Neil Dufty summarises the findings of detailed research in early warning systems and outlines possible improvements.
This paper was developed for the UNISDR Hyogo Framework for Action Thematic Review and as an input to the
Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015.
Early warning can be defined as:
‘the provision of timely and effective information, through identified institutions, that allows individuals exposed to a hazard to take action to avoid or reduce their risk and prepare for effective response.’ (ISDR 2006, p. 2)
Early warning systems detect impending disaster, give that information to people at risk, and enable those in danger to make decisions and take action (Mileti 1999). The objective of people-centred early warning systems is to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in appropriate manners so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods (ISDR 2006).
According to the Second International Conference on Early Warnings (UNISDR 2003), there are four parts of an effective early warning system:
A weakness or failure in any one part could result in failure of the whole system (ISDR 2006, p. 2).
Australia is prone to a range of natural hazards including bushfires, floods, droughts, severe storms, tropical cyclones, heatwaves, earthquakes and landslides. As shown in Table 1, there are also several non-natural hazards that Australia is exposed to.
Table 1: Main Australian hazards.
Resulting from acts of nature
Involves accidents of failures and structures
Caused by intentional actions of an adversary
While some natural hazards have the potential to occur anywhere in Australia (e.g. severe storm), many occur only in reasonably well-defined regions (e.g. tropical cyclone) and are confined by topography (e.g. storm surge). Similarly, some natural hazards have the potential to occur at any time of year (e.g. tsunami) while others are often seasonal (e.g. thunderstorm) (Middelmann ed. 2007).
In recent years, there have been several significant disasters in Australia including the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria and the 2011 floods in Queensland and Victoria. There is evidence to show that the number and intensity of weather-related disasters will increase in the future due to anthropogenic climate change (Steffen, Hughes & Perkins 2014, CSIRO & Australian Bureau of Meteorology 2014).
Some hazards may occur suddenly (e.g. earthquake) while others may be identified in advance and a warning provided (e.g. flood, bushfire, cyclones). Early warning systems have therefore been developed in Australia particularly for those hazards where there is an opportunity for warnings to have (or may have) the greatest impacts. Under Australia’s constitutional arrangements, State and Territory emergency management legislation identifies control agencies and guides early warning practices. The control agencies are responsible for delivering warnings to the public.
The Australian Government provides national leadership around emergency warning activity, contributing to a whole-of-nation, resilience-based approach to preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters (Attorney-General’s Department 2013). This includes assisting States and Territories to enhance their warning capabilities (e.g. the national telephone-based emergency warning system, Emergency Alert) and developing resource material, such as Emergency Warnings: Choosing your Words (Attorney-General’s Department 2008a).
Under the authority of the Meteorology Act 1955, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) disseminates warnings, watches and advises on weather events such as severe thunderstorms, fire weather, coastal hazards, high winds, flood and tropical cyclone warnings and, in collaboration with Geoscience Australia, tsunami warnings. A significant number of warnings issued for natural hazards in Australia are issued by the BOM.
Communities and individuals also have responsibilities including preparing themselves for emergencies that might affect them and taking appropriate action in response to emergency warnings. According to the Australian Government:
‘A key element in building the disaster resilience of Australian communities is that individuals, households and businesses should be prepared and have action plans for emergencies that might affect them. Preparation and planning at the individual, household and community levels supports informed decision making.’
(Attorney-General’s Department 2013, pp. 5–6)
Broadcast media plays an important role in emergencies, both in disseminating and collecting information about an incident. Codes of practice ensure that broadcasters have well-established procedures in place to enable, in consultation with emergency services organisations, the timely and tailored broadcast of warnings and information to the public during an emergency.
In October 2008, the then Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management – Emergency Management (MCPEM–EM) endorsed 12 National Emergency Warning Principles1. The principles (Attorney-General’s Department 2008b) provide a framework that guides public warning activities. A number of States and Territories have developed their own protocols that reference these principles.
The ten-year Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) came out of the World Conference held in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan in January 2005. The HFA is the first plan to explain, describe and detail the work that is required from all sectors and actors to reduce disaster losses. It was developed and agreed to by the many partners needed to reduce disaster risk — governments, international agencies, disaster experts and many others — bringing them to a common system of co-ordination.
In 2015 the HFA will be updated. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) issued a call for input papers as part of the development of its 2015 Global Assessment Report (GAR15). The GAR15 will be published prior to the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, in which governments will adopt a successor framework to the HFA.
This paper is a summary of a more detailed input paper that addresses Research Area 4, Priority for Action 2 — Core Indicator 3 from the HFA:
Early warning systems are in place for all major hazards, with outreach to communities.
It attempts to broadly evaluate the progress made with early warning systems used in Australia since the commencement of the HFA in 2005.
The National Emergency Warning Principles were used as a general evaluation framework to examine the progress made with early warning systems in Australia since 2005. However, international literature provided some additional measures and issues that were considered in the evaluation. For example, Parker and Neal (1990) identified approaches that should be considered in post-flood evaluation of flood forecasting and warning systems. This evaluation focussed on the main hazards for which early warning systems have been developed in Australia i.e. floods, bushfires, tropical cyclones and tsunamis.
The data for the qualitative evaluation was collected from a variety of sources including:
The emergency management agencies consulted for this review all believed there had been considerable progress in early warning systems in Australia since 2005. Much of this progress had been triggered and guided by post-disaster reviews and inquiries such as the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry and the Victorian Floods Review.
The progress identified included:
According to the responses from the Australian emergency agencies and major disaster reviews and inquiries, there are some aspects of early warning systems that can still be improved. These include:
The research found that there has been considerable progress in Australian early warning systems over the past ten years. Progress particularly has been made in forecasting and prediction, intelligence systems, interoperability, and the increase in the range of available communication methods such as Emergency Alert and social media.
However, the research identified that further improvement could be made in some aspects of early warning systems such as raising low levels of community emergency preparedness in many Australian communities, designing effective flash flood warning systems, and understanding potential community response behaviours. Consistent evaluation of early warning systems – before and after emergencies – is also required.
Attorney-General’s Department 2008a, Emergency Warnings: Choosing your Words. Commonwealth of Australia. At: www.em.gov.au/Emergency-Warnings/Documents/EmergencyWarningsChoosingYourWordsEdition2.pdf.
Attorney-General’s Department 2008b, Emergency warnings guidelines and principles. Commonwealth of Australia. At: www.em.gov.au/Emergency-Warnings/Pages/Emergencywarningsguidelinesandprinciples.aspx,
[25 March 2014].
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Attorney-General’s Department 2013, Australia’s Emergency Warning Arrangements. Commonwealth of Australia. At: www.em.gov.au/Emergency-Warnings/Documents/Australias%20Emergency%20Warning%20Arrangements.PDF.
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CSIRO & Australian Bureau of Meteorology 2014, State of the Climate 2014. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
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Dufty N 2013, Evaluating emergency management after an event: gaps and suggestions. Australian Journal of Emergency Management vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 15-19.
Heath J, Nulsen C, Dunlop P, Clarke P, Bürgelt P & Morrison D 2011, Community response to the February 2011 Bushfires. Summary Report. Bushfire CRC. At: www.bushfirecrc.com/sites/default/files/managed/resource/residents_report_-_bushfires_2011.pdf.
ISDR 2006, Global Survey of Warning Systems. A report prepared at the request of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
King D & Goudie D 2006, Cyclone Larry March 2006 Post Disaster Residents’ Survey. Centre for Disaster Studies, James Cook University and Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
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Middelmann MH (Editor) 2007, Natural Hazards in Australia. Identifying Risk Analysis Requirements. Geoscience Australia, Canberra.
Mileti DS 1999, Disasters by design: a reassessment of natural hazards in the United States. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.
Molino Stewart 2009, May 2009 East Coast Low Flood Warning Community Feedback Report. Report prepared for the NSW State Emergency Service.
Parliament of Victoria 2010, 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Final Report Summary.
Parker DJ & Neal J 1990, Evaluating the performance of flood warning systems. In Hazards and the Communication of Risk, Handmer JW & Penning-Rowsell EC (eds). Aldershot: Gower Technical Press: pp. 137–156.
Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry 2012, Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry Final Report. Queensland Government.
Steffen W, Hughes L & Perkins S 2014, Heatwaves: Hotter, Longer, More Often. Climate Council of Australia.
UNISDR 2003, Early Warning as a Matter of Policy. The Conclusions of the Second International Conference on Early Warning. 16-18 October 2003, Bonn, Germany.
Victorian Government 2011, Review of the 2010-11 Flood Warnings and Response. Final Report by Neil Comrie AO, APM. State of Victoria.
Victorian Government 2013, Victorian Warning Protocol Version 2.0. At: http://fire-com-live-wp.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/Victorian-Warnings-Protocol-v2.0-1August13.pdf.
1 National Emergency Management Principles at www.em.gov.au/Emergency-Warnings/Pages/Emergencywarningsguidelinesandprinciples.aspx.
Neil Dufty is a Principal at Molino Stewart Pty Ltd, an environment and natural hazards consultancy based in Parramatta, NSW. He has completed numerous evaluations of early warning systems including for the Victorian Floods Review and the Victorian Fire Services Commissioner. The detailed input paper from this research can be found at http://works.bepress.com/neil_dufty/35/.