Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Emergency Alerts in Australia and the U.S.

Australia's Daily Telegraph reports on that country's erratic response to the April 2 tsunami that killed at least two dozen people in the Solomon Islands. People were going every which way:

[W]hile scores of schoolgirls were evacuated from their classrooms in Manly on Monday, would-be spectators in other parts of Sydney grabbed deckchairs and binoculars and headed to their nearest beach and waited for a tsunami to arrive.

Off the coast, the situation was much the same: as some boats set sail for deeper waters, other crews gunned their engines and returned to the perceived safety of the shore.

Experts agree that on some parts of the east coast, the warnings were initially distributed appropriately on Monday. However that, unfortunately, is where the consensus ends.

There is some evidence to support the argument that not enough was done to allay widespread fears of a disaster.

Professor Ted Bryant from the University of Wollongong described the organisation after the initial wave hit north Queensland as "erratic''.

The tsunami expert said far from spending the day evacuating beaches in Sydney, emergency services personnel should have been told that the tsunami threat had abated during the morning.

"After the wave hit in north Queensland, I knew from looking at the computer that it was was not big, yet we were still hearing reports of the ocean being cleared and beaches being cleared and I think that was part of the overreaction,'' Professor Bryant said.
It's remarkable that, even after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there could be a mixed response like this. Reliable chains of communication have to be established ahead of time, and it's just as important to get a reliable "all-clear" as it is to get the initial warning out.

In a way this reminds me of Boston's recent cartoon scare. After the initial panic, it took a long time to defuse the situation.

Meanwhile, a recent GAO report indicates that the emergency alert system (EAS) may not provide better results in the United States. GAO says the existing system - which relies on messages to be relayed from "primary" stations to others - is not completely reliable:
To date, EAS has never been used to transmit a national-level alert. ... For presidential, or national-level, EAS alerts, a hierarchical distribution system would be used to relay the message. Currently, 34 stations have been designated National Primary stations, often referred to as Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations.

In a national test [in January 2007], three [of 34] primary relay stations failed, and in one state test, a state representative reported that the message was not received beyond an area roughly 50 to 70 miles from the state capital.
At least they're testing the system, right? Not really. The Jan 2007 test wasn't part of a regular testing regimen:
Despite ... efforts to improve the relay system, we found a lack of ongoing testing to ensure that the system would work as intended during a national-level alert.
Even if the system were to work as intended, it is slow:
Stakeholders also said the relay system was too slow to transmit EAS alerts to the public in a timely manner. For example, a technical consultant to a state broadcast association estimated that it would take an hour to disseminate an EAS alert throughout the state.
And that does not assume stations would lose power, which is likely in a major disaster:
FEMA officials expressed concern about the reliability of the relay system, or daisy chain, used to disseminate national-level EAS messages. In addition, they expressed significant concern about the reliability of electrical power for broadcast stations during disasters, noting that without electrical power (or fuel for backup generators), a broadcaster cannot issue emergency alerts. ... We heard that a lack of redundancy among key broadcasters makes the current daisy chain system prone to failure. For example, the chair of a state emergency communications committee told us redundancy is lacking among the PEP stations, and therefore, if a PEP station were disabled during a disaster in a major metropolitan area, an EAS alert would likely fail to reach a sizable portion of the population.
Of course, it's also important for the people operating the equipment and writing the alert messages to know what they're doing. But many of them are short-time employees who haven't been fully trained:
Another limitation of the current alerting system, stakeholders said, is inadequate training for EAS participants, both in the use of EAS equipment and in the drafting of EAS messages. ... According to the Partnership for Public Warning, EAS participants require extensive training to properly set up EAS equipment. The Partnership for Public Warning further reported that personnel using EAS equipment often lack proper training and that inadequate training is a main factor preventing the nation from having a unified warning system. ... State and local officials also identified inadequate training as a limitation of the current EAS. For example, the director of a state emergency communications committee described the lack of EAS training for emergency personnel who craft the messages as the primary challenge facing his state’s EAS.
Perhaps the worst news in the report is the lack of collaboration among stakeholders:
A final limitation of EAS that we heard about was a lack of coordination among EAS stakeholders at the state and local levels. A member of a state emergency communications committee said that, historically, there has been little coordination between the media and the state emergency management office and that the broadcast industry had little involvement in his state’s initial EAS plan. A participant from the Media Security and Reliability Council noted that coordination among broadcast media and other local stakeholders during emergencies is a major issue that has yet to be addressed. Such coordination could be achieved through the development of detailed regional and local emergency response plans, which would coordinate the actions of local officials and broadcasters in response to emergencies. He said to date, such plans have largely not been developed.
FEMA is aware that the EAS system needs to get better, in a number of ways. For one thing, it's delivery media are becoming a bit old-fashioned.
The EAS is limited (for now) to sending messages over just television and radio:
EAS provides messages over two media (television and radio), but does not transmit messages via other communications devices that Americans routinely use, such as cell phones, personal digital assistants, and computers.
The way to fix this is to offer emergency alerts in other media, as some U.S. cities are already doing (e.g., Washington D.C. and San Francisco). But creating an integrated system is complicated by the fact that many stakeholders are not used to collaborating:
Several efforts to develop an integrated alert system—one that would provide effective warnings over all broadcast media devices available to the public—are underway. ... Coordination and collaboration among a variety of stakeholders will be critical to ensure that all elements of the system can work together and produce accurate, timely alerts for all Americans.

FEMA officials believe an integrated alert system will have advantages over the current system but told us challenges to its implementation remain. A key challenge, FEMA said, is gaining the cooperation of federal, state, and local emergency management organizations on the use of a standardized technology for disseminating alerts. ... Additionally, we believe the implementation of an integrated alert system will require collaboration among a variety of stakeholders to ensure that all elements of the system can work together and can convey accurate, timely emergency alerts to all Americans. ... Furthermore, the plan says all of the FEMA pilot projects require regular interaction with private sector and media organizations. However, there does not appear to be a collaborative, consensus-based forum for all interested stakeholders—public and private—to work together to develop processes, standards, systems, and strategies related to implementing an integrated system. ... In the absence of such a forum, coordination might continue on an ad hoc, rather than a strategic, basis. According to one stakeholder, federal efforts to develop an integrated system have focused thus far on the ability of EAS to deliver a national alert, to the exclusion of state and local needs. In particular, a state emergency manager told us his organization, which has developed an advanced alert system, had not been contacted by FEMA regarding its experience in the system’s design or implementation.
The problem of emergency alerts is only going to get worse - or better - depending on how you see it. As communications media evolve, there will be increasing choices for sending and receiving messages. The alert system must keep up.

Once again, collaboration seems to be the key. In Australia, they weren't on the same page when the tsunami warning came. When the next disaster hits the U.S., will the emergency alert system be any better? It doesn't seem so, unless the stakeholders collaborate.

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