes.

(Front page image credit: Fire! image by Dave Hogg, CC2.0)

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