On the first day of summer, emergency texts went out to almost every single phone in Victoria with the following message:
“Flooding is expected across Victoria this weekend. Heaviest rain on Saturday. Check on family and friends. Stay informed.”
One of those 7.4 million messages arrived at the bush home of Mignon Turpin in St Andrews, outside Melbourne in Victoria.
She was already aware of the coming rain after looking at the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) website and listening to ABC radio.
So by the time the text message arrived, Mignon and her partner John had cleaned the gutters and unblocked a drain overflows after big storms.
John had also received a heads-up about the rain from an emergency app on his phone that he had installed to keep an eye out for fires.
It is a habit he and Mignon have kept ever since the Black Saturday fires of 2009 when the St Andrews area was devastated.
The Emergency Alert messaging system did not exist in Australia in 2009.
“I’d heard the warnings on the radio [and] I knew there could be fires,” Mignon said.
But the morning of the fires was clear and calm, and neither she nor John saw any need, nor received any advice, to evacuate.
“It was pretty confusing listening to the radio. There were first-hand reports coming in that couldn’t be confirmed,” Mignon said.
“That afternoon we ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ about whether to stay or go.
“When we finally did go, I looked behind me and what I saw was just astonishing — just a red fury.”
Their part of St Andrews was only saved by a wind change when the fire was just kilometres away.
Age of instant information
It is precisely this situation that emergency managers around the country have worked for the past nine years to avoid.
Today, life threatening emergencies like fires and floods trigger a torrent of information designed to motivate people to look after their own safety.
Rolling emergency radio coverage, briefings from state premiers live on TV, tweets, Facebook posts, emergency apps are all utilised.
“I think we live in a just-in-time world,” Victorian Emergency Commissioner Craig Lapsley said.
“We in the emergency services environment need to make sure that we can actually provide timely information that is able to be reached in the palm of someone’s hand.”
But emergency announcements do not always go according to plan.
PHOTO: Some flood warnings received by parents about their childrens’ schools arrived too late. (AAP: file photo)
Warnings arrive too late
In the wake of Cyclone Debbie last March, parents in some parts of southern Queensland received an emergency announcement saying schools were closed due to flooding several hours after school had already started, and up to six hours after the decision was made to close the schools.
A review of the emergency response found authorities had no idea how long it would take to actually send out the messages to such a large area.
“If decision makers were aware of how long this would take, they may have decided to warn in other ways,” the review said.
Warnings out of date
In early December, many people in Melbourne were underwhelmed after warnings were sent for flooding that failed to materialise.
The BOM’s Dr Blair Trewin said storms could drop very different amounts of rain, even within small areas.
“Things like thunderstorms happen on fairly small scales,” he said.
“In Melbourne, we saw several places that were getting 30 or 40 millimetres an hour and there were places getting next to nothing only five or 10 kilometres away.”
Commissioner Lapsley said there had been “significant lessons” learnt.
“When the storm cell moved around Melbourne, how do you actually tell the community that the forecast has changed?” he said.
BOM Victoria state manager Andrew Tupper said the bureau had been using new modelling techniques, looking at where the strongest areas of rainfall might be on a suburb-by-suburb basis, and adjusting their forecasts as the situation changed.
“The next generation of models will be incorporating real-time radar information to provide rapid updates as thunderstorm complexes develop,” he said.
“Our operational trials of these systems have already shown that they add value in a rapidly changing situation.”
Focus on mutual responsibility
Some emergencies happen so fast there is not time for a warning.
During the 2013 Blue Mountains fires, the vast majority of households first became aware of the emergency when they saw and smelled smoke.
“There’s a point of mutual obligation that we have to stress,” said Professor Vivienne Tippett, crisis communications expert with the Bushfires and Natural Hazards CRC.
“You shouldn’t rely on having an officer in a uniform knock on your front door.”
The idea of mutual responsibility was a key finding of the royal commission into the Black Saturday fires.
It recommended households be empowered to take responsibility for their own safety so that authorities can be freed up to look after vulnerable people.
Almost half of those killed on Black Saturday were classed as vulnerable — under 12 years of age, over 70 or disabled.
And 10 per cent of people who responded to a survey in the Blue Mountains after the 2013 fires said they needed help for everyday tasks, like taking the bins out.
“You’ve got limited official resources across fire emergency services and it will have to be directed to areas of priority response,” Dr Tippett said.
“We have to anticipate that individuals would have access to appropriate information which will allow them to act effectively, even in the absence of that knock on the door from somebody in authority that says, ‘Right, it’s your turn. Now you must go’.”
Ben Deacon : ABC Weather