National Bushfire Warning System

Micro-blogging for emergencies

Tom Worthington FACS HLM

IT consultant and Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Computer Science, Australian National University

For the DCS Seminar, College of Engineering and Computer Science, ANU, Canberra, 4pm, 16 April 2009
Preview: BarCamp Canberra, 11:40am, 28 March 2009

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 short text alerts and Internet based detail is proposed. The potential for Social Networking to be used for emergencies will also be discussed.

About the speaker

Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington

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.

Tom is an Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society. He was elected a Fellow of the ACS for his work on Internet social policy. He is a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Society.

Resilient Community ICT for Disaster Management

  1. Community needs to be resilient (ASPI 2008)
  2. The Internet, with wireless can be made reliable
  3. Message formats must be suitable for the general pubic, not experts
  4. Techniques developed for access to the disabled can be applied to emergency messages

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released Taking a punch: Building a more resilient Australia 7 May 2008. It argued that recent disaster planning has overemphasized terrorist attacks, which are unlikely and more effort should be devoted to natural disasters, which occur frequently in Australia. The community needs to be resilient to deal with disaster themselves, rather than assuming that if the call 000 someone will come to help. However, the community also needs timely advice from emergency authorities on how to prepare for, act during and to recover from disasters. The Internet can be used in such communications, provided its use is planned.

Current Warning "System"

Problems: Slow, manual, relies on mains power and PSTN.

The authority to issue safety information to the public in an emergency is delegated to Local, District and State and Federal Emergency Operations Controllers, to warn the public of:

  • Severe Thunderstorms
  • Gale Force Winds
  • Severe Floods
  • Cyclones
  • Hazardous Materials Emergencies
  • Biological Hazards
  • Earthquake Aftershocks
  • Tsunamis
  • Dam Failure
  • Bush Fires
  • Terrorist Act

From: District Displan Part 4, State Emergency Management Committee, Sydney South West Emergency Management District, New South Wales, 2005

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)

Facsimiles are sent via the public telephone network to radio and TV broadcasters asking for the Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) be sounded, along with an announcement. The facsimiles arrive in broadcast offices along with other routine faxes and may be missed. After hours, broadcast offices may be un-staffed and the messages not seen until the next day. The system also depends on the operation of the PSTN network and mains power to the Facsimile machines.

Proposed System

Under the proposed system, the authority to issue safety information to the public in an emergency would still be delegated to Local, District and State and Federal Emergency Operations Controllers. In place of a Facsimile, a short text message and a web page would be prepared.

The text message would be sent via a national system to broadcasters. Where broadcast offices are staff, the message would be read from a mobile telephone dedicated to the task and the warning issued manually. Where offices are automated, the message would be converted from text to speech for automatic insertion into the broadcast.

Emergency telecommunications services

Looking to the National Broadband Network environment:

  • Who should be required to provide the emergency call service? When can any transition begin?

From: National Broadband Network" Discussion Paper (7 April 2009)

In its "National Broadband Network" Discussion Paper (7 April 2009) the Australian government identified telecommunications access to emergency services in a new digital environment. Some non-voice communications are currently included in the system, such as TTY for the deaf. However, services such as SMS e-mail and the web need to also be considered. In a large scale emergency, such as a natural disaster, voice calls to police, fire or ambulance are ineffective. Other communications options which mobile phones and the Internet provide are of more use. These services need to be covered by emergency regulations and provided by carriers.

Broadcasters provide emergency warnings

Australia's ad-hoc arrangement of state based emergency warnings relies on radio and TV broadcasters relaying messages from the emergency services. This system relies partly on legislation and partly on the goodwill of the broadcasters. There is no system to get messages to the broadcasters. The broadcast medium cannot target specific areas, or provide detailed information. There is also the problem that as broadcast radio and TV are used less, the public will less likely to get the warnings.

It is a requirement for commercial broadcasters to broadcast emergency warnings when asked by emergency service agencies, under the BROADCASTING SERVICES ACT 1992 - SECT 61CE.

Emergency warnings are not mentioned in the ABC Charter. 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.

ABC has used slogans such as: "ABC Local Radio, your emergency services broadcaster":

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:

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.

Potential of Mobile Web

Some state emergency services provide links from their web sites to that of the ABC. The ABC provides emergency information via its web site, but there is no formal requirement, or agreement, for the ABC or other broadcasters to do so.

The ABC introduced a mobile information service on 16 March 2009 which would be particularly suited to provision of emergency information. Mobile telephones are equipped with batteries and so can be used during the loss of mains power. Mobile web pages are also designed to be more efficiently encoded, thus working better under high loads in an emergency. Mobile pages are designed to be more succinct and so easier to read by people under stress in an emergency.

Emergency information is planned to be added to the ABC mobile site during 2009. The ABC's plan in the interim is for making an ah-hoc change to the service for a lower end information service. The ABC mobile web site does not meet web standards. The combination of a poorly designed web interface and ad-hoc changes made during an emergency could result in the service failing. The needs to be designed and tested for use in an emergency.

Telecos Required to Provide Services in an Emergency

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.

The act would appear to provide sufficient power to require mobile telephone operators to provide test based message services for use in emergencies, as well as requiring Internet service providers to give priority to emergency communications.

The Emergency Management Agency moved from Defence to Attorney General's in 2001, but the Telecommunications Act was not changed to transfer the natural disasters authority from the Defence minister to the Attorney General. This could impede use of the Act.

State Based Telephone Systems Not a Solution

The Rudd Government will today introduce into Parliament amendments to the Telecommunications Act 1997 to enable access to the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND) for telephone-based emergency warning systems established by the States and Territories.

Access to the IPND will be provided through a new secure database which provides real-time access to up-to-date telephone numbers while protecting the identity of individuals. The Government will provide $11.3 million for this purpose. A request for tender to build the database will be issued shortly. ...

From: Rudd Government Implements COAG Agreement on Telephone-based Emergency Warning Systems, AG and Minister for Broadband, 23 February 2009

To provide direct warnings to the public, the federal government announced legislation to enable states to implement telephone-based emergency warning systems. These systems use recorded messages sent to telephones of subscribers registered in a particular area. This approach suits small scale warnings, such as those for bushfires effecting a few hundred homes. It is less suited to large scale warnings, as for example for a Tsunami, effecting millions of people. Also use of this fine grained approach assumes that suitable local information is available to be provided.

The telephone based system assumes that the people to be warned have telephones which are functioning and are located in the area the warning is for. As mobile and Internet based telephones becomes used more these assumptions will apply to fewer people.

An increasing number of Australian households have no fixed line telephone. An increasing number of those fixed lines have cordless telephones with mains powered base stations that do not function during a blackout. Similarly Internet based telephones do not usually have batter power. Both mobile and Internet based telephones may not be located at their registered address, thus giving false alarms where they are and failing to give correct warnings at their actual location.

Making a Reliable Internet

VOIP (voice over Internet protocols) technology is becoming of much greater importance so there will be challenges in reaching those who rely on Internet access for all communications. ...

From: Building a more resilient Australia, D. Templeman and A. Bergin, Aust. Strategic Policy Institute, 7 May 2008

...Commonwealth’s objectives for the NBN... consistent with national security, e-security and e-safety policy objectives including compliance with laws relating to law enforcement assistance and emergency call services; ...

From: RFP to Roll-out and Operate a National Broadband Network for Australia, ATM ID DCON/08/18, DBCDE, 11-Apr-2008

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute report points out that VOIP communications may make Australia more vulnerable. However, this does not appear to have been taken account in the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Request for Proposals to Roll-out and Operate a National Broadband Network for Australia. The RFP asks about provision of battery backup of the equipment and mentions emergency calls, but this is priority 16 out of 18.

The NBN process, if implemented as planned, will accelerate the replacement of the Public Switched Telephone Network with VoIP telephones. The NBN is not being planned to have the reliability of the PSTN it will be replacing. In addition most VoIP handsets, and the computer equipment they depend on, do not have any battery backup and will not function during a power failure.

SMS and email warning

How does sydneyALERT work?
  1. sydneyALERT: Official NSW Emergency Services system
  2. SMS and e-mail alerts to Sydney CBD
  3. Sent to building managers, emergency wardens and security staff
  4. Not for the general public

The New South Wales Government, Office for Emergency Services provide "sydneyALERT" as a free "opt-in" service. It is used for emergency services to send SMS and e-mail to building managers, emergency wardens and security staff.

The system uses existing commercial communications networks - SMS and e-mail. The State Emergency Operations Centre Controller, a senior NSW Police Officer, will determine if the system should be activated. This officer will also determine who on the list will be contacted and what message will be sent. The message will be sent to the contact details supplied by those who subscribe to sydneyALERT.

The message will be simple and give clear guidance on what needs to be done. The message should then be communicated through existing internal building systems, such as public address systems and emails, to occupants.

From: About sydneyALERT, Office for Emergency Services, New South Wales Government, , 25 July 2007

A senior Police Officer at the State Emergency Operations Centre, decides what messages to send. It should be noted that contrary to the description given in the sydneyALERT web page, the system is not designed to alert the public, it is intended only for people who are responsible for buildings and businesses. The assumption is that those people will then alert the public via some other system. This is usual for Australian warning systems, which rely on public broadcasters to issue a public warning.

Micro-blogging for emergencies

LMNRA ALERT - Recap...Reported as tour bus accident to NPS at 3:25 PST. 4 fatals reported at least 20 injured...exact num unknown.11:06 AM Jan 31st

From: LMNRA ALERT on Twitter, US National Park Service, 31 January 2009

Also Lake Mead News distribution list on Google Groups.

The US National Park Service uses Twitter to release public information during incidents at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (NRA). While the park authorities stress this is not an emergency warning system, it is used to announce park emergencies. Such a micro-blogging service could be a useful model for an Australian Emergency Warning System.

The park also has a Lake Mead News distribution list on Google Groups. Curiously, while the new Twitter service was mentioned in the group, the group is not mentioned in Twitter. That is the alert messages are brief text only messages. There are no URLs to more details.

Twitter includes a facility for including URLs (web addresses) in messages. To minimise the space a large address might take, Twitter replaces the addresses with tinyurls. The Twitter messages are short enough to be sent by SMS. This approach could be used for emergency messages. The short text message would be in a format suitable for SMS, SMS-CB, pagers and other devices. A short URL in the message would link to more details on the web.

Twitter-like service proposed

  1. SMS not suitable for large scale community warning system.
  2. Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) technically suitable, but not currently supported.
  3. SMS and SMS-CB suitable for warning to broadcasters.
  4. Twitter-like service proposed: Short text with short URL.
  5. Standardised, efficient formats are required.
  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.

Message formats for non-Experts

Map of earthquake 20 Feb 2008 08:09 UTC Off W Coast of Northern Sumatra from Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

Tsunami Warning for Indonesia

ISSUED AT 0822Z 20 FEB 2008








ORIGIN TIME - 0809Z 20 FEB 2008


From: Local tsunami watch for Indonesia, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, 0822Z 20 FEB 2008.

Tsunami Warning Centers use the Internet to issue warning messages. However, the format of these predate the Internet and the web and are formatted for reading by experts, not the general public. It is assumed that the messages will be interpreted and reformatted for the public. However, this adds a delay to the process of the warning and its interpretation. There are attempts to provide new formats, such as maps for making information clearer, but these also tend to be designed for a technical audience.

ICT professionals can also improve on the previous analog telecommunications system to provide better facilities for emergency warnings and disaster recovery. However, emergency officials need to listen to what the ICT professionals tell them is possible and not just try and build digital versions of old analog and teletype systems. Both professions need to take the public into their confidence and treat the community as partners, not as victims.

As an example, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a local tsunami watch for Indonesia 0822Z 20 FEB 2008. The copy forwarded by the interim Indian Ocean Center is timed at one minute later 08:23:21 GMT. The watch was canceled at 0947Z 20 FEB 2008.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's system provided a map and details of the earthquake.

Accessible Web Design Applied to Emergencies

  1. W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
  2. W3C Markup Validation Service for XHTML Basic
  3. W3C MobileOK Basic checker service

The W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 1.0 provides advice on web design, based on the W3C - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0). These guidelines are usually used to make web pages suitable for people with a disability, such as the blind. However, the same techniques are intended for people who have limited Internet access, equipment or time to read the information. All of these apply to people and systems under stress due to an emergency.

The W3C Markup Validation Service for XHTML Basic is useful in checking web pages for embedded CSS and other HTML features which are not appropriate for efficient mobile pages.

As part of its Mobile Web Initiative, W3C have created a W3C MobileOK Basic checker service. This carries out some of the W3C mobileOK Basic Tests 1.0 against the W3C Mobile Web Best Practices 1.0.

The mobile web features can be used to create pages which are compatible with desktop computers, but will also function with mobile phones and other handheld devices. The web based systems can be designed to automatically adjust to the smaller screens and more limited bandwidth available.

Australian Community Warning System Student Exercise

Assume that it has been decided to build an Australian Community Warning System. Your task is to design a web site to provide information about natural disasters and other emergencies accross Australia. ...

From Website Accessibility, Assignment 2, COMP2410/6340 - Networked Information Systems, ANU, 2009

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

Imagine you work for Emergency Management Australia, which was recently tasked to provide a unified response to emergencies accross Australia. Assume that it has been decided to build an Australian Community Warning System. Your task is to design a web site to provide information about natural disasters and other emergencies accross Australia. 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. You can use content from existing web sites for your prototype.

Creating the webpage

You must:
• Convert the HTML of the content from the existing web pages to valid XHTML Basic 1.1 which passes Mobile OK tests.
• 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
• Make any changes to the XHTML code which you consider to either
– Enhance the accessibility of the page
– Improve the compliance of the page with web standards
• Discuss your design decisions in a report

Your resulting page need not be identical in appearance to the page provided. However, the page be designed to display both on a device with a small screen (smartphone) and a desktop computer. Any design decisions you make which significantly alter 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.

COMP6340 Students

You have been given three additional tasks.

Additional Task 1

Create an alternate style sheet to format your page for printing. You should:

  • Omit unnecessary graphics,
  • Minimise the use of large blocks of colour,
  • Leave out unnecessary text.

Your print style sheet should be called print.css. ...

Additional Task 2

Create an alternate style sheet to format the page for viewing on a large projection screen, as used in an emergency command centre (similar to the screens used in ANU lecture theatres). See the file projection.css for the dimensions required. ...

Additional Task 3

Estimate the download time of your page (using the access.css stylesheet) using a 56K satellite modem, and suggest ways in which you might reduce the download time. ...

From Website Accessibility, Assignment 2 (draft), COMP2410/6340 - Networked Information Systems, ANU, 2009

More Information

Slides for these notes are also available.

Copyright © 2009 Tom Worthington (16 April 2009)

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National Bushfire Warning System - Micro-blogging for emergencies by Tom Worthington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.
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