Tempers flare over national emergency warning system

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Tempers flare over national emergency warning system

Australian Governments accused of backing the wrong horse.

The developers of a radio-based emergency warning technology have secured backing from a Coalition Senator as they continue to lobby the Government to consider their technology against a SMS-based system supplied by Telstra.

The YellowBird ALERT (Automatic Linking to Emergency Radio Transmissions) system allows emergency authorities and radio stations to selectively switch on radios in areas impacted by an emergency or disaster.

The locally-developed technology was overlooked by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2009, members of which decided that telephony (rather than radio) was the appropriate technology to back for an emergency warning system.

The Australian Government committed $26.3 million in a selective tender to assist the States and Territories develop this capability. Optus and Telstra were the only bidders, with other organisations being invited to approach the two carriers.

The resulting National Emergency Warning System (NEWS) was put to the test during the recent floods in Queensland.

The Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry found that despite issuing some 200 SMS messages via the NEWS, affected residents in areas of poor mobile coverage could only be warned if they had access to a fully-powered telephone.

Sworn evidence from Tony Jacobs, Manager of Operations for the Somerset Regional Council revealed that even where there was sufficient power, SMS reception failed to reach several citizens at the most critical time. He called for “a more robust early warning system.”

"Reception of cell phones in the area is erratic so I don't think that's a very safe way of doing it,” he said.

Telstra’s submission to the Senate Inquiry on Emergency Warning systems subsequently called for additional strategies to preserve the supply of electricity in the event of disasters.

Alternatives

The natural disaster and Senate Inquiry spurred one of Yellow Bird’s developers - Australian National University associate professor Stephen Robson - to write to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to ask whether the Government had overlooked a superior alternative.

“The YellowBird ALERT, if properly developed and trialed, has the potential to be integrated into mobile telephone handsets and, indeed, all mobile communications devices (such as iPads and similar tablet devices). Such integration would allow a functional emergency warning system to function without the need for intact power, mobile telephone and computing resource networks, a similar situation to that encountered in Japan after recent disasters there,” Robson said.

The radio technology which drives the Yellow Bird Alert system has received no funding or testing of its merits, he said.

Describing the Commonwealth Government’s support as “underwhelming”, Robson said the developers “have been completely unable to secure anything other than two meetings with junior staff in the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD).”

Robson’s crusade won the backing of  Liberal Senator Garry Humphries, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney-General, in recent Senate Estimates hearings.

Senator Humphries told iTnews he was "dismayed" that the Federal Government had not considered alternatives to NEWS.

“If there is a technology that can save lives that will supplement or outperform the present initiatives it should be looked at,” Senator Humphries said.

He said he was concerned as to whether Australia had the best possible technology to deal with the Brisbane Floods crisis experienced last summer.

“If that means advocating for other technologies to be examined which have not previously been examined, I will do so from the privileged position of  membership of this (Senate estimates) committee," he said.

The Attorney-General’s department told iTnews said mobile phone penetration supported the COAG decision to implement a telephony solution.

“COAG's decision was informed by the fact that most Australians already have and use landlines and mobile telephones,” a spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department informed iTnews.

“Telephone based emergency warnings complement existing warning methods, including AM/FM radio,” it added.

In correspondence with the YellowBird developers sighted by ITnews, the Attorney-General rejected criticism of the Telstra's NEWS system.

“While no emergency warning system can guarantee 100 percent success rate when used, all levels of government strive to ensure the protection of life, property and environment in their mitigation strategies.”

The letter adds that the Federal Government defers to States and Territories on the use of emergency warning systems.

“Should jurisdictions identify a need to trial a radio-base warning system and submit a request for funding, the Australian Government will consider their request,” the letter said.

YellowBird developers estimated it would cost approximately $600,000 to test the efficacy and merits of the system in the field.

“I don’t understand how the Government - which is funding the Telstra initiative - is not considering giving it a trial,” Senator Humphries told iTnews.

“If the Government can find such promising alternatives are ineffective, then I will be happy,” he said. “But the current impasse of leaving it to the States seems improper for a Government that is funding emergency warning alerts.”

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