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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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