Time to update warning guidelines

In  Australia emergency agencies and others have access to nationally defined emergency warning guidelines.

They are here: http://www.em.gov.au/Emergency-Warnings/Pages/default.aspx

They haven’t been updated since 2009. The current review of best practice in emergency warnings isn’t calling for a review of the process, only “best practice,” although it’s likely to generate useful debate.

However there are some components missing from the existing guidelines, and it’s time to update them. But who will do that? Australia doesn’t have a committee responsible for continual evaluation and review of guidelines to ensure best practice or learning from events. I have in the past recommended that AFAC could play that role, in the absence of a more pliable or nimble federal emergency agency. It would be useful if “disseminators” were part of the committee.

I have copied the existing guidelines below. they were reasonable in the circumstances but now to them we can add learnings from past practice and new technology.

– Urgency.All warnings should contain information to enable people to understand the urgency of the threat.

They should enable disseminators to make a decision based on urgency should they need to prioritise multiple and prolonged warnings.

– Context: warnings do not happen in isolation. The recipient and the disseminator should know from the content of the warning or the operational guidelines attached to them the sense of urgency; the number of people at risk, and when they will be at risk, and some understanding of the likely impact of the event, based on realistic assessment or past experience.

– Verification: Psychologists tell us that people don’t respond to warnings until they have the warning verified. The warning system should include management of verification tools such as interviews.

– Format: Psychologists tell us that warnings will be best remembered in graphic form and yet nearly all are delivered in text. All warnings should be delivered in all formats with an emphasis on graphics and audio. This meets the human need but also the need for electronic media and social media to be able to effectively disseminate the warnings.

– Community development: All warnings should include a call to action to ensure community response, not individual or personal response. The recipient should be told what to do to help their community.

The principles are below.

Emergency warnings guidelines and principles

National Best Practice Guidelines for the Request and Broadcast of Emergency Warnings

The National Best Practice Guidelines for the Request and Broadcast of Emergency Warnings were endorsed by the then Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management – Emergency Management (MCPEM-EM) in 2007. They were also endorsed by the peak broadcast media bodies representing all sectors of the industry.

The Guidelines provide a simple, consistent and clearly defined process across all emergency services and broadcast media for issuing, verifying, updating and terminating broadcast requests. The Guidelines have been used as a primary source document when developing new or revised memorandums of understanding or arrangements relating to broadcast warnings.

All States and Territories have processes and formal agreements with the public broadcaster, and commercial broadcast media, and, many have progressed formal arrangements with pay and community broadcast media.

Emergency warning principles

In October 2008, the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management – Emergency Management (MCPEM-EM) endorsed the following twelve national emergency warning system principles. The principles provide a framework that guides activities in the public warning sphere. Adhering to these principles also improves the effectiveness of emergency warnings and communications across all jurisdictions. A number of States and Territories have developed their own protocols that reference these guidelines:

    1. Coordinated: a warning system should avoid duplication of effort where possible and support a shared understanding of the situation among different agencies involved in managing the incident.
    2. Authoritative and accountable: warnings are to be disseminated on the decision of an authorised person. Authorities should be able to interrogate the System components for later analysis.
    3. Consistent / Standards based: the information content is coordinated across all of the mechanisms used for warnings. Messages must be consistent across different sources if they are to be believed by the general population. Conflicting messages tend to create uncertainty and will delay responsive action. Any relevant identified standards will underpin the agreed System Framework.
    4. Complete: message content should include relevant pertinent details, including possibly a direction on the need to consult other sources, presented in a way that is easily and quickly understood by the population. This includes multiple languages in some cases, as well as the use of multi-media for those who are illiterate or people with a disability (eg. people who are Deaf or have a hearing impairment or those who are blind or have a vision impairment).
    5. Multi-modal: warnings are to be disseminated using a variety of delivery mechanisms and in multiple information presentation formats that will, in some circumstances, complement each other to produce a complete picture, with planning and processes to allow for maximum reach to all members of the community and to provide for redundancies in the case of critical infrastructure failure (eg. power or telecommunications).
    6. All-hazards: any emergency warning system developed will be capable of providing warnings, where practicable, for any type of emergency.
    7. Targeted: messages should be targeted to those communities at risk in order to reduce the complacency that can result from people receiving warnings that do not apply to them – ‘over warning’.
    8. Interoperable: have coordinated delivery methods, capable of operation across jurisdictional borders for issuing warnings.
    9. Accessible and responsive: capable of responding to and delivering warnings in an environment of demographic, social and technological change. Recognise the criticality of adopting universal design and access principles, particularly in the development and acquisition of technologies.
    10. Verifiable: the community is able to verify and authenticate the warnings to reduce incidents of accidental activations and prevent malicious attempts to issue false alerts to a population.
    11. Underpinned by education and awareness raising activities: the System, any delivery mechanisms that constitute it and the language used in the warning messages it delivers, should be underpinned by appropriate education and awareness raising activities.
    12. Compatible: with the existing telecommunications networks and infrastructure without adversely impacting on the normal telephone and broadcast system. The System should avoid any adverse operational, technical or commercial implications for the provision of current communications services to consumers and on the integrity of communications networks.

To underpin the implementation of the national telephone-based emergency warning capability, in 2009 States and Territories added a further two principles:

  1. Compliant with relevant legislation: warnings should be compliant with relevant Commonwealth, State and Territory legislation, associated regulations and policy.
  2. Integrated: warnings should be integrated to ensure timely notification to multiple organisational stakeholders and communication channels.

Hurricane Iselle warnings


Hurricane Iselle, a Category One storm, is heading for Hawaii, and emergency agencies are alerting residents. It’s a chance to examine the warnings in the framework I set down in a previous article on effective warnings.

On August 7, 2014, Mayor Alan Arakawa held a press conference on the status of Hurricane Iselle today in the Mayor’s Conference Room at the Kalana O Maui County Building. Also present to give remarks was Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui. You can see it here. Mayor alerts residents to impact of Hurricane Iselle (Aug 2014)

It is a useful exercise to evaluate the warnings the local government authority is putting in place.  I cant advise what the weather cnetre is doing with it’s warnings, and taken together with other information unavailable to m, the community might be comprehensively warned. But a quick examination of the event suggests the Country is missing an opportunity to provide effective warnings.

The event

  • What’s happening? Mayor Arakawa told us that a hurricane with 60mph winds is coming. He did not describe the likely impact of winds of this strength; or the amount of rain expected; or the type of damage likely. In other words he described the “threat” but not the “risk.”
  • What’s going to happen? Flooding, landslides, electricity loss, but no context, or scale.
  • How serious is this? Not discussed. 
  • What’s it mean for me? Not discussed
  • When is it happening? Not discussed in sufficient detail, although there might be other warnings, possibly from NOAA and the Pacific Tropical Hurricane Centre, but this was a lost opportunity if he was seekinhg to become the strong trusted local voice.
  • What should I do? “Stay at home to survive” was the key message, however at one stage he confusingly encouraged some people to evacuate.
  • Where can I get more information? Some encouragement to listen to the radio stations and TV, and an emergency phone number, plus a county phone number. No web sites; non social media; no suggestion asking family and friends and experienced community leaders.
  • How can I help my community? Encouraged to look after elderly people.

The delivery (This was a news conference, only useful for generating broad understanding of what was going on.)

  • Immediately
  • Repeatedly
  • Updated
  • By a strong trusted local voice
  • With verification
  • Simultaneously on a variety of platforms several of which should be available to the recipient

The basis

  •  Be based on research No attempt made to provide this context to the audience at the news conference, which was likely to be re-broadcast (and in fact WAS loaded to You tube).
  • The community must know what to do when it hears a warning No information given at this event, although the weather service might be doing that.
  • Be part of our community culture Not attempted
  • Be comprehensive Not indicated.
  • Be reliable Assume yes. No graphics, no suggestion of when the next media event would be.
  • Be consistent I cant comment
  • Be integrated with all warning platforms and options. Doesnt appear so. No “deaf signers” and little for hard of hearing. No connection to social media.
  • Be reviewed, assessed and constantly improved. (Hopefully).