Thursday, November 26, 2009

Emergency 2.0 Australia

Emergency 2.0 Australia, is part of the Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce looking at how Social Media can assist in Emergency Management. In my view Social Networking, the Internet and web, have a useful role in emergency communications. However, disaster management using IT needs to be carefully planned and tested.

The Emergency 2.0 Australia website is incorrect in suggesting that the February Victorian Bushfires saw the emergence of the use of social media and web2.0 technologies. The disaster just brought them to public prominence via the media. These were already being planned, tested and deployed elsewhere.

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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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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, August 12, 2009

Warning Systems For University Campuses

"Deciphering the New Federal Integrated Public Alert and Warning System" by Dewitt Latimer provides a useful overview of issues with providing emergency warning messages on university campuses. It is written from the US point of view and uses terminology relating to US federal legisation for issueing energy wanrings to citizens (with the emphasis being on how to relay these to people on a campus, susally via SMS on a mobile phone). But the article will be of interst to those outside the USA.
"This research bulletin explores the history of nationwide notification leading up to the new federal government Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), as well as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) delivery process and message format and content. It also examines the potential impact of IPAWS and CMAS on higher education and suggests actions that colleges and universities may wish to take."
Citation: Latimer, Dewitt. “Deciphering the New Federal Integrated Public Alert and Warning System” (Research Bulletin, Issue 16). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2009, available from

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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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Friday, May 01, 2009

Designing an influenza pandemic web site for Australia

Students of "Networked Information Systems" (COMP2410/6340) at the ANU have been set the task to design a influenza pandemic web site for the Australian public. In previous years they have been set the task to design a site for bird flu so this seemed a logical and timely topic.
Australian National University

Department of Computer Science

Networked Information Systems


Assignment 2

Website Accessibility


On 29 April 2009 the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), raised the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5. All countries were advised to immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans to combat Swine influenza.

In this assignment you will examine web sites used for providing advice to the public about influenza and design a prototype web site using the techniques learnt in the course. ...

Deadline: 6pm Friday 22 May 2008.

The Task

The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing (DHA) has provided a web page with links to detailed information about Swine Influenza Outbreaks. However, that information may be difficult to understand for the average member of the general public. Imagine you work for the Australian Government and your task is to design an easier to read web site based on the DHA page as it was at 30 Apr 2009 07:09:19 GMT.

The web site will need to meet accessibility and mobile device standards. The web site will be read by large numbers of people at once and so will need to use the minimum of bandwidth. It will be read by people under stress and so be easy to read.

In addition to the information in the copy of the DHA web site, you can use text and media files (images, audio and video) from International (.int), Australian Government ( and US Government (.gov) web sites in designing your prototype.

Creating the webpage

You must:

  • Convert the HTML of the content from the existing web page to valid XHTML Basic 1.1 which achieves at least 80/100 on Mobile OK tests and passes Level Double A of the W3C - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) as tested by the TAW (Web Accessibility Test)
  • Convert all presentation elements and in-line styles to appropriate rules in a new valid external style sheet called access.css
  • Remove any tables in the webpages which are not used for displaying tabular data, and replace them with CSS rules
  • Remove or replace excessively large or irrelevant images. You are encouraged to consider the use of Pictograms, as well as links to audio, video and other multimedia content.
  • Make any changes to the XHTML code which you consider to either: enhance the accessibility of the page, or improve the compliance of the page with web standards
  • Discuss your design decisions in a report
  • Estimate the download time of your page (using the access.css stylesheet) using a 28.8 kbit/s Iridium satellite modem (as used by the Australian Department of Defence). Suggest ways in which you might reduce the download time. These question must be answered in the form of an additional section in your report.
Your resulting page need not be identical in appearance to the web pages the source material was prepared from. You need only create the home page, but can create dummy links to other pages (which you need not create). The emphasis should be on a simple and efficient design. The page should be designed to display both on a smart phone and a desktop computer. Design decisions about the way the page looks must be discussed in your report.

Writing the report

You are also required to write a report which presents and justifies your design decisions. The report should be between 600-1000 words long (the word length is not assessable, but a report which falls outside these limits may impact on your ability to complete all assessable tasks). The report should include (but is not restricted to) discussions of the following topics:

• Any design decisions you made which significantly alter the appearance of the webpage. These must be justified by an appeal to accessibility, web standards, or best practice coding guidelines.
• Changes you have made to the code which you consider to have enhanced the accessibility of the webpage.
• Alternative design decisions which you considered implementing, along with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of these.
• Any accessibility issues, or areas of non-compliance with web standards, which are still present in your completed page.

Your report must be valid XHTML-Basic 1.1. The formatting must be clear, and include headers and paragraphs. Citations are not needed. ...


For examples of government swine flu web sites, see Tom Worthington's posting: Lack of useful Swine Influenza Information online from Australian Government, Thursday, April 30, 2009. ...

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Documentary of Newcastle 2007 Floods

MV Pasha Bulker aground June 2007 on Nobbys Beach, NSWThe multimedia documentary "A June to Remember" was produced by

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SEWS Guidelines

The Victorian State Emergency Service has SEWS Guidelines on who can issue an emergency announcement using the Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) and when. Unfortunately what is lacking is detail of how the message is sent. However, the inclusion of a pro-forma facsimile form suggests that fax is used.
  1. The decision to request the use of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal is made by the Incident Controller (or his representative). This is the person who has the responsibility for dealing with the emergency. For example, in a wildfire it would be the CFA or the Department of Natural Resources and Environment; in a wind storm, it would be the State Emergency Service; for a structure fire, it would be the MFB or the CFA; etc.
  2. The request is made to the Police Divisional Emergency Response Coordinator, who will issue the Emergency Warning Notice to media organisations. ...
From: SEWS Guidelines, Victorian State Emergency Service (28 November 2006)
See also: SEWS Demo (Audio) from BoM.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Masterclass on National Bushfire Warning System

Apart from "Green ITSM" I have offered draft material on how to build a National Bushfire Warning System for Australia as part of a masterclass. on technical writing at ANU. So I need to write something on the topic. As a starting point, I have the abstract in the seminar announcement , a conference talk on "Community Warning Systems" and an "Australian Community Warning System Proposal" submitted to the Council of Australian Governments. Since then I have looked at "Obligation for Australian broadcasters to provide emergency warnings ", "Fault in Pacific Tsunami Warning System", "Mobile beep for emergency Cell Broadcast" and "Australian Emergency Alert System". My conclusion from this is:
  1. SMS is not suitable for large scale use in a community warning system. SMS is too slow (taking around an hour to send 1M messages) and addressing information is lacking.
  2. Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) is technically suitable (able to send millions of messages in a few seconds to all mobile phones in a specific location), but not currently sufficiently supported by the mobile phone industry to be usable for warnings to the general public.
  3. SMS and Cell Broadcast would be suitable as part of a system for relaying emergency messages from emergency services to the public via the broadcast media. This would improve on current methods using faxes and phone calls.
  4. Short text messages could reference detailed web based information.
  5. Standardised, efficient formats are required for web based emergency information. Accessibility and mobile guidelines can be used for designing an efficient readable format, as well as specialised guidelines for emergency information.
Given I now have my conclusion, I need to find some references to support it. ;-)

More seriously, the problem is to define the topic sufficiently to be able to find relevant work. Emergency management is a very wide topic, and even communication for emergencies has a large literature. One good place to start is the recent work on XML based formats for emergency messages, being pioneered by the
OASIS Emergency Management Adoption Technical Committee and members such as Renato Iannella at at NICTA.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Obligation for Australian broadcasters to provide emergency warnings

In "ABC Mobile Web Site Failed Accessibility Test" I criticised the ABC for not providing a more planned emergency warning service to the public. As far as I can see, there is no legislation specifically requiring the ABC to provide emergency warnings (there is for commercial broadcasters) but they did volunteer for the job.

The ABC has used slogans such as: "ABC Local Radio, your emergency services broadcaster":
  • "During the Bushfire season, for regular fire updates, tune into ABC Local Radio, your emergency services broadcaster. ..." ABC Goulburn Murray, 16 October 2008
  • "ABC Adelaide is your Emergency Services Broadcaster. Stay listening on air and online for the latest information. ...", From: Index of Emergency Incidents Stories, ABC, 14/03/2008
  • "For more information contact your local CFA Branch and keep listening to ABC Radio, your emergency services broadcaster....", From: Fire Ready Victoria Meetings, ABC Goulburn Murray, 22 January 2008
This role seems to have been endorsed by the state governments, with their emergency web pages advising the public to listen to ABC local radio for emergency information:
  • "As part of an on-going partnership, 774 ABC Melbourne and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) provide listeners with quick, free access to the most up-to-date information and advice available during fire emergencies. ... Link to website: ABC Local Radio ..." From: "ABC Local Radio", Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner (OESC), Victoria, 15 November 2008
  • "During a serious emergency where life or property may be at risk, you can also obtain information by: Listening to your local ABC Radio station at 15 minutes past the hour and 15 minutes to the hour. ...", From: "Emergency Alerts", Fire & Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia (FESA), 2008

More formally there are Memorandums of Understanding between the ABC and the Victorian Emergency Services Organisations (4 February 2004) and the Queensland Department of Emergency Services (6 September 2005) for the ABC to broadcast emergency messages. While the MoUs are non-legally binding arrangements, it would seem to be a formal commitment by the ABC to provide an emergency service.

Emergency warnings are not mentioned in the ABC Charter. This is a curious anomaly, as it is a requirement for commercial broadcasters, under the BROADCASTING SERVICES ACT 1992 - SECT 61CE. However, under the ABC's ACT the Minister can direct the ABC to broadcast a "particular matter" in the national interest. An emergency warning would seem to be in the national interest.

The federal government is building a system to provide state governments with access to the phone directory for emergency calls. This is to cost $11.3M. It would seem prudent to spend a small amount on communicating the emergency warning to the broadcasters in a coordinated and reliable way.

While the carriers and broadcasters should be consulted about how an emergency warning is communicated, they should not be able to impede the work. Under the ABC, Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts the Commonwealth Government has the authority to direct carriers and broadcasters to provide emergency warnings.

Apart from the Broadcasting Act, the Telecommunications Act 1997 - SECT 335 contains provision for the government to require service providers to supply specific services for the management of natural disasters. In 1999, at the Defence Department, I got this ready to use, in case Y2K caused chaos.

The Emergency Management Agency moved from Defence to Attorney General's in 2001, but someone seems to have forgotten to change the Telecommunications Act to transfer the natural disasters authority from the Defence minister to the Attorney General.

The current ad-hoc arrangement of phones and fax machines for communication between the states, commonwealth and broadcasters is not a satisfactory "system".

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Fault in Pacific Tsunami Warning System

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) issued a warning 19 March 2009 after a magnitude 7.7 earthquake near Tonga. A small tsunami of 0.04 m was later reported and in all six messages were issued, before the warning was cancelled. While the text based warning messages worked as planned (I received trimmed versions by mobile phone SMS as well), there appear to be continuing problems with the HTML versions on the NOAA web site. The PTWC needs to review its web design to ensure poor formatting is not impeding this important service.

When I attempted to access the PTWC web site at 8:10am this morning the system reported:"Information Alert - Status : 504 Gateway Time-Out -
Description : Lost connection to origin server". The site worked on a second attempt. While the text versions of the warning messages were readable, the HTML versions were blank, with the PTWC page header and side menu, but no warning message. On examining the HTML source code I found a large amount of formatting information and text about last year's tsunami exercise and awareness month commented out, but no current tsunami warning. It is not clear if this excessive formatting and redundant information caused the problem with displaying the message, but it would place an additional and unnecessary load on the system. This problem was previously identified 9 January 2009.

I will be discussing this issue at a seminar on a "National Bushfire Warning System" at The Australian National University in Canberra on 16 April 2009.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mobile beep for emergency Cell Broadcast

Can you set a mobile phone to beep when an emergency "Cell Broadcast" is received? I will be presenting a seminar on a "National Bushfire Warning System" in Canberra, 16 April 2009. One option I discuss in this will be to use "Cell Broadcast" to mobile phones for an Australian Community Warning System. This would have the advantage that a short text message could be set to all the phones in a small area or the whole country in a few seconds.

Last week the Victorian Government tried to send an SMS message about bush-fires to all mobile phone users in the state. The message was sent 2 Mar 2009 14:30:10. It took approximately one hour to send. Also some people in Victoria did not get the message and some not in Victoria did.

Cell Broadcast is designed for simultaneous delivery of messages to multiple users in a specified area. It is more formally known as "Short Message Service - Cell Broadcast" (SMS-CB) to distinguish it from the popular SMS, more formally: Short Message Service - Point to Point (SMS-PP). Use of cell broadcast would overcome the problem of the speed of dispatch of messages and misdirection. Cell Broadcast messages are designed to send to all handsets in one or more cells at once. This speeds up transmission and removes the need to have a list of the phones to send to.

However, one problem with Cell Broadcasts is that mobile phones usually have the alert (tone or vibration) turned off. Some phones may have no way to turn on alert for Cell Broadcasts and others may have no way to turn it on just for emergency messages. Does anyone have experience with using Cell Broadcast with particular model phones?

The details of cell broadcast for emergencies is discussed in "Support for Cell Broadcast as Global Emergency Alert System" by Karin Axelsson and Cynthia Novak (Linköpings University, 2007). The authors point out that different phones handle Cell Broadcast differently and the phone makers call the service by different names.

The Cell Broadcast Forum have a Handset Requirements Specification (October 2006). This has a section on "Requirements on Handling of Emergency Messages" which requires the phone to alert for an emergency message, even if the user has switched off alerts for messages. However, this requirement does not seem to be followed by manufacturers:
2.10 Requirements on Handling of Emergency Messages

This section deals with the handling by the ME when an emergency warning message is received. This section does not so much provide the Cell Broadcast forum’s view on handling of Emergency Warning Messages, but the requirements of the Dutch government, that may become applicable throughout the EU in due time.

2.10.1 Mandatory Requirements

58. Factory setting: In a country where a public warning service over Cell Broadcast is operational, the government, or the operators may require that the default Factory Setting be set to active, i.e. CB messages can be received and the Message Identifier that has been assigned to the public warning service be selected.

59. Reception tone: The ME shall indicate the reception of an
emergency message by playing a ring tone that is specific for
emergency messages and cannot be allocated to other services on the ME. This ringtone shall be activated even if the ME setting is set to silent mode, meeting mode, buzzing mode, etc., and also regardless of the Display Mode (Normal or Direct).

60. Storage: Emergency messages shall always be stored, unless or until the user decides to delete the message.

2.10.2 Other Requirements

61. The WARN Act that was effectuated in the US in October 2006 states that it shall be impossible to opt-out of a presidential level message. Further recommendations or legislation were not available at the time of writing of this section and will be included at a later stage (2007). ...

From: Handset Requirements Specification , The Cell Broadcast Forum, October 2006
David Crowe gives a good overview of Cell Broadcast for Emergency Alerts in Wireless Telecom Magazine Q3‘2006. He points out limitations, including messages being even shorter than SMS (in 88 character segments), no verification a message was received and no standard categories to identify emergency messages and standard no user interface. One issue he raises is the detrimental impact of cell broadcast on battery life. However, Axelsson and Novak's research indicates this is not a problem. As Crowenotes, a conservative approach would be to use this for single segment (88 characters) short messages, as was used with SMS in Victoria. The message would just advise of the emergency andto check with other services, such as ABC Radio.

Nokia's Extended User Guide for the N85 phone gives Cell broadcast settings. It is likely that newer large screen "smart phones" will better support cell broadcast. As an example Blackberry provide details on how to Turn on cell broadcasting. It should also be possible to add this feature to later model phones with a software upgrade over the air.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

National Bushfire Warning System, Seminar, Canberra, 16 April 2009

I will be presenting a seminar on a "National Bushfire Warning System" at The Australian National University in Canberra on 16 April 2009. In this I will expand on my talk at the APCO 2009 Conference on "Community Warning Systems" and an "Australian Community Warning System Proposal" submitted to the Council of Australian Governments. All welcome, no need to book, just turn up.
Seminar Announcement
School of Computer Science, CECS
The Australian National University

Date: Thursday, 16 April 2009
Time: 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Venue: Room N101, CSIT Building [108], North Road, Canberra

Speaker: Tom Worthington
Title: National Bushfire Warning System


Recent bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland have brought the issue of warning systems for the public to prominence. Modern digital communications, the Internet and web, have a useful role in emergency communications. However,some technologies such as VoIP may make Australia more vulnerable. An alternative national system using Cell Broadcast technology via mobile phones is proposed. The potential for Social Networking to be used for emergencies will also be discussed.


Tom Worthington is an IT consultant and Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the Australian National University, where he teaches the design on Internet, web and mobile phone systems, including for emergency management.

He is a former IT adviser at Headquarters Australian Defence Force. Tom is a member of the Project Management Committee of Sahana open source disaster management system, used for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He was elected a Fellow of the ACS for his work on Internet policy for Australia.

Seminars homepage:

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Australian Emergency Alert System

The proposal that Australian governments build a national community warning system to be ready for the 2009/2010 bush-fire season appears to have been reasonably well received. Several people pointed out similar proposals and the difficulties they faced with inter-state rivalry. These problems can be addressed by quickly building a small simple and cheap system, which states can interface to. Those states with existing sophisticated systems can interface to the national system simply. Those states which lack an effective system of their own can use the national system directly, with no need to buy any additional equipment.

The system could be named the Australian Emergency Alert System (AEAS) and modelled on the USA's Emergency Alert System (EAS). The AEAS would be conceptually similar to the EAS but take advantage of advances in digital technology to deliver a more functional system at a lower cost.

US Emergency Alert System

The US Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national warning system introduced in 1994, as an upgrade of a cold war era emergency broadcast system. The system was designed to enable the US President to address the nation with 10 minutes warning, but that function has never been used. Commercial broadcast radio and TV services, as well pay cable and satellite services are required to interface to the EAS. While interfacing to TV, the EAS is designed to only deliver a spoken message, with no graphics. Newer devices, such as weather radios can detect a more advanced digital signal using Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME), which allows for filtering messages for specific regions and types. The system is used for tsunami and warnings.

Common Alerting Protocol

The EAS is essentially analog technology to which some digital enhancements have been added (such as SAME). The USA is considering upgrading parts of the system with the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), an XML-based data format for exchanging public warnings and emergency information. CAP is a web based technology which is therefore much simpler to implement on digital devices.

Australian Implementation of CAP for a National Warning System

Australia has no EAS infrastructure to upgrade and no stock of weather radios to maintain compatibility with, so it can implement CAP more simply and directly than the using a network of purely digital devices. In addition, as Australia has a national, government owned broadcaster, with a national digital infrastructure, CAP can be interfaced to national radio and TV networks simply and at low cost. In addition the availability of the Internet and the web allows for much more detailed information to be provided to supplement the short emergency messages.

Levels of Detail of Information

One flaw in the design of proposed Australian emergency warning systems is a lack of depth in the information provided. Emergency messages for the community are brief. However, there needs to be more detailed information made available through other channels, typically standard information prepared in advance, not specific to the current emergency. It can be difficult for the public to obtain this information and also for the media to find it to provide to the public. The result can be that while the public may get the brief emergency message they have little idea what to do in response.

The current practice in Australia is to ask the public to tune to local ABC Radio. This can now be supplemented by asking them, where Internet access is available, to read a specific web page. Templates of information can be prepared in advance, so only the details of the current event needed be added. The web pages can be carefully designed using well established principles for efficient and rapid communication of information. The web pages can be made compatible with assistive technology for the disabled, with mobile phones and with TV screens, so the media can relay the information.

The AEAS can provide brief messages, suitable for transmission to mobile phones as a text message, displayed on a TV screen and read out on radio. Those messages can then refer to more detailed information available via the web. Broadcasters can read the web pages and convey the information to the public via audio and visual means.

Web Interface for the AEAS

The assumption in the US and current Australian warning systems is that after the brief emergency warning is issued, some other system will be used to send detailed information. No coordinated system exists in Australia to relay such information to the public. During the Canberra 2003 and Victorian 2008 brush fires, web based systems of the state governments were unable to provide effective information due to poor design of the web sites and a lack of planning.

It is proposed that the AEAS include a national emergency web site, to provide coordinated information to the public. Links to specific national and state systems can be made from here. The web site will also provide an interface for officials at the national, state and local levels to issue AEAS information, where those officials do not have access to specialised CAP interfaces. The officials will be able to upload a bulletin about the emergency as well as the brief text message.

Emergency agencies which have preformed templates for emergency bulletins will be able to use these with the AEAS. Agencies which have automated systems to fill in the templates will be able to use these to speed the process. While messages would normally be originated from a national and state emergency headquaters, the system would allow an authorised fire-fighter, using a smart phone, to issue a warning for their local area from the field.

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