Doubts over new early warning system

   Doubts over new early warning system

1 May 2009

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Australia — A national telephone emergency warning system will be in place by next summer after the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed on its introduction yesterday.

Under the system, voice and text messages will be sent to landline and mobile telephones to warn of major emergencies like bushfires and floods.

But both politicians and technology experts acknowledge the scheme has problems that are still to be sorted out.

Victoria has been lobbying the Commonwealth and other states for a national telephone emergency warning system since the state’s 2003 bushfires.

But it took the devastation of February’s Black Saturday fires for COAG to finally agree to the fund the scheme.

The Commonwealth has committed $15 million towards the capital costs, and the states and territories will be responsible for its operation and funding.

The system will be used in addition to TV and radio alerts, doorknocking and the internet.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledges that it will not be perfect.

“This will not be a foolproof system for the future, but it does represent an important step forward in providing the best possible emergency warning system in the case of future natural disasters,” Mr Rudd said.

Dr Mark Gregory is the program director of network engineering at RMIT University.

He suspects that the problems of infrastructure security have not been fully thought through by the scheme’s proponents.

“If an earthquake or a flood or a fire took out a key part of infrastructure in the network, well then they will send messages out and those messages will never be received,” Dr Gregory said.

“There doesn’t appear to be any provision in this action for a review of the infrastructure, and the safety of the infrastructure, and how the infrastructure would withstand the effects of the particular emergency, whether it be fire, flood, earthquake.

“This warning system is only going to be useful if it actually works well in advance of the emergency, you know, taking out the infrastructure.”

Both Mr Rudd and Attorney-General Robert McClelland acknowledge that the technology to be used is not yet able to identify all the mobile phones in an affected area.

So the new warning system will initially send messages to mobile phones based on their billing address, not where the phone is at the time of the emergency.

But COAG agreed yesterday to research solutions to that glitch.

Dr Gregory believes it will be a challenging research project.

“Really what you’re talking about, is at a particular point in time accessing the actual infrastructure within a geographic location on all the different networks, and so if you’re talking mobile phones, you’re talking three different network providers,” he said.

“You’re going to need to access their infrastructure at a particular point in time, and identify all of the handsets within that geographic location at that point in time.

“Now that requires the service provider – the telecommunication company – making available this access, and the questions that may be raised as to whether or not they’re actually want to do that.”

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