Emergency broadcasting

Emergency broadcasting began a few hours late in the day of January 21, 1997.
Homes in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges were burning, but there was no adequate and useful advice for residents confronted by the advancing flames. Three people died – I have included a tribute to them in “Great Australian Bushfire Stories.” (You can buy it online)Emergency broadcasting will be described later, but it should now incorporate all elements of community information – radio, tv, mobile, digital; loud speaker; whatever else comes along.There are no strict principles, although ABC Local Radio has some internal guidelines.
But we can create some of our own. The foundations would be drawn from principles of warnings; principles of broadcasting; principles of community development; and there are principles of resilience.  More on this later.

US Weather Service Radio

 

In the US it’s estimated that 98 percent of all people are within range of NOAA Weather Radio.” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, runs the National Weather Service) . 

Chris Maier, the National Warning Co-ordination meteorologist says there are 1013 transmitters dotted around the country each with a range of about 60km. 

That makes it an important part of the US natural hazards warning system, so knowing a little about it can be useful in comparing and contrasting different warning platforms. 

People can buy the radio for their homes, office, schools or business. Prices can vary from $20 to $200, depending on the model. Models vary a little but generally they are activated when a tone alarm is broadcast by the NWS for “warning” or “watch” messages delivered by the NWS. The audio is recorded. It’s a  bit monotone, and will play on a loop, at various intervals (not continuous) determined by the event.

The tone (1050mh)will activate all the receivers which are equipped to receive it, even if the audio is turned off. This is especially useful for warnings which occur during the night when most people are asleep.

Many are geocoded, so the owner can opt to receive messages at county or city level, and can opt out of some message categories. For example, a person in a coastal county, but not right at the beach, might not care about Coastal Flood Warnings. This feature may also be called “Event Blocking” or “Defeat Siren”.

Most are AC adapted with battery backup for power outages. Some receivers come with an external antenna jack (normally in the back of the unit) to connect to a larger antenna (which can be indoors or outdoors).

 NWR broadcasts are in the Public Service VHF frequencies, just above FM radio and between the current TV channels 6 and 7 – so the radios are usually sold as AM/FM/Weather radio. They can be used in cars.

Some radios have a jack to plug-in external notification devices, such as strobe lights or bed shakers, which can be useful for those with special needs.

 The Australian perspective

Weather Radio puts responsibility in the hands of the National Weather Service for both creating AND disseminating warnings. The system is robust, and many weather service warning teams allow the service to broadcast a range of other non-weather related warnings. 

The highlight of the system is the “sleep” mode, in which the audio is only turned on when needed. This puts it in a special place, above all existing radio and tv; all online media and most mobile platforms (except for those among us who sleep with one ear open on the mobile next to the bed – we have to stop that and sleep!)

It meets the “UN Guiding Principles for Effective Early Warnings” which I wrote about earlier, particularly with respect to accessibility, if the strobe lights and vibrating beds and chairs are attached.)

An Australian consortium called “Yellow Bird” was trying to sell a similar concept to the Australian Government two years ago. They thought they could manufacture Yellow Bird for about ten dollars, and were looking at a mechanism to enable hyper-local decisions to be made on the broadcast footprint.

The idea of a separate warning and emergency radio station comes up from time to time, most recently when Major General Peter Cosgrove suggested it would have been useful after Cyclone Larry, mostly for recovery.

The coverage is extensive, but might not be top-of-mind for all Americans. In Manton, Cal,  where I spoke to people about bush fires, no-one mentioned Weather Radio; in Joplin, Missourri, in “tornado alley” a couple of people mentioned they had one, although one  turned it off when it became too intrusive. The receptionist/manager at my Washington DC hotel had never heard of it, and said there were none in the building.

James Bremer, the program director and senior engineer at KQMS in Redding told me his station could add Weather Radio broadcasts to their automatic content if they thought it might be warranted “but often its too repetitious.”

National Weather Radio infrastructure might be a barrier, but in reality new servers/codecs can direct audio to EXISTING AM and FM radios, and an inaudible tone could switch the radios on, so the system would these days be much less capital intesive. Local government, which has embraced the concept of tourist radio on the FM band in Australia, and which has over the years enthusiastically supported community radio, might find this a useful local communications system. It would cost less than giving very household three different coloured rubbish bins.

Of course it could also be used in place of what in the US is called “Emergency Alert” (Not to be confused with Australia’s telephone based “emergency alert”) where it would be  useful to direct messages to radio stations which aren’t staffed, which applies to many commercial regional stations in Australia, most community stations  and a few ABC stations. But this is getting into the area best served by Emergency Alert radio. I’ll describe that in a new post shortly.

I would like to know if any policy and strategy officers at any Federal or state jurisdiction or the BoM in Australia has looked at Weather radio? 

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