Are disaster early warnings effective?

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Kerri WorthingtonSBS Radio
Katina MichaelUniversity of Wollongong
Peter JohnsonARUP
Paul BarnesQueensland University of Technology

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Australia's summer is traditionally a time of heightened preparation for natural disasters, with cyclones and floods menacing the north and bushfires a constant threat in the south. And the prospect of more frequent, and more intense, disasters thanks to climate change has brought the need for an effective early warning system to the forefront of policy-making. Technological advances and improved telecommunication systems have raised expectations that warning of disasters will come early enough to keep people safe. But are those expectations too high? Kerri Worthington reports. Increasingly, the world's governments -- and their citizens -- rely on technology-based early warning systems to give sufficient notice to prepare for disaster. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed well over a quarter of a million people led to the establishment of an early warning system for countries bordering the ocean. Last year, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono praised the system for warning people to prepare for a possible tsunami after an 8.6 magnitude quake in the ocean floor northwest of the country. Japan's years of preparedness is also credited for saving lives in the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. In Australia, the Federal Government has instigated an 'all-hazards' approach to early warnings, including terrorist acts as well as natural disasters, in the wake of a number of international terrorist attacks that affected Australians. Professor Katina Michael of the University of Wollongong specialises in technologies used for national security. Professor Michael has praised Australia's location-based national emergency warning system which allows service providers to reach people in hazardous or disaster areas, locating them through their mobile devices. "And that's a real new innovation for the Australian capability which I think is among the first in the world to actually venture into that mandated approach to location warning of individuals. And this allows people who are visiting a location, maybe working in a location they're not residing in, or maybe enjoying recreation activities in a location to be warned about a hazard." But there are concerns those systems can breed complacency. Peter Johnson is a fellow at Arup, a global firm of designers, planners, engineers and technical specialists. "There is a concern about people in communities being too reliant just on official warnings to trigger actions. There's people in the community who think 'well I don't need to do anything, I just have to wait and someone will tell me what to do' and ignore the personal responsibility for their response and actions, so that's an issue. There's another issue about official warnings in some cases may come too late in flash floods or days of very high fire danger and rapid spread." Mr Johnson says warnings need to be timely and relevant, with minimal false alarms to avoid 'warning fatigue', where people ignore alerts. That's an issue Victoria's County Fire Authority is currently grappling with. It's come under criticism after hundreds of people reported its FireReady app for mobile devices that gives location of fires and fire conditions, has proven to be unreliable. Many Victorians are anxious about early warning of impending fires, after many were taken by surprise -- with some fatal consequences -- in the Black Saturday fires of 2009. Fire experts say it's important not to rely only on one source of information for disaster warnings. And Peter Johnson says government bodies need to set warnings within an overall emergency management context. "We need the risk knowledge, we need the planning, the pre-event information and the broad season warnings and alerting us to days of flooding or total fire ban. Equally we need to understand, and probably better understand, the response of people and communities to those warnings and what actions are taking place." Paul Barnes, the coordinator of the Risk and Crisis Management Research Domain at the Queensland University of Technology, agrees early warning policies need to be part of a broader risk and hazard communication capability. "When we have natural and socio-technical disasters often we start with the natural phenomena, the natural threat. We had seismic activity, earthquakes in Japan, bushfires, flooding in Australia. But very quickly the impacts from that initial source impact on technical hazards, technical issues, so we lose infrastructure systems, we lose telephony. We also therefore have, in some cases, biological problems in terms of water supply being contaminated." Dr Barnes says often what starts out to be one type of problem quickly cascades into others, and information about ongoing issues needs to be communicated to the public. "Once the initial event occurs, there will be an ongoing need to have continuing types of information flow to the public about cascading elements and the connective elements of these sorts of impacts as they go through time. So the basic principle of the complexity of the situation and matching the sophistication and adaptability of information that needs to go to the public, and also those not affected -- emergency responders, government officials, etc -- is a very complex situation that requires some very sophisticated application of thinking."

Suggested Citation

Kerri Worthington, Katina Michael, Peter Johnson, and Paul Barnes. "Are disaster early warnings effective?" SBS Radio: World News Jan. 2013.
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