Australia — Ongoing flaws in the system developed to alert residents and visitors of nearby bushfires threatens to leave thousands in the lurch during what has been described as one of Australias worst potential fire seasons.
The $60 million Emergency Alert system, which sends text messages or recorded voice messages to those believed to be in danger, was upgraded last month to allow mobile carriers to pinpoint the location of mobile users and determine if they are affected by nearby emergencies.
But Telstra confirmed this week that the system was not yet compatible with its 4G mobile network, meaning visitors to disaster areas may not receive an alert message.
The company has reported nearly a million devices on its 4G network across the country and is currently expanding coverage to reach approximately two-thirds of the Australian population.
Emergency Alert was first implemented in 2009 in the wake of Victorias Black Saturday bushfires, and has since been used to send more than seven million messages to those affected by natural disasters.
It relies on sending messages to the fixed phones and mobiles of those who had a known address in the area.
A location capability has been in development since late last year, following recommendations made by two separate reviews into the system. It meant that those who were passing through the area or visiting would also be notified of the emergency.
Telstra, which built the system under contract with the Victorian Government, is the only carrier to provide the location service over the current disaster season. Optus and Vodafone will join next year.
Optus said it has its own location system which it can use as an interim measure on request. It also proposed shutting down 4G services in the affected area to work around the issue currently faced by Telstra.
Emergency services at Port Lincoln in South Australia used the upgraded service for the first time last month to send 12,000 emergency alerts to those in danger of surrounding fires. Approximately a third of those messages sent are believed to have been based on the location of the user.
A Telstra spokesman said a fix was being developed but would not provide a time frame.
A handset attached to Telstra 4G may miss out on inclusion in the list of numbers to be alerted if the handset has not been used for voice calls in the alert area or has been located outside the alert area in the preceding hour or so, they said. Due to the different technology standard however, the sending of a SMS from a 4G [phone] will not trigger the location system.
We will be seeking to resolve this issue in future system updates.
Those phones connected to Telstras 4G network will still be included in the list if they make a phone call – which travels over the companys 3G networks – up to an hour before the emergency alert is distributed.
Victorias emergency services commissioner Michael Hallowes told The Australian Financial Review he had raised the limitation as a priority at a meeting last week with all three major mobile carriers.
We have rolled out the capability knowing there was a limitation with 4G but knowing we needed to get this out right now, he said. [I] made it very clear this is one area that weve got to work on particularly as were going to see a growth in 4G LTE and a solution has got to be found for this.
We are riding on the back of the existing constraints of mobile telephony and how the networks operate. Weve built this on that, were not in the position – we dont have the money – to completely reconfigure the networks for Emergency Alert.
Mr Hallowes said tests of the system, conducted in several states and using hundreds of thousands of handsets in early November, showed alert messages were successfully sent to registered mobile phones 95 per cent of the time, up from 66 per cent using the previous address-based system.
But incompatibility with 4G networks, the short time frame in which a mobile is considered to be in an area, as well as mobile coverage blackspots meant the system was never fool-proof.
Weve always been saying that this is just one of about a dozen mediums we use, and the community need to focus on, other than Emergency Alert to stay informed, Mr Hallowes said. One should never rely on waiting for a text message to trigger some action. It may be that the emergency services choose not to use Emergency Alert.
State emergency departments have warned the current summer season could make for one of the worst fire seasons for some years. The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.