Primary responsibility for the protection of life, property and the environment rests with the states and territories. State and territory emergency management agencies have full autonomy in relation to:
- whether and when to issue an emergency warning
- which delivery mechanisms to use to disseminate the emergency warning
- the content of the warning.
Individual states and territories choose which warning technologies to adopt and when to activate them in accordance with the specific circumstances of an incident. All states and territories have disaster emergency plans that include a communications component for the dissemination of rapid onset emergency warnings to the community. Nationally agreed emergency warning principles also underpin warning arrangements.
The Australian Government assists states and territories in instances where a national focus for emergency communications and warnings is warranted. The Australian Government, in conjunction with state and territory agencies and national peak media broadcast bodies, developed the Emergency Warnings – Choosing Your Words guide for use by state and territory emergency services managers. The guide highlights the importance of using clear language when issuing emergency warnings so the public understand the severity of an impending risk and the action that should be taken.
The Australian Government worked with states and territories to establish nationally consistent guidelines for the use and application of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS), a distinctive audio signal to alert the community to the broadcast of an urgent safety message relating to a major emergency/disaster. States and territories now implement these guidelines as appropriate to their jurisdiction.
Where there is benefit in capabilities and programs extending across jurisdictional boundaries, the Australian Government works closely in conjunction with state and territory agencies, and relevant Australian Government counterparts, to facilitate their cohesive and effective implementation.
By way of example, the Australian Government committed $26.3 million towards the development of a national telephone-based emergency warning capability. The key elements of the capability are: the national telephone-based emergency warning system, Emergency Alert, and, the Location Based Number Store (LBNS), which serves as the data source for Emergency Alert.
The Australian Government has also contributed $33.2 million towards the establishment of the location-based enhancement to Emergency Alert. The location-based capability sends SMS text warnings to mobile telephones based on the last known location of the handset at the time of an emergency. This is an enhancement to the original Emergency Alert system, which sends voice warnings to landlines and SMS text warnings to mobile phones based on the registered service address of the handset. The location-based enhancement was rolled out to Telstra networks in November 2012, and will be launched on Vodafone and Optus networks in November 2013.
The Australian Government standard for the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP-AU-STD) provides Australian agencies with a best practice, common and standardised approach to generating warning and alerting messages; one which is tailored to our emergency management environment and the emergency terminology used. The Australian profile creates a common approach using an open standard that aligns with the latest international standard. These improvements offer the potential to accelerate distribution and notification of alert messages.
Australian Government warnings are issued through the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia. The Bureau of Meteorology issues warnings and watch notices via a range of mediums directly to the public for weather warnings (such as severe thunderstorm, high sea, flood and tropical cyclone warnings) and, in conjunction with Geoscience Australia, also issues tsunami warnings. Warnings issued by these agencies also inform the warning messages that state and territory control agencies disseminate to the public.
The Australian Government developed and released the free DisasterWatch smartphone app to improve access to disaster information. The DisasterWatch phone app contains information about disaster events in Australia via direct feeds from a range of authoritative sources in the states and territories and nationally. This information is regularly updated but does not constitute an emergency warning mechanism.
There is an increasing awareness among state and territory emergency services of the significant role that social media can play in informing communities, and the benefits of crowd sourcing to gain critical intelligence on emergencies and natural disasters. A number of states have updated, or are working towards updating, their emergency plans to include a social media component to address this important trend.