Emergency broadcasts

The air is fragrant with smoke, the sky transected with grey. Since last night we have been told to stay at home and defend our house from ember attack.

Bush fires are a fact of life in this area. Back in 1994 my wife was living with her family in another part of this suburb and I was in Canberra, proving updates to the world over Internet Relay Chat based upon television reports.

Now as a resident of the affected area I have a personal interest in how information about the fire is communicated. The nature of media has changed since then and I’ve got some thoughts about the coverage of the bush fires from a local perspective.

Expectations

We live in the Information Age and as such expect to have access to instantaneous and detailed information about events. The better the information you have, the better you can plan your actions. That is true both for those fighting the fire and those potentially affected by it.

I’m not certain how much information is gathered and available to the fire service from assets on the ground, in the air and in space. It would be interesting to find out. Potentially a lot, but combining that information into something useful for making decisions would be a challenging task.

I can imagine a mesh of sensors on firefighters, fire trucks, drones, aircraft and static assets all sending information back to base to be processed and combined by artificial intelligence. Challenging indeed.

And how to make that information available to the public?

Traditional media

During emergencies we are expected to turn to television, as I did in 1994, and radio for information. I did both but found the experience somewhat disappointing. Being a Saturday night the commercial television stations were more concerned with sports events and the sole free-to-air 24 hour news station, ABC News 24, was primarily filled with non-current news programming or reports on the airstrikes in Syria. This is the problem with being an underfunded national broadcaster, most of your audience are unaffected by regional fires.

Instead you are suggested to turn to ABC Local Radio, which suddenly presents an issue. Who has an AM radio outside of their car these days? I’ve got an old cassette player downstairs, but if the power went out I’d be in trouble finding any big batteries for it. Most devices run on something smaller.

I still have some FM radios in older mobile phones, though they too are being phased out by manufacturers. Still, it’s a pity they don’t have an FM broadcast instead. It does suggest I should buy a small AM capable radio, which would have the advantage of picking up the cricket as well!

Fortunately you can listen to ABC Local Radio streamed over the internet, but this takes up valuable bandwidth in emergencies and the infrastructure is more vulnerable to destruction than a distant radio transmitter.

Much as I like the ABC, the other downside of having to listen out for updates over the radio is putting up with their regular programming in between. I just have a different taste to music.

Social media and the Web

The other major source of information these days is social media. Everyone thinks it’s something new, but as mentioned above, I was using it back in 1994!

There are useful websites such as the official Fires Near Me and Google’s Crisis Map. The issue with the former is the very limited information it provides.

I followed updates from the NSW Rural Fire Service Twitter account, which shared interesting line scan maps of fire areas and videos, and local Facebook pages.

The problem with social media is information pollution. Official updates on Twitter get lost in streams of irrelevant updates from other accounts and on Facebook masses of non-time ordered questions and comments from ordinary (or worse, narcissistic) citizens. There is also the big issue of incorrect or malicious information (so called “fake news”) can be inserted into these streams.

There should be an app for that

If one doesn’t exist already I’m thinking it would be useful to have an official emergency warnings app for mobile phones. The app would have the following features:

  • An ability to detect the user’s location or allow them to subscribe to other locations (useful when you are outside the area)
  • Emergency push broadcasts (eg imminent tsunami or new fire detected in your area)
  • On demand lookup as well as broadcast streaming of updates 
  • Interrupt media streams when updates are broadcast, allowing the user to listen to locally stored or streamed music or video without missing updates
  • Audio and video output as well as text (user selects).
  • Provide maps of affected areas and relevant transport updates.

Maybe there could be a forum or social media component to it focused only on that event, but not sure if that would be necessary or just too much trouble.

Might get chatting with some people at work to see what is already out there and what they think.

Right now the conditions have eased and it looks like we should be able to get a good night’s sleep tonight. Even if we haven’t as yet been directly affected it’s certainly been a good opportunity to consider our disaster preparedness. And many, many thanks to all the emergency services for working so very hard to keep us safe. They are fantastic.

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