There's been a bit of a media teacup storm the last few days over the SMS warning system that was only signed off on three days before the bushfires.
I have to say I don't think having the system in place would have made a blind bit of difference actually.
The main reason for this was the speed of information relative to the speed of the fire. 774 were reading bulletins the minute they got them. They were a good 20 minutes behind the Kinglake fires. The CFA website, ditto. DSE you could barely get on to (I didn't because the radio was asking people not in immediate danger to stay off it so it didn't melt down entirely). The Bushfire Emergency Hotline was overloaded and had waiting times on it. I don't see that an SMS system wouldn't be susceptible to the same problems - more so perhaps, given that I was still getting texts from New Years Eve three days after it happened.
I was listening to an interview with Michael Leunig
, who lives in a bushfire prone area. He was talking about how he was listening to CFA radio traffic on a scanner during the crisis, and "with all due respect to the ABC you were light years behind what was happening on the ground."
Well yes. Information has to get from the ground to the control centre and then be disseminated out again. The Kinglake fires travelled approximately 35km in about 16 minutes. By the time the warnings got out the fires had already swept over Humevale and Kinglake West and were bearing down on Kinglake itself. The warnings for Wandong even were barely ahead of the fire, and that was when the fire was still travelling in the same direction it had been for about 30 minutes.
A secondary problem with the whole SMS warning system is that there are an awful lot of black spots for mobiles in those hills. If you've ever driven the Whittlesea-Kinglake road and been watching the bars on your mobile you'd notice that they vanish with alarming regularity. It's fine to say "oh we'll send warnings via fixed line as well" - not that useful if the lines have come down.
A third problem is that people are going to rely on this as a system and it won't necessarily work. A woman who works for Dean's parents lost family members in Kinglake. She was on the phone to them as the fire hit their house. Close to their last words were "no, we're not in danger - the website says it's heading your way, not here." Dean's father wondered why they hadn't at least gone outside and had a look around, which might have given them enough time to flee. The short answer is because we've changed the way we look for information, and websites give instantaneous news. Except of course their updates are dependent on what's being put in, and if what's being put in is behind what's happening on the ground then they're useless.
I was surprised by the number of people who didn't have 774 on during Saturday, especially those in higher risk areas. I live in the suburbs, the likelihood of my house being at risk was minimal (although my suburb turned up in an update last night.) I was listening because I had family who were possibly in the path of danger. But again, we've changed how we access information - radio used to be the medium we'd turn to first for immediate information, now it's TV or the web.
Speaking of TV I was utterly shocked at how little information there was on there (I was hoping for a map graphic, given that I was having trouble working out where all the fires were). There was nothing
. Not even a ticker tape banner across the screen indicating something, anything might be going on. ABC and channel 7 had movies showing. SBS had weather when I checked but nothing else. Channel 9 had either a movie or cricket. Channel 10 had golf - and then went straight to The Simpsons
. As far as I could tell they didn't even have news on that day. If ABC radio were light years behind what was happening on the ground, the television networks were light millenia
behind. The following day, when they'd all had time to react, we got news (and pathos and at least one piece of extraordinarily bad interviewing.
) But not at the time it might actually have helped
. Even a scrolling banner across the screen saying "Victorian Bushfire Emergency: tune to ABC radio for updates" with frequencies would have helped. I guess the only time they run 24/7 news items is when it happens overseas and someone else is broadcasting it for them.
Getting back to the SMS system. It's not that I necessarily think it's a bad idea to have set up. I just don't think it's the cure-all panacea some sections of the media appear to be presenting it as. Some people might - and I really do mean might
- have gotten the SMS in time, been able to evacuate and been saved. But given the extreme nature of the conditions and the speed at which the fire moved I'm not sure it would have changed anything much. I think emphasising where information is available quickly, constructing bushfire shelters and possibly working on "evacuation recommended" warnings for certain days is likely to change things much more. At the very least, reminding people not to rely only on the SMS system needs to be emphasized.