Dodgy text tarnishes SMS emergency service system

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Dodgy text tarnishes SMS emergency service system
Blurred emergency vehicle

Poor spelling undermined authority of the alert.

A chemical fire in Canberra last week exposed more problems with an SMS-based emergency alert system provided by Telstra, with messages garbled and in some cases delayed.

The fire broke out at the Energy Services Invironmental (ESI) site in the Canberra suburb of Mitchell at 11pm on September 15, emitting plumes of potentially toxic smoke into the sky.

Two sets of voicemail and text messages were issued using the Emergency Alert system to affected residents, at 1.40am and 3.20am the following morning.

ACT environment minister Simon Corbell acknowledged [pdf] there had been issues with emergency communication to residents.

Corbell said it was "regrettable" that the text messages had spelling errors that caused recipients to question their origin and authenticity.

“Emergency. Emergency. The ACT Fire Brigade is responding to a Chemical insadent in Mitchell. Resadents are advised to evacuate the suburb immediately," the text messages read.

Corbell said phonetically-spelled text destined for a text-to-speech recognition system was reused in the SMS.

He did not specify whether it was a system design or user error.

"The template of the voice message requires the originator to submit words in writing spelt phonetically to ensure that words will be pronounced correctly when the system automatically converts text to voice," he said.

"The phonetic spelling was inadvertently also inserted into the text messages when they were issued."

A large number of landline services in the target area of the second warning issued at 3.20am were also not contacted, according to Corbell.

Insufficient time was allocated to allow the Emergency Alert System to dial all of the numbers in the target area.

Future use of Emergency Alert would consider ensuring more time is allowed for a campaign to be completed, he said.

The issues were to be examined as part of an After Action Review of the incident, Corbell said.

Corbell was adamant that the errors not "detract from the initial success of Emergency Alert".

The Emergency Alert system has faced increasing political pressure in recent months over alleged failures, with suggestions it should be supplemented with other technologies.

Clarification: The original copy of this story wrongly attributed Telstra as being responsible for providing the Emergence Alert service. A spokesman for Telstra has clarified that the telco provides only the underlying SMS infrastructure, not the operation of the service. iTnews apologises for this oversight.

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