Bushfires reignite debate over early warning system

Bushfires reignite debate over early warning system

13 February 2009

published by www.watoday.com.au

Australia — The Victorian bush fire tragedy has reinvigorated debate over the installation of an early bushfire warning system pioneered by Western Australia’s emergency services.

The system, known as StateAlert, could send voice or SMS messages and warnings directly to affected communities to warn people of impending danger.

It was created by WA’s Fire and Emergency Services and Police in 2005 and successfully trialled in a regional community two years later.

However the Federal Telecommunications Act currently prohibits access to an electronic database that links telephone numbers with geographic locations, known as the Integrated Public Number Database.

The Minister for Emergency Services Rob Johnson said without access to the database the system could not be further tested and launched.

The Federal Attorney General Robert McClelland told ABC Radio that amendments to the legislation were “ready to go”.

“What the issues have been are to ensure that the system wouldn’t crash, in other words that you wouldn’t dislocate the normal emergency phone line, but it’s also been necessary to get the states on board,” he said.

Mr McClelland was questioned on whether the system should have been made a priority before Saturday’s deadly fires in Victoria, which have killed more than 180 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

“When I was in opposition, after visiting Hawaii where I saw their emergency warning system in operation, I reported that I believed there was a need for a warning system then,” he said.

“So I mean clearly, clearly it is desirable not only from an emergency point of view but from a counter-terrorism point of view, from a crime point of view, for instance in respect of Port Arthur.

“Clearly a warning system would be useful in respect to all those events and that is why it has been a real priority for the Rudd Government.”

Mr Johnson has written to Mr McClelland requesting the legislation be amended immediately.

StateAlert would automatically ring all landline phones, including silent numbers, in a defined geographical area but also offered residents the additional option of receiving messages via mobile phone, fax, internet alert and email.

Mr Johnson said StateAlert was much cheaper to use than a similar system provided by Telstra.

 “I understand that other States have expressed an interest in StateAlert, which costs about $400,000 to develop compared to a multi-million dollar price tag for the Telstra system,” he said.

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