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







Defining “emergency broadcasting”

In the past two weeks I have met a group of people from Germany and talked about the needs of some pacific island states regarding issuing warnings to their community.

Issuing warnings in a repetitive way, with useful information that meets the needs of people involved in an emergency, is what I call “emergency broadcasting.” It’s not just issuing media releases and going to wall-to-wall or rolling coverage. That’s “news,”  and flow programming and it’s interesting and sometimes compelling but if it doesnt consider the needs of the community when they are facing the emergency, it’s not emergency broadcasting.

If the elements of emergency broadcasting are all considered alongside the content, then it will be more effective communication package to the community.

I needed to write a report defining emergency broadcasting to those unfamiliar with it.

Here is what I came up with. Does it make sense?

The aim of “emergency broadcasting:”

“Giving people information they could use to respond to an event before, during and after the emergency.”

It is conducted in partnership with emergency agencies, The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the media outlet, and is relevant in all natural hazards, and some man-made disasters such as human, animal and plant quarantine, civil unrest, active shooters, utility failure and toxic gas and chemical spills.

The principals of emergency broadcasting are:

  • Understanding the threat environment by all involved in emergency broadcasting.
  • Ensuring that all staff involved in EB includes, among other things: weather forecasting, the natural environment; the disaster history in the region; planning and undertaking emergency broadcasting; understanding human behaviour in disasters; understanding the response agency operations; sharing information.
  • The provision of formal and informal warnings and information to assist individuals to respond and recover.
  • To work in partnership with emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology to understand their operations and assist them to meet their goals.
  • To ensure that information can be provided even when no formal warning and advice are forthcoming.
  • To build partnerships with transmission agencies to ensure broadcast pathways are maintained and prepared.
  • To ensure that the information can be provided in a way which best suits the needs of the whole community regardless of language, age and cultural barriers.
  • To emphasise the need for a whole of community response to best survive and recover.
  • Regular review of all emergency broadcast activity in collaboration with emergency agencies.

The strategies to achieve these principals are:

Use of audio alerts, and effective headlines to ensure the listening and viewing audience knows that the messages are important.

Warnings provided in a way that is scalable depending on the level of the threat.

Education campaigns to ensure that the audience knows what the provision of emergency broadcasting includes.

Education campaigns to ensure they know what to do when they receive a warning.

The capacity to scale up content quickly.

Collaboration with technical departments to ensure transmission and technical services are aware of the emergency and can prepare.

Training of broadcasters to understand emergency agencies operations; basic weather forecasting; and to reduce stress and anxiety which can be problem when conducting an emergency broadcast.

Managers engage with State, District and Local disaster committees to build strong understanding, personal networks, and local capabilities.

Have I missed anything?


All I had was the radio – the need for radio when the power fails

Rachael Mead lives at Lobethal Road, Basket Range in the low hills outside Adelaide, in South Australia. Her husband was on a Country FIre Service volunteer truck during the unseasonal “Cherryville” bushfire which hit her valley in the first week of May. 

She has a bushfire plan. She moved the animals to another place when the fire started. She does not listen to 891 ABC Adelaide, (the emergency broadcaster) and was unaware of the sign on the freeway 10 km from her place that suggests she should listen to 891 in an emergency.

 She was not listening to the radio when the fire started as she was relying on her mobile phone access to the CFS website for information, but it eventually became apparent that she would lose power and access to the web site. She streamed 891 to her handset and walked around with it for a while, but then realised her phone battery would fail and she had no way of charging it. Rachael retrieved her battery powered radio from her “ready kit.”

 “I had never thought I would ever use that radio, but now I understand. I will have to change the batteries before every fire season, because without the radio I would have been lost. I would not have had information to enable me to stay and prepare. I would not have known when to turn the sprinklers on and to leave. I had seen the ribbon warnings on ABC TV in the past about other fires and thought that was a good idea, but I couldn’t watch TV when the power went off. The power was switched off by the power authority.”

 “I scanned the radio for a station broadcasting fire coverage, and came across 891 ABC Adelaide and thought because they were local they would probably have something. I waited until they did, and then had no reason to see if other stations had anything.

 “The half hour updates were accurate and useful in the most part. Coming at half hourly intervals meant I could go and do things and always come back at the right time, so I wasn’t glued to my kitchen bench and I could plan my actions.  It was very useful.

“When they came at  15 minute intervals and I also started receiving CFS alerts and the mobile phone started ringing more frequently and it was quite frantic, but then I found myself needing more and more information.

 “At one stage I contacted my husband on the CFS truck and he told me the information was inaccurate about where the fire had reached. They were discussing it quite a bit on the fire ground. I wondered who at the Uraidla Incident Control Centre was giving the radio the information.

 “I went up to the hill and watched the fire while listening on the stream. They were discussing dry cleaning with talk back, which was a bit surprising.

 “My neighbours were also listening to 891.

 “On Friday I had to change my fire plan when the power went out. I recall thinking they (891) were doing a very good job not inflaming the situation with inaccurate or sensationalist coverage. Some neighbours described to me that other media were quite sensationalist but I didn’t feel that with 891. They appeared to be very objective.

 “I cannot image how scared I would have been without the radio. I would have had to leave my house. It was a complete security to me. I was also in my house without even an animal for companionship.”

 “I was very worried about the forecast wind change on the Saturday and listened until 3pm, and recall thinking this was the first time I had ever listened to a footy game on the radio. I have no interest in football. It was the Richmond Tigers v Port Power. I remember thinking I would have appreciated more information during Saturday, as I was very worried about the wind shift.

 “I didnt check the websites after I turned on the radio because I had no power and needed to conserve my phone batteries.

 “The wind shift didn’t occur, and the rain almost started so I switched over the Poetica on Radio National, but when that finished I came back to 891 and listened to the news for any further information.”

 Rachael’s property was not affected.  




Warning sirens to be enhanced in Victoria

(I changed this post 18/12/12) to reflect correspondence from the Victorian Fire Commssioner’s office. )


The Victorian Government in Australia has announced a pilot program to establish sirens in some bushfire prone communities this year.

Sirens are a form of warning. As can be seen from previous posts, many believe they are effective externally only; should be part of an integrated warning system; and need a voice activated announcement to provide context.

Many communities feel safer with sirens, other’s tend to believe they prevent people from being pro-active in their hazards behaviour. This leads to complacency.

Overwarning is an issue.

The Victorian system is not integrated.

(Note change here: This sentence from me is not correct: The Fire Commssioner’s office says: “Sirens are to be integrated with osom which means that the warnings go to social media, emergency broadcasters, website and also sets the sirens off.”)

The Victorian Bushfire Commissioner web site says they can be used as part of Victoria’s warning system for all hazards – including flood, fire and storm.

“In the future a siren sounded anywhere in Victoria will have one of two consistent meanings:

  • CFA Brigade siren – a signal sounded for up to 90-seconds will indicate a CFA Brigade has responded to an emergency incident nearby.
  • CFA Brigade sirens and community sirens – a prolonged, 5-minute signal will indicate a significant emergency is underway in the local area, conditions are changing and people must seek further information and take immediate action.

The sound of a siren is a trigger for people to seek more information from other sources, including emergency broadcasters, the Victorian Bushfire Information Line or emergency services websites.

The sirens in Victoria appear to be tone only.

Here is the Victorian Govermnment news release:

Sirens to alert community at pilot locations this summer

Thursday, 22 November 2012 From the Deputy Premier, From the Minister for Police and Emergency Services

Sirens will be used as an additional warning tool across 13 local government areas this summer fire season, as part of a Victorian Coalition Government pilot program . The pilot will see 46 community sirens used to alert 39 towns or communities to any significant emergency or potential danger that could impact on them. Of these sirens, 28 will be located across three council areas to alert communities in the fire-prone Dandenong Ranges.

Deputy Premier and Minister for Police and Emergency Services Peter Ryan said the pilot locations were chosen based on their bushfire risk and access to a working CFA brigade siren or community siren.

“We know Victorian communities want sirens to be used as a warning tool and this pilot will make sure the correct processes are in place, and the community understands their use, before they are rolled out in other appropriate locations across Victoria,” Mr Ryan said.

“The pilot locations are primarily those where CFA brigade stations or infrastructure already have working sirens, however community-owned sirens in Ferny Creek, Steel’s Creek, Blackwood and Greendale will also be activated.

“Sirens are not a stand-alone means of warning the community, they are designed to alert people when a significant emergency is threatening the local area and to seek further information from other channels.

“Residents should then refer to alerts and warnings issued through emergency broadcasters, www.cfa.vic.gov.au, www.ses.vic.gov.au, SKY News television, local ABC radio, the FireReady app for smartphones, and the Victorian Bushfire Information Line or Flood Information Line,” Mr Ryan said. All sirens are being upgraded to connect to existing warning systems so the community has access to multiple, simultaneous alerts about emergency incidents in their area. The sirens will warn of fire, hazardous material incidents, floods and severe storms, in line with the Use of Sirens for Brigade and Community Alerting policy released by the Coalition Government in May.

The pilot siren locations are Lavers Hill, Wye River, Lorne, Cockatoo, Gembrook, Mt Martha, Noojee, Boolarra, Yinnar, Loch Sport, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Flowerdale, The Basin, Belgrave, Belgrave South, Belgrave Heights, Clematis, Emerald, Olinda, Kallista, The Patch, Kalorama, Mt Evelyn, Menzies Creek, Monbulk, Sassafras, Selby, Upwey, Upper Ferntree Gully, Silvan, Narre Warren East, Macclesfield, Blackwood, Greendale, Euroa, Myrtleford, Ferny Creek and Steels Creek. Some locations will have more than one siren. For more information about the Use of Sirens for Brigade and Community Alerting or the sirens pilot visit www.firecommissioner.vic.gov.au

The tale of two warnings

 At the time of writing there are two fires causing authorities some headaches. Overnight it appears about 30 members of the fishing village at Musselroe Bay in North Eastern Tasmania evacuated themselves to the local boat ramp ahead of a bushfire which “jumped containment lines.”

The Tasmania Fire Service issued an emergency warning at 9.35 pm last night and advised residents the township would be affected within half an hour. Today the situation has changed and the town is under a “Watch and Act.”

Meantime Inciweb gives us warnings for a fire at at Fern Lake in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. (Warning reproduced below, under the Tasmanian Fire Service Watch and Act warning.)

The Rocky Mountains Fire service believes more is better, and the amount of information available to residents and travellers is exhaustive.

For Australian The TFS takes a different approach with brevity being paramount but with a lot more effort being put into finding an effective description of the fire, to highlight to readers the threat they might face, and in context too, with fire behaviour being pinpointed. This is part of the Auystralian Bushfires Warning National FGramework, and while it sounds a little clunky, it certainly accurately characterises the fire behaviour.

The fact that the community meeting was being broadcast live from Colorado is exciting to see. ABC Radio in Victoria has been broadcasting community meetings for about a year to much community acclaim.


Bushfire Watch & Act Message


Current from:03/12/2012 01:21 PM     until:  03/12/2012 08:00 PM   or further notice 

There is a large bushfire at Cuckoo Creek, MUSSELROE BAY

The fire danger rating in this area is high . Fire under these conditions can be difficult to control .

This fire may affect the communities of Musselroe Bay township 

This bushfire is currently not controlled.

There may be embers, smoke and ash falling on Musselroe Bay township and surrounding areas.

Reported Road Closures:  none at this time but smoke may be covering parts of Musselroe Road and there is a possibility of this road being closed due to increased fire activity

What to do:

Activate your bushfire plan now

If you are away from home: Do not try to return to your home as the roads in this area could be highly dangerous.

Non residents should stay away from the affected areas.

Monitor ABC Local Radio & TFS Website – www.fire.tas.gov.au for further instructions

Community Information:
Fire remains contained on the West side of Musselroe Road and South of River Road.TFS crews have conducted back burn operations between the fire front and Musselroe Road in an effort to contain the fire.

Crew numbers are being increased throughout the day in expectation of increasing wind strengths.

Aurora crews on site managing threats to power infrastructure.

If there is any fire activity causing you concern please report it to the TFS by calling Triple Zero (000).

TFS Attending Resources:
Resources Arrived:
  1 x PERSONNEL CARRIERResources Mobilised:
  1 x TFS

Non-TFS Attending Resources:
 Meantime over at Colorado, the Inciweb information is voluminous, and has effective evacuation information, and road closures, but little context.

Fern Lake Fire Announcement Incident 

 Evacuation and Pre-Evacuation Information Incident:

Fern Lake Fire Wildfire Released: 4 hrs. ago

EVACUATION INFORMATION There is a Red Flag warning today. Based on wind forecasts for this evening, residents should be aware that pre-evacuation and evacuation notices could be expanded. Sign up for emergency notifications at www.leta911.org. Changes in current evacuation and pre-evacuation orders are also made through reverse notification. The scope and necessity of evacuations is continuously evaluated. At this time, only individuals with a medical necessity are allowed to re-enter the evacuation area of the Highway 66 corridor with an escort from the Sheriff’s office. The Highway 66 corridor, including all adjacent streets, remains in evacuation. Electrical power is still on in the area. Last night, expanded pre-evacuation reverse notifications were sent to the Marys Lake Road area to include the area from Moraine Avenue and Rock Ridge Road South to Highway 7 and Fish Creek Road. The pre-evacuation notice includes both the east and west sides of Marys Lake Road. Pre-evacuation means that residents should be ready to leave if they receive an evacuation notice. Residents of High Drive and adjacent streets are also on pre-evacuation notice. The residents in this area must present identification to law enforcement at the High Drive road block. No others will be allowed in the area. The evacuation center will transition from the Estes Park High School to the Mountain View Bible Fellowship at 3 p.m. on today, Dec. 2. This location will be used for sheltering and continued evacuee updates. Mountain View Bible Fellowship is located at 1575 South Saint Vrain Ave. /Highway 7, at the corner of Peak View Drive. The transition to the church has been moved up from 5 p.m. to 3 p.m. today. The cooperating agencies, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are staffing this evacuation center. Information is provided to evacuees on site. Large animals may be taken to the Stanley Park Fairgrounds at 1209 Manford Ave. INCIDENT INFORMATION SOURCES AND BRIEFINGS There will be a community and evacuee meeting at 5 pm today (Dec. 2) at Town Hall in the board room, 170 MacGregor Avenue. This meeting will be live streamed at www.estes.org/boardsandmeetings broadcast live on local cable channel 12. A media briefing will be held at approximately 6 p.m., immediately following the community meeting will be a press briefing at Town Hall. Information on this fire is available at: · http://www.inciweb.org/ · Twitter: @inciweb and #FernLakeFire · Public information line: 970-577-3716 (Open 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. Dec. 2 and Dec. 3) · Media Information line: 970-577-3718 (Open 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. Dec. 2 and Dec. 3) END Unit Information Rocky Mountain National Park National Park Service Incident Contacts Fern Lake Fire Information Phone: 970-577-3716 Hours: 8a-10p daily Traci Weaver Phone: 307-690-1128 more contacts »«

Announcement – 14 min. ago Evacuation and Pre-Evacuation Information Announcement – 4 hrs. ago Fern Lake Fire Dec. 2, 2:30 PM Update News – 5 hrs. ago Community Meeting Tonight and a Red Flag Warning Announcement – 10 hrs. ago

US National Weather Service Partnerships and warnings

The National Weather Service in the US has a symbiotic working relationship with the broadcast media, which far surpasses anything in Australia.

Although The ABC has wonderful and often personal relationships with the Bureau of Meteorology, the US NWS systemises the process. (Mind you the idea that the ABC conducts hourly interviews with BoM staff in most of Australia was something that really excited the NWS people I spoke too – but that’s an aside).

The central pillar behind the success of the NWS relationship is the Integrated Warning Team, but there are other very important elements.

Warnings officers are stationed in all regional forecasting centres who have an emergency and community education role

Direct access between warnings officers, forecasters and broadcasters. A very important component of this approach is NWSchat – the “real-time interactive communications system” which would be well worth considering in Australia for all emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology.

It allows direct communications with experts “off line” seeking more information, more urgency, raising questions, and providing feedback.

To quote the NWSchat home page:

“NWS partners can use NWSChat as an efficient means of seeking clarifications and enhancements to the communication stream originating from the NWS during a fast-paced significant weather or hydrologic event. NWSChat is an Instant Messaging program used by NWS operational personnel to share critical warning decision expertise and other types of significant weather information essential to the NWS’s mission of saving lives and property.

Mike Hudson, the warning specialist at Kansas City, Missouri, says it helps to ensure that the messages being broadcast over multiple platforms is consistent: “If people receive more than one message at a time it can lead to paralysis.

“Inconsistent messaging leads people to “shop” for information, taking up valuable time to see if other radio and TV stations are carrying the same message.”

Real time chatroom content between the duty warnings forecaster and all media (or between emergency agency duty officers and the warnings media ) would enhance understanding at critical times.

NWSchat is linked directly to the local warnings officers. The use of Instant Messaging (IM) and chatrooms have proved to be valuable for this type of communication internally at The ABC and in many businesses, but to open them to various partners, like the NWS has done, is a bold step, which reflects the relationship between broadcasters and the NWS. The technical details are online and the following information is all provided by their site,

NWSchat is maintained by the National Weather Service and is situated behind a firewall. NWSChat is comprised of a pair of servers configured in a resilient primary/backup configuration, and receives auto-updates for all operating system patches and bug-fixes. The systems are scanned quarterly to identify and correct IT security vulnerabilities as required by NOAA IT Computer Security policy.

Individual user accounts are required for NWSChat; shared or group accounts are disallowed. A standardized account naming syntax is also enforced for manageability.

To register with NWSChat, users must submit an online form. Once submitted, the selected primary office receives an email of the request, and will approve or deny authorization for each user. Once approved, the requesting user is notified via email and then must complete online training for NWSChat.

Most multi-user chatrooms on NWSChat are open to NWS partners once they are authorized by the NWS. However, certain rooms are restricted for “members-only” access. This is necessary to secure information in specific chatrooms intended for certain partners only. For example, some information may be required by emergency managers that is not appropriate for media partners due to the sensitivity of and timeliness of emergency operations.

As a result, a members-only chatroom would be provided limiting access to NWS and authorized emergency managers exclusively, for a given location. In order to participate in NWSChat, you must meet at least one of the following standards:

• Be a member of the emergency management (EM) community: Members of the EM community includes public safety officials who serve as employees or contract agents of a government agency at the federal, state, local, or tribal level and are charged with protecting the public from hazards that are influenced by weather or weather-related events. Other members of this community include: safety and emergency personnel, from universities or other large entities with large populations, whose roles are functionally equivalent to the public safety officials described above, and Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

• Be a government partner of a NWS office: This includes Government partners who have missions that require close coordination with the NWS. Government partners include (but are not limited to) the FAA, and water and land management officials.

• Be a member of the electronic media: Members of the electronic media are parties, and contract agents of parties who:  Have a need to actively participate in discussions with NWS Forecast Offices on imminent weather or other hazards, and Operate systems that routinely and rapidly relay weather and water watches, advisories, warnings and forecast information to a significant part of the population served by an NWS office; via electronic information distribution such as radio, television, internet, cellular, and other wireless means. Note: Individuals, companies, or other entities involved in ‘chasing’ weather events and posting or streaming video or pictures of the event, but do not otherwise have a need to communicate with NWS do not meet the qualifications for this Service.


editors note: Typograp[hical erroir updated Dece,mber 3, 2012: Third para should read:

It allows direct communications with experts “off line” seeking more information, more urgency, raising questions, and providing feedback.


Warnings workshop by accident

“Linked-in” has a group called International Emergency Managers.

A thread was created with the headline: What does it take to get people to flee a storm. The response from numerous emergency specialists and people with widespread experience, was a fascintaing exercise. In fact it was what you’d get at a workshop if you handpicked the guests.

It starts with the general plea, and ends with very good dot point problem solvers.

Enjoy. Ian


Willard C. Harrison 111

What does it take to get people to flee a storm?

Emergency officials are looking at what more can be done to persuade residents to get out when their lives are in danger.

• Step 1 is to educate the leaders. Mayor Bloomberg told people as late as Saturday that it wouldn’t be that bad, but nobody knows where he got that info from. NYC evacuated the shoreline, but told nursing homes to shelter in place because the water won’t come up that high. Bad moves. 

Bill Pook

 I strongly agree with Rob Dale. This has to be a top down message. At the recent IAEM conference we had a session that dealt with the “rush to normalcy”. Examples such as Bloombergs miscue about the NY Marathon being something the city needed shows how elected leadership can be agenda squed and send out the wrong message. 

Keith Carson, MPA, FPEM, CHS-III 

A top down approach is good, but it’s about time people either listened to the experts, or took some responsibility. The real problem? It’s simple. They have to be survivors of a bad one to take it seriously. By nature we are a reactive society, and not a proactive one. We only lock the doors or install a burglar alarm after we’ve been victimized. Most also have the “it won’t happen to me mentality.” Also, look at last year with Hurricane Irene. Mayor Bloomberg kept shouting that the world was coming to and end and to prepare. Many did, but then were pissed off when it didn’t hit their area because it had shifted. Those are among the people for Sandy that didn’t even think about preparing. It’s interesting to watch these people on TV a day or two after the storm and cry “we have no food or water.” Well why not? Oh yeah, that’s right, because you didn’t prepare. There are some very interesting studies I’ve read about this and about 80% of the people who prepare were survivors of a previous disaster. Who’d a thunk it?

Bowman Olds 

For the many years that I have worked with folks along the Gulf coast, Key West, Barrier Islands, leaving their homes in the face of a hurricane, etc. in some cases was not an option they would entertain. Security of their home and their possessions seemed to be paramount. While I would almost agree with the thought that “They have to be survivors of a bad one to take it seriously” there is something about the way we tend to react whether its one of “it only happens to other people” or “it has never happened to me before.” My family was a prime example. Despite numerous warnings through the years about tsunamis impacting our town of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, we would rarely evacuate. The one time we failed to do so, our house was wiped out by a tsunami and 61 people were killed. 

Art Kirkland 

Being from New Orleans I have a slightly different take. Before Katrina there were countless “mandatory” evacuations for storms. Just a little over a month before, the City called for an evacuation for Hurricane Cindy. A lot of folks complied, and spent hours and hours on the road for a storm that did no damage. That was the norm, and still is when there is a mandatory evacuation. There is a basic rule in operant conditioning that if you want to stop a behavior, administer an unpleasant stimulus every time the subject performs the behavior. If you consistently tell people to put themselves through an evacuation, and most of the time there turns out to be no need, then you should not be surprised when people don’t comply with your instructions to evacuate. On that note, the answer to the question is to be more judicious in our warnings to evacuate. People will start to comply when compliance results in reward more often than punishment. 

Bill Pook

• It appears obvious that there needs to be a balance here. On one side we need targeted & judicious warnings from leadership based on best science. But prediction models are not always 100% accurate. So on the other side we need an educated and (self) responsible populace. With all the advance information about the destructive potential of Katrina & “Frankenstorm” Sandy, lack of individual protective actions is not justified by perceived former false alarms

Steve McMaster, CFM 

 It is always easier to do nothing. When faced with a threat and given a choice to evacuate or not evacuate, each person has to make a decision. As a volume of research has shown, that decision is often rational (although not necessarily so from a EMA professional’s standpoint). When each person is deciding whether to evacuate, they most likely weigh the costs and benefits. The costs would be lost time, hassle, leaving house/valuables unprotected, and many more, and the benefit would be avoiding injury or death. The key variable in this benefit-cost analysis is that individual’s understanding of their risk, which is most likely formed from experiences with previous events – as many of you have pointed out above. An interesting research study would be to interview people who did evacuate from Sandy’s devastated area to see why they did evacuate. This information would help with future risk education programs.

Steve McMaster, CFM 

One other brief comment – I’m convinced that there will always be a certain percentage of people who will never evacuate, no matter what. That’s where this article was interesting – with forced evacuations, fines, or jail time, that brings in the political element of elected officials not wanting to overstep boundaries or adding salt to the wound of those already impacted by the event.

Jan Glarum 

Perhaps government declared “mandatory” evacuations should come with the same set of caveats that go declaring someone under quarantine. maybe then we might do a better job of comprehensively preparing for such an event; not use it as a default or no-harm strategy and then play the “we told them to leave” card every time the same results occur.

Rob Dale 

I think quarantines are too different though to directly apply… Force can be used to keep you in/out of a location. Force cannot be used to pull someone from their home in an evacuation.

Jan Glarum • Could you define your use of the term “force’ Rob?

Art Kirkland 

Bill, I have to disagree with your statement about advance warning. The problem is that there is always advance warning…even when there is no threat. Here in Louisiana we heard that Isaac “has the potential to be much worse that Katrina”. It is a staple of our sensation-seeking while risk-averse culture. The problem with all of the advance warning is that it is biased toward a false-positive result. As long as that is the case, we will continue to have problems getting people to evacuate or take other responsible protective actions. 

Rob Dale 

Under a quarantine (at least in my state) “A local health department or the department may provide for the involuntary detention and treatment of individuals with hazardous communicable disease”. By involuntary that would imply “you may not want to go, but you are since you are a threat to the community.” :) I know many other states have the ability to hold someone with a hazardous disease. I don’t know of any states that have the legal right to enter your home and remove you for your safety though.

Bill Pook 

Art, so in Loiusiana you have advance warnings issued when there is no threat? I know you didn’t mean it like that. A hurricane warning by the NOAA means the threat potential is there. Here along the edge of the prairie we have people who think they are safe unless the (tornado) sirens are sounded. Then again we have others who hear the sirens and immediately go outside to look (thus ignoring the warning). Complacency, contempt or ignorance…lives and property are being lost that could be saved. That is why I strive to strike then “balance” I mentioned and move the paradigm.

Rob Dale 

Actually running out to see is not ignoring the warning at all. That’s the confirmation stage, and I’m not sure that can be skipped.

Art Kirkland 

Bill…actually that is exactly what I meant. In the run up to Katrina, there were at least three mandatory evacuations. None of those storms did any appreciable damage. So…you load family and possessions into a vehicle, Spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to get out of harm’s way. Spend money you don’t have on a hotel room and food out for three days. Try to come home only to find out that the city/parish won’t allow you to come in yet. And then do it all again.

The problem (at least with hurricanes) is that being in the “probable impact area” in the time frame necessary to evacuate means that there is a 75% chance nothing will happen. I’m not sure how we balance that. We just did a quick study on evacuations and looked backward. If we evacuated every time that our current criteria were met, we would have evacuated 7 times since Katrina. In fact we have evacuated once. Issac was the only non-evacuation among those that caused any significant upheaval. And, sure enough folks are looking saying “you had all this advance warning, why didn’t you evacuate.”

On the other hand, what would people say if we spent a half-million dollars to evacuate and the result was something like Tropical Storm Lee last year (minimal wind, rain, we were actually playing football an hour after landfall). We would look like idiots and be hung out to dry for over reacting. 

Bill Pook 

Rob, Our local publicized policy is that sirens are sounded for “imminent” danger….not to go outside. Take immediate protective actions, Media broadcasts, social media, community alert networks and NOAA alert radios are advance warning/notification. At least in our area.

Bill Pook 

Art, I wish you luck in doing what is best for your community. Don’t feel alone, we have people purposefully building/living in (river) flood zones too. 

Rob Dale 

Bill, I understand what you are saying… I’m on the team that developed national best practices for outdoor warning sirens last year. My point is that ignoring the science behind the way people react to sirens, and then blaming the people for not reacting the way we want, is probably not productive. Mileti & Sorensen have spent a lot of time showing how people react to a warning. http://www.colorado.edu/geography/class_homepages/geog_4173_f11/Sorensen_warning_systems.pdf

People must:

1 Hear the warning

2 Understand the contents of the warning message

3 Believe the warning is credible and accurate

4 Personalize the warning to oneself

5 Confirm that the warning is true and others are taking heed …and then…

6 Respond by taking a protective action

A siren is step 1. Expecting them to jump right to step 6 is simply not the way it works. Finding out how ways to reduce the timeframe to get from step 1 to 6 would be a productive exercise.

The bigger issue with sirens is overuse. Especially from overtesting. Research shows that when you go more often than one time a month, people become immune to real world alerts. I know of some communities in Kansas that test every week, and we have a town to my north that sounds it every day for the lunchtime whistle! 

Bill Pook

Rob~ exactly, there is a science to understand how people react…and yes, we should expect what we expect of people, not what we wish from people. I take a different step-by-step approach:

People must;

1. Be aware of their surroundings. If the skies look ominous do a heads up for possible actions

2. Listen to the media, social networks/public notification. If the forecast is for possible storms, stay tuned and listen for updates

3. Have a NOAA radio at home/work/school

4. Then with my steps 1-3 when you hear the sirens, your steps 2,3,4 & 5 will have already been met

Over Testing is a BIG problem. Across our state there is no consistent policy. You have a town that “blows the noon whistle”? I have one small village (pop 1,243) that blows the sirens twice a day (lunch & supper) I know of some communities that no longer have any sirens at all…just because they are not effective according to how people react.

We had an F-1 last year that hit with absolutely no official NWS warning (just a “watch). (Although storms were forecasted all day in the media and the skies were black at 5 pm in June). IF we had sounded the sirens and people would have stepped outside, they would have been caught exposed. Let’s stay in touch… it’s great to learn other views.  

Matthew Ellis

As emergency mangers we have one major flaw, we rely to much on OUR experience and often ignore the science behind emergency management. Experience is great, it allows us to be better emergency managers but we must also understand the theory behind various disciplines and utilise the studies that have been conducted to improve our knowledge. How many times have we heard about Panic, when studies have shown that this seldom occurs. We must move beyond our narrow experiences and embrace all the tools of the job. If we don’t, then how can we expect to be treated seriously by other disciplines/ professions and people of influence including politicians. We need, just like every other profession be able to justify our claims with more than our experience, we need to be able support them with facts and figures.

Jan Glarum 

Great comment Matthew. 

Bowman Olds 

Based on past observations, the following four stages (author unknown), remain at the forefront of being unprepared:

1. “It won’t happen to me.”

2. “If it does happen, it will happen to someone else.”

3. “If it does happen to me, it won’t be that bad.”

4. “If it is that bad, there is nothing I can do about it anyway.”

Ryan Kelzenberg 

There have been some great reviews and studies about the format of emergency messaging. One of the areas we need to improve on is the content and quality of the message that is being sent. We also have to accept that many citizens will not take action from only one message to do so.

During our annual AMEM conference Dennis S. Mileti, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado, Boulder did a great presentation and I included the links to his slide show below. We have to provide enough information for our residents to act. It took about 3 different messages before they began to take action. The content of the message also needs to be changed to include detailed information on these points:

Who needs to evacuate

What needs to be done (shelter in place, evacuate, etc)

When does this need to be done by

 Where do I need to go

Why do I need to do this

If you have time, take a look at the slide show, and I would recommend Dr. Meliti as a presenter for any EM related conference. http://www.amemminnesota.org/library/2012-amem-conference-presentations

Rob Dale 

I’d also add Drabek to that list – the 2nd edition of his book is coming out in the spring. Well worth reading the first if you haven’t already… http://www.amazon.com/Human-Side-Disaster-Second-Edition/dp/1466506857


Human Security and Disasters: workshop

I have just discovered RMIT is running what appears to be a workshop that might help change the dialogue around warnings, from a  process driven by emergency agencies and government protocol, to one focussed on personal need and community activity.

This is of course close to my heart, which beats with it’s regular rhythm now:

“All disasters are local, all warnings are personal.”

It’s titled: “Human Security and Disasters: A Dialogue,” and the flyer says:

“This workshop seeks to create a productive exchange of ideas between human security and disaster management.

Human security seeks to reprioritize the central role of the state, instead locating people as the referent around which security is oriented.

Security as much as it is a practice is also an existential condition, with people experiencing greater or lesser degrees of security and insecurity as they interact with political, social and natural events.

Similarly in disaster management it is clear that disasters are primarily human events. The exposure of people and the vulnerability of communities to disaster events are key predictors in the level of disaster risk.

Disaster risk reduction policies can thus equally address underlying conditions of social inequality and work towards a broader goal of human development. Given these shared goals, this workshop will create dialogue on the differing methods and terminologies with a view to energizing the respective approaches to addressing conditions of human insecurity and vulnerability. This workshop will be addressing the central thematics:

• Theorising resilience and security

• Evaluating civil-military interaction after disaster or conflict

• Addressing vulnerability and insecurity

This workshop will feature speakers representing a wide range of perspectives from research and practice and is organised by the Human Security and Disasters Program of the Global Cities Research Institute in conjunction with the Centre for Risk and Community Safety.


Emergency journalism and recovery broadcasting

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation the only media organisation in the world undertaking “emergency broadcasting,” giving emergency agencies a reliable radio and online platform to issue all warnings for all hazards, to the entire community. Radio is important as its cheap, mobile, and robust.

“Emergency broadcasting” allows a graduated warning process, which is another unique aspect of the content. It has been warmly received by the community and is considered central to the warning process in Australia.

But others are interested in the role journalism can play in assisting communities in emergencies. Here’s a useful web site that collates many blogs in the emergency journalism field.


Meantime, Dr Rob Gordon and I spent some time discussing the role of news gathering in disasters.

Often covering a disaster in a shallow, incomplete way, does more damage than good. Which got us thinking – how could journalists ensure they create benefits when covering disasters, and avoid leaving more damage behind.

Here’s the checklist:


Recovery broadcasting is about helping the community and individuals recover by sharing their stories, and through that, enabling them to realise the strengths of their community that are worth remembering when they are going through dark times. It is about understanding the true fabric of a community, how it can be stretched, can break, or can remain intact and strong and be something those affected by the disasters to rely on.

This approach to gathering content will not generate what we would normally refer to as  “news” which have clear issues which can be chased up, fixed up, blamed on someone, and corrected. It’s about individual human perspective, which is personal, emotional, uncertain and changes over the path of the disaster, as it moves from preparation through rescue, to recovery and normalisation.

In other words we can give people perspective.  Disaster Psychologist Dr Rob Gordon says people feel better if they know someone’s listening.  As Frank Duffy from Roleystone told ABC Local Radio Perth morning presenter Geoff Hutchison on the Monday morning after the fires there : ”I think talking to someone makes it easier.”

The people in disasters will all be, at some level, traumatised. They cant think strategically and plan; they will react to the first thing which occurs to them. Slowly they will get their day to day lives in order,  followed by making decisions about  other things. As they unwind from the stress of the event they need understanding.

Let the talent have time to tell their stories. They need our patience.

The aim is that people will discover how their experience compares of that to others  to put their minds at rest.  They will come to understand what actually happened around them while they were hunkered down or evacuating. This will help them move on in their mental and physical recovery process.

As Dr John Irvine told ABC Queensland after cyclone Yasi: ”We’ve got to maintain their tribal support.”

Grief and hopelessness

We can play a vital role in motivating the community to work together during these times, and the recovery will be quicker and stronger. Many will not be coping very well. They will be tearful and emotional, and sometimes during your conversation they might stop talking and appear embarrassed. That’s normal. Stay with them,  be sympathetic: “Clearly it’s been hard for you” or “it’s understandable that you will be emotional at times like this.” Do not say “I understand,” because unless you have been through what they have been through, you don’t.  It is an element of the ABC Editorial Policies that we don’t intrude into grief. If the interview is so emotional that it deteriorates, stop what you are doing. If it’s a pre-record, ask them if they are okay with you broadcasting the interview. Give them the right to their privacy and feelings. If you feel there is any doubt about their emotional ability to make that decision, drop the interview.

Often we hear a person say:  “I’ve lost everything”  and it seems to broadcasters that sometimes it is that phrase alone which is important as it reveals the scale of the event.

But we can help people reduce the personal scale of their disaster to something that’s manageable by encouraging people to understand a more realistic assessment of their loss:  they haven’t lost the environment; they haven’t lost their friends and relatives; they haven’t lost their memories and they haven’t lost the community spirit which kept them living in their communities in the first place.

If someone says “All is lost,” you cant easily disagree with them, because that’s a bit aggressive, but you can ask them to tell you “what was beautiful about this community before the cyclone” and very quickly they will change the direction of their thoughts, and you’ll find a more hopeful insight is delivered.

Now is a good time for groups like Lions, Rotary, school councils and churches, to come together and start supporting their communities. Encourage that.

To change their thoughts a little, you might ask: ”What would you like to have done….” or ask them what they need right now? (But do not encourage donated goods at any time.)


It is well known from research that people in disasters feel inclined to set unrealistic recovery deadlines. They make quick, ill considered decisions, that lead to long term pressure and stress.

In fact suicides, family and business breakdown, all rise about nine months after any disaster, as people who think they SHOULD have rebuilt in a year,  realise the task isn’t completed, and they begin to feel hopeless, disorganised, and that they’ve let down their family, friends and communities.

Help relieve this process by avoiding any talk of deadlines. Don’t ask people what they will be like in a year – ask them “what will your life be like when you are recovered (No deadline mentioned).”


Occurs when normal communication networks between people break down because people don’t feel they share the same experience. It occurs between the insured and the uninsured; the damaged and undamaged; those who left and those who stayed. If cleavage takes hold in a community, be it a family, a street, a school or a sports club, it is very hard to recover. Help the community understand this problem.  Encourage people to maintain their personal networks and links, and explain how important it is to keep talking to each other and check up on the members of their community group, family or network.


In order to build a connection with individuals, we need to be physically with them, preferably alongside as they experience the event, and then with them as they recover. For ABC Local Radio this means emergency broadcasting and rolling coverage begins earlier and stays on air a little longer. It means we will send reporters or broadcasters to the scene as soon as it’s safe; and we will send “recovery teams” of experienced broadcasters  into the areas afterwards, when all other media have left,  to maintain the connection.

Repeatedly we hear that some communities feel isolated, ignored and lost. ABC Local Radio can find those suburbs and towns and communities, and bring hope to those who need to hear the outside world cares about their plight.

We will encourage outside broadcasts, recovery broadcasting and opportunities to be with the communities in this way.

Equally thought there is a chance that communities which are subject to the harsh glare of the media spotlight might feel betrayed if the media arrives, peers into people’s emotional trauma, and never comes back.  ABC Local Radio should never promise to deliver something it cant, but it should make every effort to find ways of staying with recovering communities.  Following individual family reconstruction is one way; regular interviews with a local person about the pathway of recovery is another; keeping in touch with community leaders, and checking on special dates are other ways to keep in touch (For example: find out how many players the sports clubs have at the beginning of their next season – and help the community understand how important it is to stay with local networks).


Some anger is natural after a disaster, but it can take energy away from the recovery. It also seriously impacts on the morale of the recovery teams, many of whom are volunteers . Try not to encourage division and anger. There is a role to cover issues, and to hear the issues, but not to the extent that it detracts from the optimism and positive community insight. There are many, many outlets that can examine this element:  in the Queensland sugar town of Tully which had been hit by Cyclone Yasi one man got angry with Tony Abbot, and it was front page news in Brisbane where the media outlet said:  ”Anger is rising in North Qld.” Programs and ABC News and every media desk in the world will focus on the anger, in recovery mode we should ensure we don’t focus on this while ignoring other elements of the recovery process. As 774 ABC Melbourne Evening presenter tells his audience:   “That way madness lies.”


Communities are made strong by their existing institutions. Their sports clubs;  councils; schools; neighbourhood houses; Rotary/Lions/Probus, police, street meetings; SES; farmers groups; CWA; business and tourism lobby groups etc.

The recovery task forces will be trying to ensure these are strengthened and the recovery is being focussed on existing institutions, rather than something new. New leaders emerge and sometimes detract from the good work of previous community leaders, displacing them almost, further encouraging “cleavage” and division. Be careful of new community leaders. By all means encourage them, but try to find others who are also the existing community leaders. Talk to the presidents of the netball, cricket and rugby clubs and ask them what their community is doing. “Maintain tribal support.”

Non-traditional media users

Try to find people to talk to in the communities which do not use the media much, as they will feel valued if the wider community understands their predicament: Indigenous, children, very old, the sick; those with handicaps, non English speaking; refugees; unemployed. They, like any member of the community, should not be ignored or overlooked.

Look at economic community too: mines, tourism, education; transport; real estate; mechanics, engineering firms –  they are the small business life blood of their towns.

Recognition and commemoration

You will find there are some unsung heroes in the community and the institutions they work with are vital, so if we promote their work, it builds trust in those communities. This relates especially to police, electrical, telecomms  and Local Government workers. Try to interview them about their role (not the mayors and commissioners, we hear plenty from them, but get the personal stories from the coal-face workers.)

Commemoration of the event is vital, as it creates a sense of perspective, and ensures that the community does not feel forgotten when the momentum has gone out of the news flow.

The recovery from floods and cyclones takes years, not months. Many people will not return to their homes for 18 months or more.

Commemorate  with sympathy.

Let me know if you have any insights into this…I will enjoy your feedback.


About Rob Gordon

I am grateful to Rob Gordon for giving up time to explain he processes and work with me to try to work out how to assist the recovery process, and avoid some of the pitfalls.

Rob has done numerous interviews with ABC after disasters, and is honing his clinical skills as a commentator! Her presented at a Local Radio Awards seminar in Sydney. He will welcome your call.

Rob Gordon, Ph.D.,  is a clinical psychologist who has worked in disasters since the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires.  He has been a consultant to the Victorian Emergency Management Plan for twenty years and has been involved in most major Victorian emergencies since then.  He has consulted to rural communities, staff and agencies involved in supporting them in fire, flood, cyclone and drought in most Australian states and New Zealand.  He conducts a private psychotherapy practice in Box Hill, Victoria where he treats adults and children affected by trauma and disaster as part of a general practice.  He is a regular lecturer to emergency recovery training courses conducted by the Australian Emergency Management Institute and provides training and consultation to agencies in Australia and New Zealand.  He has published a number of articles in the field of trauma and disaster.


H: + 61 3 9730 2223

W: +61 417 033 744

The US national emergency warning system

Threats of nuclear war, nuclear meltdown, and catastrophic level natural disasters have resulted in the US creating an integrated warning service that is effective, reliable, flexible, comprehensive, local and personal.

It’s called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and includes several major components: the Emergency Alert System (EAS)  (don’t confuse this with the phone-based local warning system operating in Australia under the same name.) which leverages the radio and television broadcasting, the Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMAS) that communicates to cellular phones, and an interface to the US’s National Weather Service’s All Hazards Weather Radio network. (See next post for details of IPAWS and CMAS, andf previous post for NWS)

Although EAS was established and is understood to be a contingency platform in the event of other communication failures, it has become at the local level, a primary warning system.

In the 1950’s the US legislated to create a public early warning system in response to the threat of a nuclear armed attack from the Soviet Union. It was assumed the US President would need to be able to address the population immediately. The first system was set up under the electro-magnetic radiation bill because AM and FM transmitters were used for targeting of warheads, it came under this legislative sphere.

After the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960’s, the system was enhanced and modernised and named with Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).

It was updated again in the 1990’s to take advantage of new communications mechanisms and renamed the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and after Hurricane Katrina, was modified yet again, to deal with specific events.

And it’s been enhanced after technological developments, and now embraces the cell phone system which also rebroadcasts messages.

The nature of the US society, the culture driven by private ownership, and the  technology available to the US, have driven the developments.

Initially the system was simple and elegant – radio and TV transmitters would be connected to a control room operated by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (or its then equivalent) and the President would be able to speak to the public within ten minutes.

It was robust and virtually fail safe. The signal was provided to multiple and numerous “primary” radio and TV broadcasters in any or all regions. They would then be responsible for rebroadcasting instantly and at least two other broadcasters in their region would be expected to retransmit. Those broadcasters then rebroadcast as well, until nearly all radio and TV stations were connected. They called it a “daisy chain” which describes it nicely. There are 20,000 transmitters attached to the system.

 It was tested nationwide for the first time in November 2011 and while something like 20 percent of the broadcasts, at the hyper-local level, failed, the test was deemed a success because technical strengthens and weaknesses were identified and can now be addressed.

Broadcasters were required to install the reception equipment at their own cost and as part of the broadcast licence agreement,  but stand by generators for the primary stations were funded by a government program.  While this was initially pushed as a public service function for broadcasters,  in reality competitive forces have ensured that all the major broadcasters take the EAS seriously.

Initially the system was set up to take Presidential messages. In 1995 it was decided that it would be enhanced to allow local and state emergency messages to be inserted, and the National Weather Service was connected to it in 2006. In this way National Weather alerts are monitored, and frequently rebroadcast, on all radio and TV stations, as well as NOAA National Weather Radio.

The guiding principles have since been extended to the internet and mobile platforms. In this way the system has become what’s now known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

One of the major principles of IPAWS is that it is an open network. All emergency agencies, as well as the National Weather Service are able to use its operating standards and protocols to issue warnings.

“Disseminators” receive data in the same way at the same time for redistribution.

This has become vital to the system’s flexibility.  Initially the content was directed at radio and TV, and then extended to National Weather Service.

The development of the internet and RSS feeds meant that some broadcasters on digital platforms wanted the content.

And finally with the advent of local area cell broadcasting, telecommunications firms wanted to enhance the value of the handset, and they too receive all content for rebroadcasting.  Approximately 400 commercial mobile service providers have licensed for content, and 100 are already broadcasting warnings messages to those who choose to buy handsets which are emergency warning connected. Embedded data enables all outlets to be automated.

The system has never been used for a Presidential address.  Antwane Johnson, the Director of IPAWS,  says  it doesn’t mean there have never been widespread threat to warrant that.

“It’s a contingency system and was only ever to be used if other telecommunications systems failed.” The telecommunications and broadcast industry has never failed, so was not used in the missile crisis, or the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks.

Meeting Antwane Johnson, FEMA, October 2012.

Mr Johnson works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security.  “Our goal is to improve the nation’s capability to ensure under all conditions the President can talk to the public, but when the President isn’t using the system, local officials can use the capabilities to send alerts to their local citizens to enhance public safety. We develop, maintain and operate the system.”

Manny Centeno, a program manager for IPAWS, says the standard is to be able to broadcast to the entire nation in ten minutes, and participants or disseminators are required to be able to rebroadcast almost instantly when a new alert is received. The system is automated: “We can do much better than 10 minutes if not better. It’s virtually instant.

“Although the legislation provides that we make the system available for Presidential messages, almost all of the use is currently at the local and state level, and through NOAA weather warnings.”

“The only mandatory requirement is that the system be in place for a Presidential address. All other content is voluntary, but there is tremendous private sector involvement, being driven by their licence requirement to serve the public interest – that’s the primary reason the US allocated spectrum to broadcasters.

Some broadcasters were initially worried about liability, for carrying warning messages, and for failure to carry them, and for hoaxes.

Senders of alert messages are validated in the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN system, through a series of cyber security protocols before rebroadcast but there are no other filters.