Fire alert system offered, bushfires commission told

Fire alert system offered, bushfires commission told

15 May 2009

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Australia — An early warning system that could have alerted tens of thousands of Victorians on Black Saturday was not taken up by emergency services or the government.

In a yet-to-be-released submission to the royal commission, the Australian Early Warning Network says it offered its system to Victoria “at no cost” in the year leading up to the catastrophic fires.

The offer was first made to the office of Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin in late 2007 as an interim system, until a national alert system was approved.

“The Australian public is still TODAY (sic) at extreme risk from a catastrophic event which requires from government immediate treatment,” the submission says.

The opt-in system would have enabled authorities to send messages via email alerts, mobile/SMS text messages, pagers and landlines to pin-point locations and to anyone who asked to be on the system’s alert list.

Already 10,000 Australians, including many in Victoria, use the system, which sends messages warning of sudden and severe weather events.

Authorities can use the Early Warning Network’s databank to send messages using people’s names, streets, postcodes, towns or map locations to within an accuracy of 3-10m.

AEWN managing director Kerry Plowright confirmed last night he’d offered the system as early as October 31, 2007, but meetings with officials in the Emergency Services Department elicited no response.

The company’s 52-page submission claims its system might have saved lives. “We could have done something even a week before the fires,” Mr Plowright said yesterday.

The Federal Government has called for applications for a $42 million national early warning system initially using landlines only, which uses Telstra phone book numbers. But its introduction was delayed by squabbling over funding, passing of legislation to permit the use of Telstra’s database, and the tender process.

Mr Plowright said it was “understandable” Victorian authorities may have been reluctant to use a private system without extensive testing.

“That’s why we offered it to them with no strings attached . . . at no cost and without obligation.”

In evidence to the commission yesterday, an academic said many bushfire victims play a deadly “wait and see” game as fire approaches.

RMIT social science research fellow Dr Katharine Haynes, who researched 552 Australian bushfire deaths in the 100 years to 2007, said many had no survival plan, were confused, or waited too long.

“Some ignore the threat and others need the certainty of the threat,” she said.

Dr Haynes said her research showed people were confused by Victoria’s “stay and defend or leave early” policy.

Some do not know what “leave early” means and believe fleeing when they see smoke and flames is valid.

The biggest proportion of total bushfire deaths occur when people flee their homes as a fire approaches.

Dr Haynes said a large proportion of people wait and see. The trigger comes when they hear warnings from authorities or see heavy smoke — and by then it may be too late.

Of 552 deaths, 152 had been aware of the fire but had no plans or didn’t follow them, and 59 had been unaware of the fire and realised too late.

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