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Reaching Communities in Disasters

Reaching Communities in Disasters

Many countries are working concurrently on next generation systems to enable the public to contact the emergency services and, conversely, for the emergency services to alert the community to a life-threatening event. The time is ripe for international cooperation and innovation in developing not only the capabilities but also the required global standards.

Australia has an annual “Disaster Season” that can impact on the community nation-wide. One of the worst was the “Black Saturday” bushfires in the State of Victoria in 2009. This caused the loss of 173 lives, destroyed 2,100 homes, displaced 7,652 people and burned 400,000 hectares. It also created the catalyst to develop a national telephony-based emergency warning system.

Funded by the Australian and Victorian State Governments, the Victorian Department of Justice has led two highly successful national projects to deliver an address-based and then a location-based telephone warning system, known as “Emergency Alert”.(EA) To achieve this, Australia partnered contractually with its three national Mobile Network Operators, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

In October 2009, the Australian and Victorian Governments introduced the address-based function for EA. This customised system relies on the geo-coding of the service address for every mobile and landline registered in Australia.

When the emergency services need to send an address-based warning to a community at risk, the EA system matches automatically the map coordinates for the warning area with the geo-codes for every telephone registered within the zone. The system sends the alert as a text-to-voice message to landlines and a SMS to mobiles. The text-to-voice message is up to 4,000 characters, and the system sends these at the rate of 1,000 calls per min. The SMS is up to 160 characters, and the system sends these at the rate of 500 per sec.

In November 2012, Telstra introduced the location-based function for EA on its 2G and 3G mobile networks. In October 2013, Optus and Vodafone joined Telstra to create a fully integrated location-based solution across Australia’s three mobile network operators. In January 2014, Telstra launched a 4G location-based solution.

The system uses this new location-based functionality to identify every mobile with a last recorded location within the map coordinates of the warning area. The emergency services can then send the alert as a SMS to all the mobiles detected. The system sends these at up to 500 per sec. Should a need arise in future requiring a higher delivery rate of SMS per sec, then one option is to invite each Mobile Network Operator to increase the capacity of its Short Message Service Centre.

Emergency services access the system through a single desktop application that sends messages simultaneously to all landlines and mobiles on every network. The system can handle multiple concurrent warning campaigns.

The telephone alert is authenticated through the unique originating number, +61 444 444 444,

EA adheres to the three essential principles of an effective system for community warnings and information:

Push – emergency services push out to the community the first call to action to alert the public to the incident and to seek more information.

Pull – individuals, households, families, etc., then pull more information from the sources they have been advised to check, and

Shared Responsibility – emergency services provide sufficient information to enable the community to then make good and timely decision to stay safe.

Over five years of continuous improvements to the system, emergency services across Australia have used EA almost 1,300 times to send close to 11 million warnings.

The location-based solution has a successful delivery rate of 93%. The other 7% tend to be devices, which are visible on the mobile networks but not configured to receive SMS.

The location-based solution uses the 3rd Generation Partnership Project global standards and technical specifications for SMS with which all handset manufacturers and network operators comply. This means that everyone in Australia can receive the alert without needing to opt in, register, or reconfigure their handset. It is also free to the public.

This world-first capability means EA can reach people at home and when travelling. It is also available equally to visitors roaming on Australia’s mobile networks. The only way to opt out of the service is to switch off your phone.

In April 2014, Australian Governments established the EA Program within Emergency Management Victoria, in the Department of Justice, I have been appointed as the National Director. My role is to lead the development of a sustainable service for the long-term that keeps pace with customer preferences and consumer behaviours as well as next generation technologies.

I am a passionate advocate of combining “people, process and technology” into the systems that help emergency services increase public safety. I spoke about this at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Telecommunications and Information Working Group in Brisbane in September 2014. The Australian Government Department of Communications hosted the event and used the Emergency Services Roundtable to promote an action plan amongst APEC member economies. The objective is to develop collaboratively the next generation of public safety communications systems. These will enable the public to contact the emergency services and the emergency services to reach the community.


A critical step in this cooperative initiative is collaboration on the global standards needed to ensure everyone gets the benefits of these capabilities. The learning from Australia’s EA system is that overseas visitors must be included when they roam on the host nation’s networks.

To do this requires international agreement on standards that ensure compliance by every handset manufacturer and network operator. This approach minimises the need for national regulation and ensures a fully inclusive public safety service. It also makes sure that no mobile device needs separate re-configuration by the user each time they visit
a different country.

Australia’s EA Program has looked at alternative approaches to public alerting systems. As Neil Bibby highlighted in his November 2014 article in the Asia-Pacific Fire Magazine, “It is not all about tweeting”, it is not sufficient for emergency services to “broadcast” a Tweet and assume that doing so discharges a duty to warn the whole community. Unless you subscribe to social media and know which channels to follow as you travel, the emergency services can exclude you from the public safety benefits enjoyed by those who do.

Similarly, while some countries use alternative mobile alerting systems, such as Cell Broadcast, these are not fully inclusive of the population and international visitors. This is because such systems require customised configuration of the national network and handsets sold on the local market. This excludes overseas visitors and those with other specification devices.

In addition, only EA provides the benefits of real-time monitoring. This in-built functionality enables the operator to know that their message is actually reaching the targeted community.

With EA, we can see on-screen in real-time how many users are within the warning area and then what proportion received the message. For an evacuation, we can check the system to see how many mobiles left the area since the alert went out. This real-time monitoring can also show the operator whether the hazard, has already damaged the telephone infrastructure. Post-event, the emergency service can access relevant metadata stored by the Mobile Network Operators to identify whether a specific devices received the message.

This performance monitoring, audit and accountability gives the community and emergency services enormous confidence in the system during a campaign and in any post-event reviews.

Through EA, Australia can demonstrate what can be achieved in learning from disasters. Today, we can push critical warning messages out to help communities affected by emergencies to make good and timely decisions about their safety. EA provides a lasting legacy to the memory of the 173 lives lost on “Black Saturday”.

We now want to work with our emergency service partners and the telecommunications industry around the world to build together the next generation of essential public safety systems. In particular, to share our experience and knowledge to inform global standards that will ensure inclusive access to these systems for everyone.

For further information, go to www.emergencyalert.gov.au

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National Director, Emergency Alert Program at the Department of Justice, Victoria

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