Communities are too dependent on emergency services organisations as well as associated technologies for disaster notifications and should learn to be more self-reliant, according to various Government agencies.
The Senate standing committees on Environment and Communications held a parliamentary hearing on the capacity of communication networks and emergency services warning systems for emergencies and natural disasters today.
From bushfires to cyclones, Australia has been rife with natural disasters in recent years. Since December 2010, numerous Queensland towns have been affected by floods. In February this year, Cyclone Yasi hit and devastated Northern Queensland.
Inevitably, communication network go down during these kinds of disasters. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone Hutchison Australia (VHA) all experienced network outages during the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi mainly due to power outages. Generators were swiftly brought in to restore services.
Fixed-line phone calls, SMSes and radio announcements have all been used by emergency services organisations to notify residents in disaster affected areas. The parliamentary hearing aims to explore just how effective these emergency warning systems are.
South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission (SAFECOM) chief executive, David Place, told the Committee the public have an unrealistic expectation of what Government organisations should do when it comes to emergency situations.
“There seems to be an increasing expectation on Governments to provide the perfect information at the perfect time and in a manner perfectly tailored for each recipient,” he said. “This is clearly not achievable and certainly not sustainable.
“If we are not careful, we will create an expectation all responsibility rests with the Government and that is not in the best interest of community resilience.
According to Place, resilience in disaster situations is achieved through partnerships between all levels of Government, the community and the commercial sector.
Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services and NSW Government Telecommunications Authority also gave evidence at the hearing. All three agencies admitted there were shortcomings with the emergency alert system in each respective state and territory.
Interoperability between all states and territories is an issue along with the use of numerous IT systems used to process and disseminate information to the public are pressing concerns as well.
These include delays in SMS alerts and not being able to reach people with emergency messages in time via landline. Social networking sites such as Twitter have been increasingly used by communities to gleam real-time information. Some emergency service organisations are looking at using social networks as a way to gather information about disasters faster.
But the public should not put all their faith in technology to guide them in an emergency.
“Technology is really important and we have to use it but to be effective we have to rely on some good old fashion community values,” NSW Government Telecommunications Authority director of operations, Tony Gates, said. “People need to talk to one another.
“As much as I hate to say it, if these trends in the number of emergencies increase, there is a limit to how Governments can respond and we will do so the best we can but the community has to respond as best they can as well.”
A back-to-basics education approach, according to Gates, might be a way to help the public in responding to disasters. This includes basic emergency training exercises, teaching people what to do, who to call, what to listen to and how to react.
Another issue requiring attention is information provided by telcos operating commercial communications infrastructure.
When commercial services go down, it limits the avenue for Government agencies to feed vital safety information to the community.
“We need to be able to have a clear picture of the status of telco networks,” Gates told the Committee. “We understand they operate in a commercial environment but [telcos] need to give us a clear picture of the state of networks so we can tell our people in the field how they can communicate.”