Australia — When an emergency comes along, everyone wants to know the latestinformation, and they want to know it now.
That’s led to the launch of ‘Bushfire Alert’, a subscription service thatpromises to spread the alert faster. Subscribers with information ring in andleave a message, and then the system rebroadcasts it to other subscribers in thearea.
CFA Operations Manager Vince Bosua says there are already systems in place thatare effective and free.
“Back in about 1993, the CFA implemented Community Fireguard groups forwhich we provided advice and helped to set up self-help groups in high riskareas,” he says.
“Part of that strategy was how they’d inform one another using a range ofproducts – phone trees, and word of mouth in neighbourhood arrangements. ThatCommunity Fireguard process is still in existence and very strong.
“Then we progress to 1997, and Bushfire Blitz which was again starting toget the message out to the community. It was very active on informing thegeneral public how they could prepare and make themselves aware about what washappening.
“In 2004, we converted that to Fire-Ready Victoria, which brought in thethree fire services – the MFB, DSE and CFA – in a programmed and planned processof identifying high risk areas and engaging brigades and local community toidentify local risks, and how best they could inform one another, and how wecould inform them in times of emergency.”
The Bushfire Alert media release promoting its service says in part:
“Due to lack of government action the community based National Bushfire Alert system was set up to provide bushfire warnings by telephone, email and SMS at the early stage of the fire.
“Fire authorities issue bushfire warnings to the media when the fire has progressed to become a public threat, at which time road closures are being implemented and this is often too late to implement your action plan whether it is to stay and defend or leave early. How can you possibly leave early if you dont know about the fire early?”
Mr Bosua rejects the idea that the CFA has been slack in passing oninformation about bushfires.
“We have been very active in informing communities about fire development,”he says.
“Go back to the Alpine fires of the 2002-03 summer – that was probably theturning point for us in stepping up in an operational sense to inform communityon a better basis that a community may be at risk before the fire actuallycauses them any risk, and then informing them of the progress of the fire.
“We go through different phases, if you like: there’s the initialinformation phase, then there’s the alert phase and then there’s the threatphase, which is about keeping the community informed of what is happening andwhat we are doing to deal with that situation, and trying to provide timelyadvice for people to make up their minds about what action they’ll do…that’sbeen happening since 2002.”
Mr Bosua says the Community Fireguard program doesn’t have an ‘editor’ as such.
“Part of the interaction they have is phone trees…it’s the localcommunity informing one another. We don’t edit that, we don’t have a process ofintervening in that. It’s about how we can provide information beforehand sothey can make a sound decision.
“Now, if we’ve got a process where someone sees a bit of smoke and doesnothing about investigating what that smoke is, but puts out a general alert,that will cause problems. It will cause alarm in the community, and causeunnecessary concern.
“What we need to do, is have a process that ensures that the informationthat’s being made available is appropriate – that it’s informed, it’s timely,that it goes to the right target audience, not just a scattergun approach.”
In 2005, ABC Local Radio was involved in the Community Warning and InformationSystem trials (CWIS). The trials tested the idea of sending emergency phonemessages to people living in any geographic area. The ABC in Victoria has alsosigned a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the state’s emergency servicesstating that whatever resources the ABC’s networks can offer will be availableto emergency services when and as necessary, to get information out to as manypeople as possible in the shortest possible time.
“That is working very effectively,” Mr Bosua says.
“The ABC – being prepared to cut into prime time when a situation requiresto keep the community – has been extremely successful.”
Whether people choose to take or leave the Bushfire Alert system is up toindividual consumers, Mr Bosua says.
“I see this product as a tool that some people could use – but they need tounderstand, it’s a commercial product and if it’s not used appropriately, itwill cause some people concern.”