In December 2012, Australia implemented one of the world’s most successful national public warning systems. “No lives have been lost in Australia since (its implementation) due to a failure to warn.” – Michael Hallowes.
The implementation of Australia’s public warning system came in response to the tragic loss of 173 lives by catastrophic bushfires on Black Saturday in February 2009. Communities affected by the bushfires filed a claim against the government for failing to adequately warn people of the approaching danger. In addition to a $794 million judgement, a royal commission of public inquiry recommended implementing a nationwide phone based warning system to alert residents and tourists of potential disasters and crisis events.
The public inquiry required that the national warning system be location based, use SMS to alert almost all subscribers, locate 50,000 subscribers within 180 seconds, send 500 SMS alerts per second, and monitor the progress of each campaign from inception through delivery and reporting. This was something that had never been done before.
Michael Hallowes and his team were tasked with implementing this first-of-its-kind national public warning system. While it took them 14 months to do so from scratch, a similar system today could be implemented in 30 days thanks to their efforts and innovations.
In creating this new public warning system, Mr. Hallowes outlined several design principles. First, the alerts must reach at least 95% of the targeted population. Second, it had to be adaptable for all hazards and accessible to all public safety agencies. Third, residents and visitors had to be automatically opted in, with a provision for a manual opt out for individuals not wanting to receive alerts. This would ensure that everyone received emergency alerts while also respecting privacy concerns. Fourth, the system should send warnings with an accompanying intrusive alert sound that users could customize and recognize to help prevent habituation. Fifth, the system needed to provide first responders with near real-time data analytics to assist them in making informed decisions. Finally, the system had to be scalable for both regional and national use.
“For us it was about doing the right thing, not just the minimum technically.” – Michael Hallowes
Since its implementation, emergency services in Australia have used the system more than 1,500 times and sent out more than 15 million SMS. Alerts are sent at 500 – 2,000 SMS per second. At these speeds, at-risk populations are alerted in a few seconds to less than a minute.
In addition to the nationwide public warning system, some Australian states have implemented websites and applications, such as Victoria’s VIC EMERGENCY, to alert residents and visitors of local and statewide emergencies. The applications enable users to customize notifications by type and threat level. Users can also receive updates from emergency services throughout the critical event.
While voluntary opt-in applications complement Australia’s national emergency warning system, less than 25% of Victoria’s residents use the VIC EMERGENCY app. Also, with very few tourists downloading the app, the necessity of having a national system that automatically opts in everyone has made Australia’s system the gold standard for national emergency warning.