Emergency Warnings: how much warning is too much warning?

A bit over a year ago, Daily Gumboot correspondent Katie Burns wrote a great post about the rise of resilience planning in emergency management, focussing on some great work being done in Australian cities. I remember reading it and feeling pretty stoked to be part of such a forward thinking and innovative bunch of people.

For a good ten years in Victoria, Australia, there was a significant movement towards developing resilient and responsible communities that understood the dangers of where they lived, knew how to respond to an emergency and could look after one another in a crisis.

Then, exactly three years ago today, everything changed when 173 people died and 2029 homes were destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires. A Royal Commission was launched into how and why so many people lost their lives, and the final report included 67 recommendations for how emergency preparedness, education and response could be better managed.

One of the biggest changes for Victorians was the implementation of the Emergency Alert Warning System – a phone based warning system that sends a recorded message to landline phones and a text to cell phones advising people of impending emergencies. Over the past two years, the system has been used extensively to spread messages about floods, fires, chemical spills and cyclones, and I’m fairly certain that a message for the zombie apocalypse is ready to go, and just waiting for someone to push the button.

The system is a great tool, and is undoubtedly an important part of the overall emergency warning process, but sadly, it seems to be slowly removing the resilience and sense of responsibility that used to be a characteristic of Victorian communities during emergencies.

Anecdotal evidence is starting to show that instead of using intuition and local knowledge, people are now waiting for official warnings before they decide how they will respond to an emergency situation. One quote from a Melbourne newspaper has stayed with me since the floods in Victoria early last year, when a long-term local in a flood-prone area was quoted as saying “we could see the river rising behind the house, but we never got a warning”.

Don’t get me wrong, Emergency Alert is a great system, but like all great systems, it replies on a person to operate it, and sometimes that person has far less idea of what is actually happening than the people on the ground that are living the emergency.

It’s a simple fact of emergency management that sometimes, communities know better than official sources, and if you can see, hear, smell or feel an emergency happening around you, waiting for an official warning might not be the safest thing to do.

What do you think? Is there such thing as over-warning a community of an impending emergency situation? Or is it the role and responsibility of emergency agencies to ensure that as far as possible, everyone receives a warning whenever and wherever they need it?