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Mobile emergency alert systems: connecting with the community

Posted By and on October 11, 2016 @ 11:00

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tim Brockley.

We’ve recently seen [1] the first jihadist terrorist attack in Manhattan since 9/11, after a bomb injured 29 people in Chelsea and several other devices were found in neighbouring blocks and in New Jersey.

But it wasn’t just the crack police work that led to the capture of suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami. Millions were enlisted in the manhunt using digital technology.

Across the city, mobile phones blared with the tone of an emergency alert. The system’s messages, limited to 90 characters and broadcast to all mobile phones using nearby cell towers, had also been used in the city during Hurricane Sandy. But this time the nation’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system [2] was deployed in what’s been called an ‘electronic wanted poster’. It identified a 28-year-old man sought in connection with the bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey. The message was simple: ‘WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.’

The ‘wanted’ message (and media reports) meant millions of New Yorkers knew his face and could help find the suspect. Rahami was captured several hours after the message went out.

Given Australia’s experience with natural disasters and recent home-grown terrorism, such an emergency alert capability is important. But questions remain as to whether we’re using these services to their full potential.

Location-based emergency alerts, using SMS from all mobile carriers, were first sent to consumers in Victoria in March 2009, after the Black Saturday bushfires [3] ripped through the state a month prior. When catastrophic conditions were expected in early March, the Victorian emergency authorities contacted Telstra and Optus to request an SMS be sent to all mobile services being used in the state. Mobile carriers had only a short time to get the message out. That resulted in some spillage of the message occurring in other states and some Victorian customers not receiving the alert.

In response to the shortcomings highlighted by the Black Saturday bushfires, mobile carriers worked with the federal Attorney-General’s Department to advise on the use of emergency alerts and proposed the development of a standard technical model.

Following this advice, the Council of Australian Governments [4] agreed to the development of a national telephone-based warning system in April 2009.

After a fast-tracked tender process, Telstra was awarded the contract for the system in September 2009.

Unfortunately that approach didn’t provide a solution for all customers at the same time: Telstra only had information on the network-based location of customers on its network and it excluded customers of Optus, Vodafone and the now-defunct 3 network until after the complex contract and technical terms were agreed.

That approach set back by at least two years the delivery of a cost-effective solution available to all customers, regardless of their service provider or their type of service (landline or mobile).

A location-based solution wasn’t available to customers of all mobile networks until October 2013. And it still relies on each mobile carrier being able to detect and locate every mobile phone with a last known location within the warning area set by the emergency services.

There can be practical problems with the service if the message initiator attempts to send messages to a large group, as this can result in queueing and messages arriving late. Those technical limitations can be exacerbated at a time when the community is using the same network resources to communicate with emergency services, family and friends.

If we’re to improve our emergency alert capability to cater for the community’s long-term needs, the Council of Australian Governments  needs to engage with mobile carriers and other technology providers through more informal requests for information, to find the most cost-effective way to enable emergency alerts.

Mobile carriers—and other technology innovators [5]—in cooperation with our emergency services and police, are best placed [6] to develop sustainable solutions to emergency alerts. They’ll be most able to leverage changing technologies, such as 5G.

Victoria’s Department of Justice has been given responsibility [7] for tendering and managing a new national contract for emergency alerts. The requirements of the contract will be difficult to meet both from a contractual and technical point of view. The reliance on a single supplier ignores the fact that a number of separate companies will be involved in delivery of the service. Some of the technical requirements may not be feasible, including the obligation to provide radio propagation of the alert area. Nevertheless, the Department hopes to have a provider and a new system confirmed by the June 2018 cutover date. The service will need to be able to reach everyone with access to both local and mobile phone and network coverage anywhere in Australia, regardless of whether they’re at home or travelling, or if they’re an international visitor roaming on Australia’s mobile networks. It’s hoped the contractor will be expected to deliver a ‘technically reliable system’ in extreme catastrophes, and give telephone warning alerts a high level of priority.

Queensland’s already made a move. Following the disappearance and death of schoolgirl Tiahleigh Palmer, the state government has approved new protocols [8] that would allow its electronic notification system, via email or text message, to be used in all state schools when a child has an unexplained absence.

Emergency alerts are designed to make people take notice. They shouldn’t be used for everyday events, and we need to find the right balance to ensure they maintain their impact and keep the community well-informed. To achieve this, there needs to be increased community engagement to determine what situations warrant an emergency alert capability.



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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/mobile-emergency-alert-systems-connecting-community/

URLs in this post:

[1] recently seen: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/18/us/new-york-bombing-terrorism/index.html

[2] the nation’s Wireless Emergency Alerts system: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/09/20/nyregion/cellphone-alerts-used-in-search-of-manhattan-bombing-suspect.html?_r=0&referer=

[3] Black Saturday bushfires: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-10-02/27818

[4] Council of Australian Governments: https://www.coag.gov.au/sites/default/files/2009-04-30.pdf

[5] innovators: https://lx-group.com.au/canberra-emergency-warning-invention-wins-national-resilience-award/

[6] best placed: https://lx-group.com.au/yellowbird-alert-wins-insurance-council-of-australias-annual-national-community-resilience-award/

[7] has been given responsibility: http://www.itnews.com.au/news/telstra-could-lose-national-emergency-alerts-deal-438567?eid=1&edate=20161004&utm_source=20161004_AM&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=daily_newsletter

[8] state government has approved new protocols: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-11/tiahleigh-palmer-death-prompts-protocol-missing-children/7586514

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