Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bushfire text alerts off the mark

Sitting at home in inner-suburban Northcote last night, well clear of any bushfire danger, I received a text message from Victoria Police. The message read as follows:
Extreme weather in Vic expected Monday night & Tues. High wind & fire risk. Listen to ABC Local Radio for emergency updates. Do not reply to this msg.
There was no specific area warning because the messages were apparently not targeted to areas experiencing heightened risk of bushfire. In some cases, this caused alarm unnecessarily; in others, the vagueness of the message might have underplayed the risk in particular local areas where fire was a more immediate danger.

More than three weeks after Black Saturday, and with a targeted national fire warning system apparently stalled by bureaucratic red-tape, the communication of fire danger is still inadequate.

My immediate thought on receiving the text last night was why authorities couldn't use proximity to phone towers in areas of risk as a way of targeting the messages. This indeed is a proposed feature of the national alert system, together with targeting by address through the Telstra-managed national telephone database.

It is also worth asking if there were any warning calls to landlines last night. If not, that signifies a big gap in the coverage. With the message vague and indiscriminately sent, warning the safe and potentially missing those at risk, we need to do better. The fire season is still with us - improvement cannot wait for the long-winded process of a Royal Commission.

More coverage of the 2009 Victorian bushfires

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