Emergency? Turn on the radio

THE fire in Mitchell was possibly our biggest emergency drill. It could have been disastrous; it wasn’t but it enabled us to have a training run on a suburban disaster and we passed most of the tests.

The biggest failure was in the new whiz-bang telephone warning system. The weight of SMS messages was just too great.

This same system is used by every State and Territory except WA. It works well if you only have to send out a couple of hundred or a thousand messages, but it buckled under the weight of 170,000 alerts on September 16. The system functions too slowly, so much so that if they had persevered sending messages on the fire day it would have taken seven hours – and nobody has that much time in a fire emergency.

Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell has promised to raise the issue with the Federal Attorney General and at the standing council on police and emergency management next month.

Perhaps when the WA Government offered us their emergency alert system for free, we should have given it more consideration.

Apparently, it can message at much higher volume than ours.

If we can’t fix the message alert system, what do we use?

Every now and then, one of my radio listeners comes up with an idea so wonderfully basic that it just makes sense. Warren called last week with the suggestion that we forget telephone alerts and just use London Blitz-style sirens. It’s not as silly as it sounds; erect 40 or 50 sirens to cover the suburbs and sound them when we’re facing an emergency. The siren means, “turn to local radio now”.

It’s a lot less complex than recorded messages and SMSs.

The telephone system failure again highlighted the importance of local radio in any disaster. Radio can instantly modify programming and cover local events blow by blow.

On the fire morning it wasn’t possible for 2CC and 2CA to broadcast without my breaking the law. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of what we did and how we did it, but producer Jorian Gardner and I made the call that, in such an emergency situation, it is our duty to inform the public of risk in whatever way we can and I would do it again tomorrow.

Mark Parton is the breakfast announcer at 2CC.

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