back to article Technology, bushfires and AM radio

As Australia's heat-wave returns, I’ll be in the Blue Mountains in NSW, surrounded by eight hectares – around 20 acres – of mostly uncleared bush, contemplating both the benefits and shortcomings of modern emergency services communications. Here with two smartphones and a laptop with a mobile broadband connection, there are …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
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    Text alerts = useless

    In the run up to Cyclone Yasi we received a government text alert advising that we should evacuate. That may sound pretty useful but it wasn't. It didn't even hint as to where we should evacuate to.

    A quick word about our geography. You can't evacuate to the east. That's the Pacific ocean and it's also where the cyclones come from. You can't evacuate to the west either. There isn't really a road to anywhere and if there was was you'd just be trying to outrun the cyclone. There are roads to the north and south but the cyclone was so big that trying to leave the area was pretty pointless.

    I do agree about the radio. The ABC do a superb job on updates and you know the info is as sound and current as possible. Radios, as mentioned in the article, work anywhere and you don't need mains power to use them. Yasi damaged all the power, phones, Net, water, rail and road infrastructure around here but the radio towers survived and kept on working.

    Old tech is sometimes the best option.

  2. dgm

    ACT experience

    The ACT Emergency Service's Agency @ACT_ESA, has taken a slightly different approach - concise oneline posts with a link to a relevant blog post. Set up a twitter account for my cat (I did ask him if this was ok) and login and only follow the ESA plus a couple of others and we have a decent feed

  3. Anonymous Coward

    Ahhh the genius of it all.

    Firstly why shit can, what works well for most people, most of the time.

    Secondly why reinforce the issue of the minority "not getting it" vs., it working quite well for the majority who do get it, as the reason to shit can the SMS (and other systems).

    "The system works, but it has its own limitations. Coverage outside Australia’s big cities can be spotty. If you live away from mobile coverage, the SMS alerts might not reach you. If you’re a tourist passing through a danger zone, you probably won’t even be on the alert list.

    This is known:

    """"""Victoria’s acting premier has made a public statement that people should not rely solely on SMS alerts. He’s been backed up by that state’s Fire Services Commissioner."""""

    Oh well Duh....

    So sorry that a 98% population coverage, and all most all the people in almost all of the area, getting the SMS's and a few foreigners, of which an extreme minority not understanding it - nor the 100 miles per hour winds or the flames and smoke roaring towards them.. and being as dumb as a fucking drop bear.

    Shit bad odds that.

    Satan - "I want your soul."

    1. Anonymous Coward

      a 98% population coverage

      See, this is the flaw in your argument. The mobile networks may cover 98% of the population (city dwellers) but the people that usually get affected by fire, flood and cyclone often live in the areas (the bush) that make up the other 2%.

      The other problem is that the alerts only go to Telstra customers. Optus and Voda users don't get them, or so my usually reliable source tells me.

  4. Neil of Qld

    If you live in the bush you should know the evacuation areas ahead of time. Visit your local SES or fire brigade,.

    Local councils may be a good idea depending on the IQ of the front desk people.

    Assuming the local council even has a disaster plan.

    Social media will fail due to the number of morons who crap up everything. Look at any discussion on any social media site for the evidence.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm surprised you don't have what we have here

    Here in the US, we have 2 things that it seems (from the article) they don't have Down Under:

    1) A nationwide radio system dedicated to emergency alerts - the National Weather System radio network on MHz, which has transmitters just about everywhere, with automated alerts delivered to zones as large as a state or as small as part of a city. (,

    2) A system of broadcasting SMS-like alerts to all cell phones in a given area, no matter what the origination point of the phone (

    Broadcast systems like this work very well in sparsely populated areas, so I am surprised Australia and New Zealand haven't adopted them.

  6. Tim Starling

    AM or Twitter

    AM radio is nice in that unlike SMS, it makes a noise even when there's no emergency, so you can tell whether it is working or not. So it's kind of like Twitter in that respect.

    AM radio towers are quite expensive to build, and listener numbers have been falling. So there is no guarantee that the ABC will continue to support AM radio indefinitely. Maybe in a few decades, satellite will be the best option.

  7. aslsw

    Even AM is not perfect

    Already, there are complaints from some people near Bungendore (NSW) that their AM coverage is patchy, and as a result they weren't receiving the ABC warnings about fires in their area last week.

    One of the concerns I have about the prevalence of warnings across radio, SMS, Twitter etc is that it tends to transfer the responsibility to Government agencies for making decisions about what to do. As someone who has done a lot of community education work around bushfires, one of the hard things is getting people to understand that it is their responsibility to make a decision about staying and defending their property or leaving early. There are too many people who still believe that the agencies will tell them what to do, but in our increasing catastrophic conditions fires develop and progress too fast for this. But then we are left with the old complaint "No-one told me". When technology fails, people need to use their eyes, ears and noises to understand what is going on.

    Finally, one of the benefits of technology is for firefighters. Last week, I was on the first ACT taskforce to Bungendore (NSW) when the fire was still actively threatening properties. As we don't normally operate in that area, of course we had no maps. Luckily, with coverage nearly all the way there we could start looking on Google Maps for key landmarks and roads to better understand what was around us.

  8. VK2YJS

    David, the previously government owned, and by far best network, Telstra has cell broadcast. Their underlying technology provides greater range than the GSM used by the other networks, although this may not benefit overseas visitors.

    But some areas are very hilly, which makes providing service over wide areas difficult.

    The other networks are:

    Optus, set up to satisfy a political whim for competition, and now owned by the Singapore dictatorship's investment company. They company also owns the power distribution company which caused the great majority of deaths during Black Saturday by failing to maintain the poles and wires.

    Vodafone, currently being sued over extraordinarily poor service, specifically drop-outs and pathetic data rates in a case nicknamed "Vodafail". They basically sold a huge number of services cheap, without the infrastructure,

    The problem is that while they share towers at times, they generally act like spoilt 2 year olds, and do not allow roaming between networks.

    A lot of rural areas have FM relay of local radio, and there is also digital (DAB+) in the city. There used to be a national network of shortwave transmitters, carrying national and regional programming, but that is now only transmitted in the Northern Territory, carrying NT services (although SW listeners and hams can often listen in in Sydney, etc..

  9. Kevin Maciunas

    Official + Timely? Not all that likely..

    Disclaimer: while I'm a Fire Service officer, this isn't (naturally) the view of the Fire Service...

    The words from the article about how the information flows from the fire line are the nub of the matter. I might get on the radio and report something going south to the sector commander who will maybe take some steps to see if it is as bad as I say. Then when the sad truth of the matter is revealed s/he will forward that up the chain of command to the Incident Management Team.

    As an IMT person myself - any news from the ground is wonderful and is pretty much immediately listened to and fed into operations and planning. When this system is working well, the most optimistic lag time is probably 5 or so minutes from an appliance OIC reporting it to the Incident Controller being made aware of something. Without ANY valid statistics to back this up - I'd suggest it is more likely that 10 or so minutes would realistically elapse..

    Since the sad events in Victoria and the ensuing investigation - here in South Australia our IMTs now have a media liason person. So if the Incident Controller decides something needs to be done with respect to notifying the general public - the media liason bod gets tasked. I don't know what the lag through the ABC is, but it would be minutes at least.

    So you'd be (realistically) looking at 10-15mins shrinking down to a very optimistic 5 or so minutes if all the ducks are lined up... So timely isn't part of the equation here.

    The other part - the "official" part - is also a problem. The decision to notify (via SMS and/or radio) isn't "automatic". Someone (in the case of SA: someone at the regional office) decides if there is a real issue. This means a delay until the first arriving officer makes a Situation Report. That SITREP passes up through the chain of command quite quickly, but again - there is a delay. Being volunteer brigades, it might take 4-5mins to respond, a further say 5-10mins to drive to the incident. By which time a fire might be going "quite well". So even the alert that something is happening might be delayed by quite a bit. Not being part of the (paid) regional office staff I can't comment on what the "official" processes are to authorize an alert, but I think that bit happens pretty quickly.

    The other thing that should be said is that people (like me) who live in bushfire prone areas do know that mobile phone coverage is dodgey, where their evacuation routes are; and most importantly wouldn't be waiting for an SMS to decide to leave.. Certainly here in the Adelaide hills you know when it is going to be a bad day the moment you open the door and step outside!

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