Ten years of “emergency broadcasting” in Victoria – now what?

My professional position is as the Manager of Emergency Broadcasting and Community Development for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Local Radio division. It was my delight to be able to attend on Friday March 28 an event to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with The ABC, the Bureau of Meteorology and Victorian emergency agencies.

The agreement provided a reliable, 24/7 platform on which those agencies could issue warnings to the community at any time for any event, knowing the ABC would broadcast them repeatedly and for as long as necessary, to enable the community to respond to the event. We now make the same undertaking on TV and online (including social media).

The March 28 event was arranged by the Victorian Fire Commissioner Craig Lapsley, and the key note address was by the Victorian Minister for Police and Emergency Services, the Hon Kim Wells.

“It is an honour to receive on behalf of all ABC staff a tribute from The Hon Kim Wells today marking ten years since Bruce Esplin and I signed the first MoU to commit the ABC to broadcast warnings delivered by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CFA.

The process of issuing warnings to the public has come a long way since the first, somewhat  hesitant and halting warning in January, 1997. Siusan McKenzie wrote the first warning for us in January 1997, and immediately suggested we wouldn’t be able to broadcast it.

Why – because Siusan knew we would not break into cricket coverage, and the warning, to be effective, would need to be issued repeatedly.

My then director Sue Howard advised me: ”Break in, but don’t tell anyone.”

All hell broke loose inside the ABC, but few now can recall those days long ago.

In fact this January the ABC has implemented a policy committing all staff to create processes to enable us to issue all high level warnings when requested by an emergency agency or government authority on whatever platform we feel is  useful.

This change of culture is highlighted by the fact that now our community expects to receive timely and effective warnings, and on a variety of platforms.

The partnership we have in place with the Bureau of Meteorology and emergency agencies is strong and robust.

Implementing something as new as the principal of “emergency broadcasting” which requires change of culture, attitude and operational procedures in a highly political and highly regulated environment isn’t easy.

It’s a credit to the people involved at the ABC and in emergency agencies that we’ve been able to make this work.

The goodwill is generated because Emergency Broadcasting makes a difference. Timely warnings save lives.

As a manager at The ABC I look at the way we broadcast to the community during disasters and  ask three things: are there any complaints from the community that they didn’t receive any warnings; did we look after our staff; and did things run smoothly.

 

Here in Victoria we can look at the recent example of the catastrophic fire day when there were five simultaneous emergency warnings including three in built up areas. It’s our nightmare, and it came on a nightmare day.

 

There were no complaints from the community that warnings were not received  even though there were emergency warnings in five places that day and hundreds of thousands of people were potentially affected.

 

We did look after our staff. Dealing with bushfires, to me, seems like an intensely personal and intimate activity, putting your life on the line to confront the flames. And sometimes issuing warnings is equally personal and confronting. One of the ABC staff who worked on the Mickleham fires stopped on the way to work and cried, remembering our performance on Black Saturday. The broadcaster nearly turned around, but eventually came to work. That person told me they felt an important job needed doing, and the ABC and emergency agencies were now much better at creating effective warnings. In other words it was safe to come to work.

 

And on that busy day our studio production team worked effectively with the State Control centre and Incident Controllers to provide warnings, context and advice.

 

It’s not lost on me how complex the process of issuing warnings can be. From the volunteer on the fire ground, to the SES worker on a riverbank or an weather forecaster at their desk, it’s difficult to first create sense out of the mess they are facing and then find ways to effectively communicate a message about threat and risk.

 

It’s interesting too that Emergency Broadcasting  is a management dominated initiative…I know staff and volunteers have an important operational role to play and I’m not underestimating that, but there is the work of policy development and strategic planning, stakeholder relationships, dealing with the public and high level enquiries. It’s shone a spotlight on the work of people like Neil Bibby, Bruce Esplin, Russel Rees, Alistair Hainsworth and Ward Rooney, Christine Nixon, Euan Ferguson, Craig Lapsley, Mary Barry, Ewan Waller, and the researchers, like Gary Morgan and John Handmer. And at the ABC, Sue Howard, Michael Mason, Kate Dundas, Mark Scott.

 

These managers took risks with emergency broadcasting. They put their reputations on the line to embrace the concept of emergency broadcasting, they nurtured it, defended it, and can take a great deal of responsibility for the fact it’s now part of the fabric of our life throughout Australia.

But acknowledging a tenth anniversary is also a chance to look forward. And there is more to be done.

As we learn more about the psychology of bushfires from people like Rob Gordon, it’s becoming more and more important to understand warnings have to take account of human behaviour. We know in a disaster human beings  use the side of their brain which works in graphics and images,  so we simply must have more graphics and images in our warnings, and this includes effective fire forecast maps.

We must be on TV. And while the ABC has now moved to ensure that all warnings are carried on News24 we as an industry must make further efforts to get commercial TV involved.

We must learn how to better engage on social media like Facebook and Instagram, to talk directly to the more mobile and younger adults who no longer have to look to their parents for advice at critical times because they have all the information literally in hand.

We must keep reviewing and improving and to do this we need to build even stronger relations with emergency agencies where we are trusted with forecast material and risk evaluations.

At the ABC I know the people involved in emergency broadcasting, and this includes broadcasters, producers, reporters, managers, technical people, MCR, transmission co-ordinators and those in IT and human resources, all of whom come together to make it possible for us to issue effective warnings.

I know them all personally, and am very proud of them, and I know they will all continue to do everything they can to ensure that we issue effective warnings and information when the community needs it.”

Ian Mannix

March 28, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tsunami warnings in Washington State, USA

“We set off 54 sirens today” said a quietly pleased Robert Purdom from the Washington State Emergency Operations Centre in Camp Murray on the day of the great “Shake out” the bi-annual earthquake drill practiced by millions of Californians for the past few years, and now hundreds of thousands of people from a dozen other US states and even Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

The sirens are one of the principle tools designed to alert the community to a tsunami. And the threat is very real. The western states lie on a variety of fault lines which are quite active. In written history of the North America region there have been numerous very damaging earthquakes and accompanying tsunami. But the alert system now is based on an event which occurred at 9pm, January 26, 1700. There are no written records in the US of this earthquake, but there are in Japan.

“We had a Magnitude 9 rupture of the Cascadia fault line at 9pm on January 26,  1700,” says  John Schelling, the Earthquake/Tsunami/Volcano Program Manager. “We know the exact time and date from historical records in Japan. The tsunami washed up in Japan the next day, without warning and flooded fields and washed away homes. They called it the “Orphan Tsunami” as they knew it wasn’t caused by an earthquake in Japan.

 An earthquake of that magnitude almost certainly will cause a tsunami along the American coast . The records from tree rings show the Orphan tsunami submerged great areas of coast, and stopped the trees growing. Washington State is preparing its warning system for another event, with the belief they need people to respond within 30 minutes or less.

Chris Utzinger points to the earthquake resistant piles the Washington EOC is built on. The building will move as though it was on water.

The warning system is based around getting quality advice about the tsunami, and then using a variety of means to alert residents and emergency agencies. Local familiarisation and training is critical to the success of the system. “We were pleased that we had 700,000 people register to participate in our first Great Earthquake Shake Out” says John. But we hope for many more next year.”

 If an earthquake occurs and generates a tsunami the warning system will be activated.

 The US Pacific or Alaskan Tsunami monitoring centres operated by The National Weather Service,  will generate a report, which is immediately public.

The report will be received at the Washington State Emergency Operations Centre, (EOC) which is responsible for alerting all emergency and response agencies and organisations which are likely to be affected. There is one nuclear power plant in the state.

 

 Simultaneously the EOC will activate the siren system.

“We have about 100 phrases pre-programmed onto a voice chip and  the sirens can be programmed to announce anything that the voice chip has available, but we’ve only ever activated it from the EOC for a tsunami siren test” says Telecommunications Field Engineer Robert Purdom. “Each event consists of voice recording as well as the siren sound. We will generate the alerts  every few minutes for about 40 minutes.

But although the sirens are tested regularly, they are not considered effective without explanation, or context.

“Every time the siren sounds there must be a combination of siren and voice material,” says John Scheling, Earthquake Program Manager (Mitigation and Recovery)
” We know a siren alone wont make people change their behaviour.”

Tsunami warning sign on Santa Monica beach, Cal, USA

  The announcement begins with the heart stopping words: ”This is not a drill.”

AHAB: All Hazards Alert Broadcasting siren, used for tsunami alerts in Washington State, USA

“The sirens are for outdoor use only,” says John Schelling. “They are for people on the beach and in the streets. They won’t be heard indoors, so people have to be aware they might not hear the sirens when a tsunami alert is generated.”

 It’s expected the police will drive through towns and neighbourhoods using loud hailers attached to their vehicles warning people of the tsunami.

 In addition the “Emergency Alert System” will carry the tsunami warnings to emergency broadcasters, including radio, TV, and digital platforms, and US phone carriers will activate their alerts to mobile devices using CMAS – the Commercial Mobile Alert System.

 If the electricity and land lines are damaged by the earthquake, each siren can be activated locally by a county or city emergency agency professional via VHF or UHF radio. 

 But the awareness messages stress that people must not wait for an alert. “The ground shaking, that’s the warning” says John. “Our messages are straightforward and each has a call to action: “If the ground starts shaking, you run. If you see the sea receding, you run.If you hear a siren, you run.”

The population is expected to seek higher ground, with awareness plans in place to try to raise understanding that the public should not  expect to be able to use roads. “An earthquake is likely to damage roads. We expect people will walk or run to higher ground,” says John. The Mayor of Long Beach, which is a marine spit built at water level and with no nearby hills, says “goodness knows which way the warning signs will be pointing after an earthquake.”

Washington State is trying a Japanese idea:  “vertical evacuation.” This can include towers, buildings and berms. Vulnerable communities are encouraged to become involved in considering these developments, drawing up plans and seeking federal funding.

“The community is asked if they would like a “vertical evacuation plan” and where they would like the hill or high ground to be built,” says John. This called “Project Safe Haven” and it is an attempt to get the community thinking what kind of structure might help them survive a tsunami.

 It might be a berm, reinforced dirt structure, a little like a big river levee, that can be built close to population centres. They could be 10 metres high or more, and will cost  $250,000 – to $1 million each.  They are an active feature of Japanese tsunami response.

Engaging the whole community in its design and placement results in widespread understanding of what the berm is for; and solid community buy-in. A berm could wrap around a sporting field and create new and useful lines of visibility or it could create an amphitheatre for public events in a community.

But it’s still just a concept: “No vertical evacuation structures exist yet, so we are hoping to build the first one in the U.S. in coming years. Additionally, funding is not yet available, but we hope to use a combination of federal, state, and local funds to implement the results developed by each community.” It’s ambitious,m but the issue calls for an open mind.

“The siren towers cost about $50,000 each, and the cost is shared between state and local counties.” says John.

 The Federal Emergency Management Agency in the US has tried to evaluate the cost of natural hazards. In addition to the infrastructure costs, it has discovered that each death from natural hazard results in costs of about $ 5 million. A few hundred thousand dollars for some sirens, and a million or so for a berm, pales into insignificance if they save hundreds or thousands of people.

contacts:

john.schelling@mil.wa.gov

chris.utzinger@mil.wa.gov

jerald.compton@mil.wa.gov

 

Bushfire evacuation

 Evacuations from hazardous areas are a standard part of the tool kit of the US emergency manager.The protocols vary from place to place, and they are still ironing out some of the problems in some areas. It doesn’t appear to be a universal or mandatory obligation.

Evacuation route in Washington DC. The public is expected to know when a “snow emergency” is declared, and then not to park on these routes to enable the snow ploughs to operate unimpeded. Cars would be towed away for the ignorant.

 

Tsunami evacuation route sign, waterfront, San Francisco

Uptown Manhattan.

There are many times an evacuation isn’t possible: tornadoes and rapidly moving fires come to mind.  Evacuations are, however, a significant and expected part of the warning system.

Like Australia police have various laws they can use to force people to evacuate, but in reality, they will be very reluctant to physically remove a person from their home if they want to try and defend it. Persuasion is their most effective tool. One Canadian emertency manager said: There are rules that can be put in place to remove children from dangerous places.” That soon convinces parents to follow.

An American emergency agency staff member said the following phrase  is persuasive:  “Before I go I need to know how tall you are so I can bring the right size body bag back.” 

The law is outlined in Community Wildfire Protection Plans, which are implemented in nearly all fire prone regions. This is from Lane County in California:

THE LAW

A county, city or municipal corporation may authorize an agency or official to order mandatory evacuations of residents and other individuals after a declaration of a state of emergency within the jurisdiction is declared. An evacuation under an ordinance or resolution authorized by this section shall be ordered only when necessary for public safety or when necessary for the efficient conduct of activities that minimize or mitigate the effects of the emergency

(ORS 401.309). BE AWARE; after a mandatory evacuation order goes into effect emergency responders will notrisk their lives to save you should you choose to stay at your home after the order

Evacuation procedures need to be planned and trained for. Many roads have warning signs along them which are opened only when an evacuation is in place, restricting travel on the whole road to one direction.

The public needs to know when to evacuate, and where to go. Clearly this is a business that needs good local pre-planning. Doug Gantt, Fire Manager Officer with The US Forest Service says: “You have to front load all this stuff.”

It is the decision of the Incident Controller who will advise the Sheriff that the fire threatens homes or a community, and the evacuation is carried out by law enforcement officers.

During the Pondarosa Fires, Shingletown was issued with a “voluntary evacuation notice,” which was superseded about two hours later by a “mandatory evacuation notice.”

Down at Manton when the fire was out of control and time was much shorter, things worked a little differently. One genteel soul told me (after advising me to cover my ears) “The sheriff’s car drove into my drive, sounded the siren, and he yelled:”You’d better get the fuck outta here.”

This is how the evacuation notices unfolded for the multiple fires in the Wenatchee Fire complex in Washington State from September 11, 2012. The web site contains all the details of the way the evacuations launched, ramped up, and then gradually were downgraded.

This is how the the first warning was posted on Inciweb:

Incident: Wenatchee Complex Wildfire
Released: 9/11/2012

Level 1, 2, and 3 Evacuation Status is akin to a “Ready, Set, Go” level of evacuation notices with Level 1 asking residents to be ready to evacuate if conditions change, Level 2 means residents should be set to go at a moment’s notice, Level 3 means authorities are advising residents to evacuate because their homes are in imminent danger (under Level 3, residents will not be allowed to return to their homes until fire danger decreases).

Evacuations remain in place for the following areas affected by the Byrd Canyon Fire:

· Downey Canyon – Level 1

· State Route 971 Navarre Coulee Road (east side) – Level 2

· State Route 971 Navarre Coulee Road (west side) – Level 3

· State Route 97A Tunnel to Davis Canyon – Level 3

· State Route 97A from Byrd Canyon to State Route 971 – Level 3

 The explanations at the top of the warning were inserted because the fire managers werent confident the community was fully aware of the evacuation procedures. No survey has been done about how many people evacuated, or when, but no-one died or was injured.

Over time the evacuation levels were reduced.