Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cautionary Tales of Inaccessibility Not Learned by Victorian Government

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C WAI)has released a set of "Cautionary Tales of Inaccessibility" to help promote good web design. I was contacted about details for "A Cautionary Tale of Inaccessibility: Sydney Olympics Website". Regrettably the Victorian Government Country Fire Authority Web Site may be added to this list. An automated test indicates that the CFA home page failed a W3C WAI Version 1 test, with 1 error at level 1, 36 at level 2, and 15 at level 3. The page also failed a W3C HTML Validation test, with 230 errors and 37 warnings. The page also failed the W3C mobileOK Checker tests.

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission identified deficiencies in the online distribution of bushfire information by the Victorian Government. Some media reports indicate that the CFA web site failed yesterday.

Any ICT professional involved with bushfire web sites must be aware that they have ethical as well as legal obligations to ensure that the systems they provide are operating correctly. Arguing that the web site is not essential and that citizens can get information from radio or other sources is not a valid defence, nor is arguing that they do not have sufficient resources, nor that they did not have the authority, or were ordered not to fix the flaws in the system. Professionals are required to act in the public interest, regardless.

The design of web sites for emergency use, including in bushfires is not a new field and there are some established approaches. I outlined some of these, along with methods of using the web for investigations, for the staff of the Victorian bushfire inquiry:

Role of ICT in Emergency Management

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

National Emergency Alert system from next week

The Victorian Premier has announced that the National Emergency Alert system had been tested and will be ready for use next week. Unfortunately there is no emergency information system to back this up with detailed information about the emergency. As a result the National Emergency Alert system is of little value and may cause more harm than good.

The system, developed by Telstra, was previously called the National Emergency Warning System, and can deliver 300 text messages per second and 1000 voice messages per minute.The initial system will use the registered address of the telephone or mobile service and so not be able to target travelling users.

A test recorded audio message was sent containing the Australian Standard Warning Signal. The test text message was:

+6144 444 444

EMERGENCY TEST MESSAGE from the Victorian Government to test the new telephone emergency warning system NO ACTION REQUIRED For more info

In neither case was the recipient required to take any action. Reception was gauged by random phone poll afterwards. The Victorian government has not released the results of the test. The Victorian Premier should release the results of the test for independent and public review.

Unfortunately the web site people referred to is a policy and administrative one, and contains no useful information about actual emergencies. Having a system which can deliver an emergency message is of little value unless those warned can be referred to more detailed information relevant to the specific emergency. The Victorian government needs to follow the practice adopted by the ACT Government and have a web page specifically about current emergencies.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lack of Australian emergency warning standard risks lives

Australian Fire Danger Ratings chart with levels: Low-Moderate, High, Very High, Severe, Extreme and Catastrophic (Code Red).For this bushfire season a new Australian National Emergency Warning System has been introduced. Unfortunately there appears to be no standard issued for the formatting of the messages and no harmonisation with other warning messages. As a result this will make it difficult to relay the messages quickly and reliably via media such as SMS. This could result in delayed, misleading or lost messages, with loss of life, as happened in the Victorian Brushfires last year.

After last season when more than 100 lives were lost in Australia a new "Catastrophic (Code Red)" level has been added. There will be increased use on radio of the radio of the Australian Standard Emergency Warning Signal. There are now three Alert levels and warning messages: "Advice", "Watch and Act" and "Emergency Warning".

What is required is a precisely defined format for the messages to be issued. This format must be compatible with the systems which will be used to transmit the messages, including SMS. The message format and language must be consistent with that of other warning messages, including Tsunami warnings. Failure to do this risks lives.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Victorian Government asking for mobile phone bushfire system

The Victorian Government has issued a Request for Information (RFI) for "Location Based Identification of Active Mobile Handsets for Emergency Notification Purposes (SS-06-2009, 6 August 2009, closing 28 October 2009). There is a four page document (pdf format, 572 kBytes). Appended is an excerpt from the Statement of Requirements in the document.

There some obvious flaws in the RFI. The first is that the RFI is assuming a particular technical solution to the problem of altering people to an emergency. Specifically the RFI refers to Location Based Identification of Active Mobile Handsets". This assumes it is feasible, legal, safe and necessary to identify where handsets are, in order to issue a localised bushfire warning. As I have discussed in a number of presentations this year, this is not necessary and may not be desirable. A further problem is the the time for the RFI, to which a decision is not expected until late February 2010.

Victoria has an urgent need for bushfire emergency warning systems. By selecting a solution which will involve complex technical and legal issues and by cutting off alternatives which may be better, even before an RFI is issued, the Victorian Government is delaying the implementation of a workable system and thus placing at further risk its citizens. There is a risk that a complex system will take longer to produce and will be less reliable. Also producing a system which too precisely tracks where citizens are will create privacy concerns and may also give a false sense of the precision of the information which citizens will receive. Victoria should aim to build a simple robust system first. In addition Victoria has to build and test a clear chain of command for who can decide to issue warnings using the system.

RFI Part B – Statement of Requirements

Department of Treasury and Finance – Government Services Group

Request for Information for Location Based Identification of Active Mobile Handsets for Emergency Notification purposes

COAG has agreed to take immediate steps to enhance Australia’s natural disaster arrangements through the development of a telephone-based emergency warning system that will enable the States and Territories (the States) to deliver warnings to landline and mobile telephones, based on the billing address of the subscriber, to be operational by October 2009 and to undertake further research into a capability to deliver warnings based on the location of a mobile telephone.
Communication with potentially affected individuals before, during and after emergencies is critical and it is an area where the States and the emergency service organisations can leverage telecommunications technology to greater advantage as the provision of information to individuals during emergencies can make a critical difference.

The delivery of emergency warnings to landline and mobile telephones, based on the billing address of the subscriber, component is being addressed through the NEWS (National Emergency Warning System) Request for Tender (RFT) for all States except Western Australia. Western Australia will deliver their emergency warning messages using WA StateAlert.

We recognize that individuals have become increasingly mobile and we acknowledge that location based identification of active mobile handsets within a geographically defined emergency area will provide an efficient and effective method to notify potentially affected individuals.

To further our research into the identification of location based active mobile handsets for the purpose of emergency warning notification, and to potentially supplement the NEWS, we are seeking an understanding of your wireless location based capability in this regard.

This document describes the background for seeking an understanding of location based identification of active mobile handsets, for the purpose of emergency warning notification, with a view to incorporating this technology within the NEWS.


Both Federal and State government have undertaken research to determine the most effective method of notifying individuals of impending or existing emergency events that could have an impact on the welfare of individuals within the geographically defined emergency area.

Consumer trends reveal that the preferred method of communication with an individual is the mobile telephone.

Australia has a mobile telephone saturation point in excess of 100% and this is currently increasing.1

Australia: Population and Cellular Market Penetration ...

At the same time the domestic penetration of fixed line telephone is decreasing. ...


It is our aim to understand current and future capability of mobile location based services that are able to be provided by a solution provider.
We would further like to understand your view of network or other component enhancements that may be necessary to enable the location based identification of active mobile handsets for the purpose of emergency warning notification.
We would also like to understand the current impediments that exist which may prevent location based technology from being utilised to identify active mobile handsets within a defined emergency area.

These expectations may vary based on locality of emergency event and the type of emergency event. These expectations will be further explored based on requirement for accuracy, speed of delivery, delivery indicator and network load. We aim to understand what degree of certainty and accuracy can be achieved through the different methods of targeting location based active handset messaging.

Emergency event types may dictate a requirement for outbound messages to be delivered to targeted active mobile handsets. This requirement may range from naturally occurring events, with an amount of lead time before the event is predicted to occur through to more urgent man-made, instantaneous emergency events concentrated in Capital city Central Business District precincts.

Examples of the message volumes for mass dissemination are in the range of 1,000 messages for specific public safety messages where precision of accuracy is required, 5,000 for town or shire type notification, 20,000 for metropolitan targeted warning, 50,000 for widespread urban events such as flooding through to 100,000 upwards for extreme and CBD centric events.

Emergency warning messages may be disseminated using either voice or text.
It will be essential to understand the capability and precision of location based identification of active mobile handsets across CBD, metropolitan, urban and rural localities.

This understanding of capability across different cell density and cell types will further allow emergency service organisations to structure their emergency warning processes and procedures appropriately and with a clear understanding of what the technology can provide based on locality and requirement of the emergency event type. This exercise may require a collaborative and open approach between government with

The table below illustrates various emergency event types and fundamental requirements to be met as part of delivering that type of emergency warning.

Table 1

Wireless Technology Characteristics ...

Response Required

As location based services mature, and for certain emergency event types, it would be envisaged that:

  • the technology will have the ability to receive notifications about any new mobile devices entering a previously specified emergency area to alert the user that, for example, an emergency services vehicle has arrived at a location, or a civilian has entered the area and may be unaware of the emergency
  • the technology will include the ability to receive notifications for any mobile devices exiting the defined emergency area. This could facilitate the creation of an evacuation list of people who are still remaining in the emergency area
  • the technology will be able to locate specific mobile devices in both 2G and 3G networks, and overlay their position onto a map.
  • the technology will have the ability to provide sufficient privacy and authentication checking mechanisms to ensure mobile location security

This understanding of a Respondent’s ability to identify location based active mobile handsets will enable governments to consider any future adoption of this capability ...

From: "Location Based Identification of Active Mobile Handsets for Emergency Notification Purposes, SS-06-2009, Request for Information (RFI), Department of Treasury and Finance, Victorian Government, 6 August 2009

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Location Based Services for Emergency Management

Today I was interviewed by Anas Aloudat at the University of Wollongong for new research on Location-Based Services for Emergency Management. This is very timely work, give the issue of alerting for bushfires.

Already published:
  1. "Location-Based Services for Emergency Management: A Multi-Stakeholder Perspective", Anas Aloudat, K. Michael, and Roba Abbas. The Eighth International Conference on Mobile Business (ICMB 2009). Dalian, China: IEEE Computer Society, 2009. 1-6.
  2. "The Current State of Commercial Location-based Service Offerings in Australia", Roba Abbas, K. Michael, M.G. Michael, and Anas Aloudat. The Eighth International Conference on Mobile Business (ICMB 2009). Dalian, China: IEEE Computer Society, 2009. 1-8.
  3. "Location-Based Services in Emergency Management- from Government to Citizens: Global Case Studies", A. Aloudat, K. Michael, and J. Yan.Recent Advances in Security Technology (1 ed). Ed. P. Mendis, J. Lai, E. Dawson and H. Abbass. Canberra, Australia: Australian Homeland Security Research Centre, 2007. 190-201.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Interim Report

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Interim Report was released today. The recommendations relating to the use of ICT, the Internet and the web are well thought out. The report is in the form of a set of reasonably well formatted, efficiently web pages.

The report executive summary scored 32 out of 100 on the W3C mobileOK Checker, which is better than many web pages. One flaw is that images for the report have been marked with hyperlinks labelled "CLICK FOR IMAGE". It would have been better to include a small preview image or have a link on the caption of the image. The executive summary failed an automated web accessibility test (WCAG 2) with 517 problems, which are easily correctable.
ICT related recommendations:
  • RECOMMENDATION 4.5: The State ensure that the Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) be used in Victoria to precede each bushfire warning or group of warnings for bushfires that are dangerous or extremely dangerous, particularly for a fire that is burning out of control and poses a threat to human life, subject to appropriate limits on the maximum frequency of use.
  • RECOMMENDATION 4.8: The Australian Government, Council of Australian Governments and the State determine whether it is technically possible to implement the second phase of the national telephony-based warning system (that is, the delivery of warning messages to mobile phones based on the physical location of a handset at the time of the emergency) with a view to implementation for the 2009–10 bushfire season.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5.2: The Bureau of Meteorology include the Forest Fire Danger Index and the Grass Fire Danger Index in its fire weather warnings and general weather forecasts on its website and in material distributed to the media.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5.3: The State ensure that a single, multi-agency portal for bushfire information be established that uploads information simultaneously to both CFA and DSE websites.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Victorian Internet Bushfire Warnings

A Proposed Interim Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was presented by the Counsel Assisting on 2 July 2009. The draft report in a 63 page PDF document (536 kbytes). Several of the key findings and recommendations relate to the use of the Internet, the web and other ICT.

The commission has done a very thorough and thoughtful job in collecting, analysis and collation of a large amount of information and making sensible relevant recommendations. The recommendations for having a single bushfire emergency web site and using visual as well as text based information and to be designed to function during periods of extreme demand are key. For several years I have been teaching students of the Australian National University how to design emergency web sites.

One criticism I would have of the recommendations which relate to the use of ICT is that they are made peace meal, under the various topics. A key problem which this therefore does not address is the peace meal nature of the resulting systems. What is needed is one system which is used to prepare one consistent collection on bushfire which can be disseminated using different technology to different people.

As an example the commission recommends that warnings be read on air on the ABC, but I suggest that these warnings should also be available via the ABC's web site and particularly their mobile web site and via the RSS and other feed systems the ABC uses.

Also while the commission recommends one single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria, in my opinion, this does not go far enough. Bushfire is not the only form of emergency which Victoria is subject to. Therefore the Victorian government should provide one emergency information website for all forms of life threatening emergencies in Victoria, including bus fires.

One issued raised by a submission to the inquiry, but not taken up by the commission in its recommendations is the resilience of the proposed National Broadband Network in an emergency. As I have pointed out, the government has not set does not have use of the NBN in an emergency as a priority. If the NBN is not designed to operate during a power failure or in other emergencies, as it beings to replace conventional PSTN telephones, the risk to the public will increase as a result.
2.2. Construction, content of warnings
Key findings ...

(e) CFA bushfire warnings are assigned three “levels”: Awareness, Alert and Urgent Threat. Ideally, each such warning is posted (in a timely fashion) to the CFA website, read aloud on ABC radio and provided to the VBIL. The evidence before the Royal Commission is that on 7 February 2009 this did not always occur in a timely fashion. ...

2.3. Specific methods of delivering warnings.

2.3.1. Single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria.
Key findings

(a) The public rely on fire agency websites for accurate and up to date information about fires in their area. ...

(b) Currently CFA and DSE maintain separate websites. CFA and DSE are working to present bushfire information on a single website. ...

Proposed recommendations

(a) A single, multi‐agency bushfire information website for Victoria be established and operational for the 2009‐2010 fire season.
(b) The website must provide timely, accurate and up to date bushfire information posted by the fire agencies, that is consistent with the bushfire information being delivered through other modes, including the VBIL and ABC radio. The website must be designed to communicate information quickly and simply, using visual as well as text based information and have the capacity to function during periods of extreme demand.
(c) The website be designed to allow Incident Control Centres (ICCs) to post bushfire information directly to the website.

2.3.2. Standard Emergency Warning Signal
Key findings
(a) The Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) is not itself a ”warning”. Rather, it is a distinctive alert tone or signal broadcast prior to warnings for major emergencies. It is designed to “alert listeners/viewers of radio/television that an official emergency announcement is about to be made concerning an actual or potential emergency which has the potential to affect them”. ...

(b) The current protocol for the use of SEWS requires the control agency to request the police to authorise its use. Victoria Police (via the Divisional Emergency Response Coordinator) then sends an “Emergency Warning Notice” to the media. On receipt of that formal request to issue a warning, the media are expected to broadcast the warning message, preceded by the distinctive “SEWS tone” for 15 seconds.
(c) SEWS was not used on 7 February 2009 in Victoria. Its use is not referred to in the Emergency Management Manual. Indeed, SEWS has not been regularly used in Victoria, because of concerns that it can be overused and thereby become ineffective and the possibility that it might cause “confusion”. ...
(d) There is no research to suggest that use or “overuse” of SEWS has caused any significant confusion or inconvenience in the community. ...
(e) The Commonwealth has been considering a “relaunch” of SEWS, however it ceased that work in anticipation of the findings of this Royal Commission. ...
(f) SEWS is useful in alerting people to the content of a warning message to follow, and it has been used in South Australia (since 2005) for that very purpose. ...

Proposed recommendations

(a) The Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) must be used in Victoria to precede each Urgent Threat message in relation to a bushfire and in all circumstances where lives are at risk by reason of bushfire.
(b) The Emergency Management Manual Victoria should be amended to provide that:
(i) the use of SEWS is to precede each urgent threat message issued in relation to a bushfire;
(ii) the use of SEWS is required in all circumstances when lives are at risk; and
(iii) the use of SEWS may be authorised during bushfires by the Chief Officer of the CFA or the Chief Officer of DSE.
(c) The State Government to commence an intensive education campaign to inform the Victorian community that the distinctive SEWS signal will be used before each Urgent Threat message for bushfires and in all circumstances where lives are at risk by reason of bushfire.
(d) The ABC, CFA and DSE to implement a streamlined process for the use of SEWS on ABC radio and television.
(e) The CFA and DSE to invite commercial operators to enter into a Memoranda of Understanding in relation to the dissemination of bushfire warning messages and a process for the use of SEWS by those operators.

2.3.3. Community Information and Warning Systems and Dissemination of Warnings
Key findings

(a) In 2005, the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner (OESC), in partnership with Telstra, ran a successful trial of an opt in land line telephony based community warning system in two communities in Victoria. ...

(b) Since the 2005 trial, Victoria’s position has been that a national community information and warning system should be implemented. Victoria has advocated this position forcefully at the highest levels, including in communications between the Premier and the Minister for Police and the Commonwealth. ...

(c) The use of a nationally consistent community information warning system drawing on such technology is supported in an AFAC Discussion Paper: “A National Systems Approach to Community Warnings”, 3 June 2009. ...

(d) On 2 October 2008, COAG formally noted that “A nationally – consistent community emergency warning system will enhance the current capability to provide timely and accurate warnings in the event of emergencies and provide useful information and advice on individual and community responses. COAG has requested that all remaining tasks, including a cost – benefit analysis, be completed by the end of 2008”. ...

(e) But the period between 2006 and 2009 was largely characterised by delay. There was extended debate between Commonwealth departments about the need for legislative amendment to facilitate access to the Integrated Public Numbers Database (IPND). ...

(f) On 3 December 2008, the Attorney General wrote to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy stating: “As noted by COAG, a telephony based warning system has the potential to save lives”. ...

(g) During the period 2004 to 2009, the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy maintained the view that changes to the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) were necessary to permit access by emergency services to the IPND. ...

(h) The delay was also in part due to the fact that until after the 2009 fires, the States and the Commonwealth had not agreed on the appropriate model for a national system. ...

(i) In March 2009, the necessary amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) were made. ...

(j) On 2 March 2009, after the February 2009 fires, and before the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) amendments were made, Victoria Police and the OESC determined to issue a mass warning message via SMS in order to warn of predicted severe weather.

Telstra was instrumental in the arrangements for the dissemination of the message. A review conducted in relation to this event revealed a high rate of recall by recipients and “success” in terms of the message delivery. ...

(k) The SMS message was able to be sent by Telstra because access to the IPND was not required, as Telstra simply sent the message to its customers using their billing addresses. Out of "an abundance of caution", Telstra was also supplied with a certificate from Victoria Police which stated that the message was necessary to be sent by reason of a "serious and imminent threat" to life. Although this certificate echoes the wording of the exception in s287 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth), Telstra did not in fact purport to rely on that section. Indeed, Mr Consolo accepted in evidence that Telstra has always possessed the capacity to send such an SMS message to its customers, though this message offers no "geo‐coding" function. Mr Esplin, in his evidence, noted that the agreement of carriers to take such a step was, in his view, unlikely to have been obtained prior to the events of 7 February 2009. ...

(l) On 30 April 2009, following a COAG meeting, the Commonwealth announced that COAG had agreed to implement a national telephone emergency warning system. The first stage (which COAG said would be in place by October 2009) will provide warnings in the form of recorded voice messages and SMS messages to the billing addresses of landline and mobile phones. A second stage of the system that would permit sending of
phone messages based on the location of the telephone handset is to be investigated. ...

(m) Despite the development of this new technology, it is clear that multiple methods of dissemination of warnings should continue to be used for the following reasons:

(i) members of the community may obtain information in a variety of ways including websites, telecommunications, radio and informal networks – and tend to like to confirm information received with other sources; and
(ii) it is advisable to preserve multiple modes of disseminating warnings (including old technology such as sirens, door to door visits, radio and new technology such as SMS, official websites, informal websites, Twitter, Facebook) to reach the broadest possible audience and to guard against failure of any single mode of communication. ...

(a) The Commonwealth and COAG should ensure that implementation of stage one of the new national emergency warning system prior to bushfire season 2009‐2010.
(b) The State of Victoria should be an active participant in the development, implementation and operation of the new national emergency warning system.
(c) The State of Victoria should immediately commence a program of community education in order to ensure that Victorians are well informed about the proper use of and response to the use of the new national emergency warning system, particularly in the event of bushfire, prior to the 2009‐2010 season. Such community education program to draw on the experiences of the “Community Information and Warning System: The Report of The Trial and Evaluation”, OESC (2006) ...
(d) If by September 2009, it appears unlikely that the first phase of the national system will be operational, the State of Victoria to make representations to the Commonwealth Government with a view to securing a commitment that the system will be available at least in Victoria’s Bushfire Risk Zones by bushfire season 2009‐2010.
(e) Multiple means of disseminating warning message should be retained including the continued use of ABC broadcasts, a single multi agency website (see proposed recommendation 2.3.1) and sirens where adopted by particular communities (see proposed recommendation 2.3.4).

2.3.5. Publication of Fire Danger Index forecasts
Key findings

(a) The Bureau of Meteorology routinely forecasts the Forest Fire Danger Index and the Grass Fire Danger Index (collectively the Fire Danger Index or FDI) and provides these forecasts to the fire agencies. ...
(b) The FDI forecasts are not included in the general weather forecasts posted on the Bureau’s website or distributed to the media. They are made available to the public only in the fire weather forecasts posted on the Bureau’s website on the afternoon before the day in question. ...
(c) A number of lay witnesses wanted to see the FDI forecasts published more widely. ...

Proposed recommendations
(a) The Bureau of Meteorology include the Forest Fire Danger Index and Grass Fire Danger Index in its fire weather warnings and general weather forecasts posted on its website and distributed to the media. ...

4.9. Application to those in places other than homes – e.g. schools, nursing homes, hospitals

Proposed Recommendations – stay or go (key findings 4.1‐4.9)

(ii) that before the commencement of the 2009 ‐ 2010 fire season they be revised and enhanced to clearly convey the following ...

(M) Advice about when to leave, incorporating a cascading series of triggers
(noting that a warning may not be received and should not be relied upon)
namely ...
• When you are advised to be on alert in relation to a fire that has
commenced. This requires that you pay attention to fire information sources (ABC, fire agency website) on days of total fire ban and extreme fire risk. ...

8. Detection of fires
8.1. Early detection, mapping and prediction of fire spread
Key findings ...

(n) Threat messages issued concerning the Kilmore East fire prior to 18.00 on 7 February 2009 made no reference to the anticipated frontal change. ...

(p) Kilmore ICC authorised at 16.10 on 7 February 2009 release of threat message warning communities from Kinglake to Strath Creek of fire. That message did not appear on the CFA website. ...

(r) Narbethong was the subject of a threat message on the DSE website at 16.45 on 7 February 2009 and Marysville was the subject of a threat message on the DSE website at 17.15 on 7 February 2009. ...

19.2. Communications infrastructure

Key findings

(a) Warnings, both formal and informal, are communicated by a range of means including mobile and fixed line telephones, radio, television and the internet. Members of the public need to be able to contact emergency services in an emergency.

Communications within and between emergency services agencies are vital to an effective and co‐ordinated emergency response. A reliable and robust communications infrastructure is therefore essential.

(b) The Commission has heard evidence that indicates that Victoria’s communications infrastructure was placed under great stress on 7 February, and that there were difficulties in communicating with and within emergency services, and generally. ...

(c) To date the Commission has heard evidence from the ABC, ACE Radio Broadcasters, Telstra, ESTA, DSE, CFA and Victoria Police in respect of public radio and television, fixed and mobile telephone networks, managed radio networks and the operation of emergency call services. Some of these communications media performed well on 7 February, others less so. ...

(d) The Commission has also heard evidence that indicates that communications in some parts of Victoria are less than optimal under normal conditions. ...

Proposed recommendations
(a) No further recommendation is proposed. Victoria’s communications infrastructure will be the subject of evidence in future hearings. ...

From: Proposed Interim Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Counsel Assisting, 2 July 2009.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Role of the web in bushfire warnings

The 2009 Victorian Brushfires Royal Commission is addressing the issue of the role of the web in providing warning to the public. Professor John Handmer, author of "Handbook of Disaster and Emergency Policies and Institutions", gave evidence on 16 June 2009. The statement is not yet online (the commission secretariat told me they have some "technological issues" with statements at present), but the Transcript of Proceedings is. Below are some excerpts dealing with the web and Internet. I agree with the general approach suggested by Professor Handmer, but would like to see simple efficient web mark-up used for warnings, rather than plain text.
You note in paragraph 16 that the audience for a warning may be hugely variable and towards the end of that paragraph you note that, "People go to different sources. Some community members may be habitual uses of the internet, others might be more likely to turn to the radio, others might use personal networks. There are different preferred modes of receiving information." How does that then impact on the way that one should take care to disseminate warnings?---Ideally - I mean the community at risk is infinitely diverse. Each individual, we could argue, has a unique preferred way of receiving a warning, but at some level we have to stop, I suppose. But ideally the modes that are the preferred ways for that community at risk to receive their information should be the modes that are used, given whatever is practical, and that means, almost always it means that there would be several modes.

So it would be preferable in your view to use the internet as well as ABC Radio and perhaps even give consideration to other modes like phone calls or Twitter sites?---Yes, that's right. They are all reasonably technological means. One could argue that in many communities to ensure that the more vulnerable people - it depends on the community - are reached, we would probably need to get into the local networks, the personal networks or the community networks to try to activate, if you like, the neighbourhood to make sure that people who may not receive warnings via those modes receive them either by direct personal contact or some other way, and that they make sure that they are in a position to take what sort of protective action is needed. But this is tapping into what we call the informal warning system. Is there another benefit to disseminating by more than one means, namely in case of failure of one means or imperfect delivery of one means during a crisis?---That's right. We would argue that reliance on any single mode of dissemination is pretty risky, partly because it is not going to get to everybody no matter what it is and, secondly, any single mode is subject to failure or congestion or interruption.

The next aspect you turn to in your statement is timeliness and you note in paragraph 17, "A warning should be delivered in a timely manner so as to allow people to confirm what they have to do and take action in time." Is that a feature you have noticed in your research, that people usually seek confirmation from further sources before they act?---There are two things that come out of the research, main things. One is what you have just said, that people will almost always seek confirmation. Officials will, too. But people at risk will seek confirmation usually by mobilising their personal networks or if they hear something, read something on the web, listen to the radio or TV or ring somebody or vice versa. This is pretty normal and we have found often people - they also might want to ascertain the location of other household members. There are a number of things go on typically before people take action. The other thing we have noticed is that very frequently people receive the warning or at least understand that the warning is important to them too late to do anything useful. ...

Websites. Can we go to question 5, which starts at page 0018, and you note in paragraph 67 that web-based material has really become the primary source of information in our society. In paragraph 69 you make some points about who uses the internet. You say that even though it seems ubiquitous, in 2006 about a quarter of Victorians didn't have internet access. So, although that is a declining proportion, that needs to be kept in mind. That comes from the census data, is that right?---That's right. So it remains the case that the web is not a fix all. One would need to keep in mind promoting messages through ABC Radio and other means?---That's right. The point there is that a proportion of households, and they are likely to be people who are more vulnerable, elderly people and so on, do not have web access. It is also an interesting thing that people who promote the web as a vehicle for warnings have an implicit assumption that people are out there actively seeking their warnings on the web. We don't have evidence for that.

That's an important point you make at point 3: "Websites offer a passive form of warning. That is, they don't alert you to come and read them, although you will find the message if you go and look for it"?---That's true. There are a variety of ways of overcoming that and making websites active through all kinds of tools that can send the messages to you now, Widgets, Twitter and so on. But, nevertheless, the basic principle is that a website is a passive form of warning.

It could be used in conjunction, though, couldn't it, with those other tools you mentioned. If there was a SEWS signal played on the radio or an automated phone call or a text message, part of which suggested looking at a website, that might combine the call to action with finding more information on the website?---It could, or it could simply be that the material on the website is sent to your mobile phone or whatever by one of these devices and there are several possibilities with that.

You note over the page on 0019 some issues about currency and reliability and the issues which may arise when a website is under heavy demand. We touched on this when you spoke of your own experience on 7 February. Is there a way to address the situation when websites are under heavy demand and therefore slow down or even become inaccessible?---They tend to slow right down, that's right. There are a number of ways of addressing it.

Probably the simplest way is for people to take the information off the site automatically and feed it onto other sites or other systems. In the fires on February 7th the material from the CFA site was re-posted, if you like, via Twitter. There was an unofficial site, CFA updates, which was a Twitter site, and that is still active, actually. That was one of a number of sites that on the day took material unofficially from the site. There is a way of doing it which is quite legitimate and CFA encourage it. So, that's one way. What that does is take the load off the site. Another way is to ask people not to use it or to restrict access, but that doesn't seem very promising to me, given that we actually want people to use it, but that's a standard response. Otherwise, there are a number of technical ways of doing this which I outline in the paper. They are basically about reducing the degree of interactivity with the site, so that when you go into the site you don't actually - what you get is just sitting there. The amount of processing power that site needs to use is limited one way or another. Things like graphics, logos and so on, which we have more and more of them on our sites, are pretty hungry for memory.

The idea is not to use them in these emergency situations. In one sense it is an argument for moving to a different website mode in a major emergency when you know the demand is going to be great. I don't know whether I mention it here, but after the tsunami the British Commonwealth and Foreign Office or Foreign and Commonwealth Office website on travel advisories and so on switched to a text only mode for precisely this reason.

And that reduces the memory use?---That's right. It can handle a lot more inquiries.

I note in paragraph 72 you suggest, if we just deal with websites bit by bit, you suggest first of all that it would be useful for there to be one website rather than the DSE and the CFA websites?---A lot of people are arguing this, that there should be one website, but it is a trade-off, I want to say, as well, because if there is one website, all the problems we are talking about in terms of website overload and so on are exacerbated. The solution of course is that there are two sites but they mirror each other's content.

So two sites with the same content or multiple sites with the same content may help?---Yes. I think a single site in terms of content is the ideal, but if we look at the practicalities and the reliability, we are much better off having a number of sites.

Is there also potential to enable information within a website to be hived off, namely to enable people to look at particular messages pertaining to particular parts of Victoria so that they are using different pages or different information at the one time?---Yes, there are a range of devices and so on that can be embedded in sites to do that, and even to send them to the people concerned. You set out all these matters working through to paragraph 80 in the statement. Paragraph 77 is where you deal with the RSS feed. This is the capacity you spoke of for the material on an internet site to be mirrored, if you like, over on a Twitter site?---Yes, but not quite. The RSS feeds really just take key information. They don't take the whole information of the site. That is one reason why they can actually feed information on to sites like

Twitter or even mobile phones if the system is enabled. They take headliners, basically.

Dealing with sirens, which is question 6 - - -

COMMISSIONER PASCOE: Before we leave the websites, a question about the Bureau of Meteorology site which had, we are told, 70 million hits on the day and is used to having a massive - - -?---It is the most popular in Australia, I think, the most popular government site.

I don't know whether you have looked at the features of that site and what enables that site to cope with the heavy demand vis-a-vis the sites that we have just been talking about and whether there are any lessons we can learn from the bureau website?---I'm sure there are, but I haven't personally investigated them, but a lot of the bureau's material is in very basic text form and I think that's probably one of the key features of enabling that site to handle such loads. But I think that would be a worthwhile. I think it is the fourth most popular site in the country. ...

Turning to new technology, question 7, this is a matter you discuss in paragraphs 91 onwards and you refer to the new technologies which have emerged. You make the point in paragraph 93 it is important not to overlook our longstanding communication technologies, including radio. In paragraph 95 you say that it is important to distinguish between new technologies that deal with the centralised systems, such as CAP, and those that relate to individualised information. I take it from what you say here there is certainly a role for new technologies to play and it is a field that continues to develop?---I think the new technologies, in terms of delivering a message, as we were discussing, to the people at risk, have only very recently started to play a major role, but it has been quite quick and now most people in our society, I would say the majority of people by far use either a mobile phone, text, are very familiar with texting and the internet as their normal means of gaining and sending information or whatever. So we have to use them if we want to reach particular audiences and there are many variations of those modes.

Because you mention in paragraph 98 Facebook sites that are mostly post-fire, but Facebook sites, MySpace sites and in paragraph 99 the Twitter site as new technologies being used by portions of the community that ought not be overlooked?---That's right. Some of these played a role, like Twitter sites, in warnings. There is anecdotal evidence that people got warnings on Facebook because they were looking at some aspect of Facebook and suddenly some message came across. But people weren't using Facebook, as far as I can see, for warning purposes but it fulfilled that role.

At paragraph 100 you refer to phones and mobile phones and you make the point obviously they are very familiar. For landline phones, about halfway through paragraph 100, you note the technology which enables locations connected to landlines to be selected which could be used to delimit areas. That might be useful, for example, in any automated phone warning system?---Yes. That's the idea, yes.

You point out the advantages, but also the disadvantages. There may be lack of mobile phone coverage, there may be issues with phone traffic?---And there is a privacy issue with unlisted numbers and so on. But, yes.

Are you familiar with the recent announcement by the Commonwealth government to now establish a national phone automated warning system?---Yes, I am familiar with that. You refer to the common alerting protocol. It, as you mention there, is really a mode of standardising the content of warnings to ensure that it is the same over different modes of dissemination?---Yes. The common alerting protocol relates to what we were discussing a while ago, the write-it-once concept. As you say, it is a standardised message, it has a standardised format and then the idea is that this message can then be disseminated over any number of digital modes. So it has that advantage of speed and also has advantages in being able to go on multiple modes that perhaps would have to be manually uploaded in the past. ...

From: Transcript of Proceedings , 2009 Victorian Brushfires Royal Commission , TUESDAY 16 JUNE 2009, 24th day of hearing

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Twitter-like applications for humanitarian relief operations

In "Humanitarian Twittermifan" (May 26th 2009) the Sahana Disaster Management System blog discusses the use of Twitter-like microblogs for humanitarian relief. The particular application mentioned is for the World Food Program internal communication. This is implemented using open source microblogging package Laconica for the server and Twhirl for the client.

ps: In "National Bushfire Warning System: Micro-blogging for emergencies" I suggested the use of Twitter-like systems for use in bushfires.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bushfire Resistant Windows and Glass Doors

Trend was showing its Xtreme Bushfire resistant Windows and Doors at the DesignBUILD 2009 exhibition. In addition to special glass, these have high temperature rubber seals (similar to the material used on ovens) and aluminium frames (it is not good if the glass can survive a bushfire but the rubber seal melts). While these may meet standards, established after research such as the Bushfire CRC Report - Windows & Glazing, it doesn't seem a good idea to rely on glazing for bushfire protection on its own. It would make sense to use a metal mesh outside to protect these windows. While the glass might survive the heat of a fire, it could still break due to flying debris, or if doused with water during fire fighting.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Web support for Victorian bushfire rebuilding

In response to concern expressed in the media about delays with permission to rebuild after bushfires, some Victorian councils have put in dedicated staff to assist with bushfire related building planning issues. However, what might be more useful is if the state government introduced uniform procedures and a web based approval system to be used by all councils. The one team of helpers could then be used across the state, accessing the system via wireless laptops and smart phones in the field while with the residents. It should then be possible for most permissions to be granted via the system on site in a few minutes. The performance of the councils can also then be monitored, with the time between and application being lodged and approved being reported to the minute, for all councils across the state automatically with daily reports on the Victorian Government web site.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission commenced public hearings 11 May 2009, in Melbourne. The Commission is streaming video and audio of the hearings via the Internet (but no online archive of the video), with written transcripts to be available later. The commission has an online "Make a Submission" form. Practice Notes for those appearing are also available.

The transcript of Monday, 20 April 2009 is available. This is a 226kbyte PDF document. For 57 pages of double spaced A4 text, this is a very compact file. The commission staff seem to have gone to some trouble to make sure the documents are easy to download.

The commission web home page passed an automated accessibility test at levels 1 and 2 (TAW). There was only one Priority 3 problem:
Missing lang attribute: The primary language of this document has not been set (1)
  • Line 5: <html xmlns="">
The page also scored a reasonable 73/100 on the W3C mobileOK Checker.

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