Making better use of SMS warning systems and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is essential to ensuring the disastrous consequences of the Queensland floods are not repeated, the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry – Interim Report has recommended.
While SMS alerts were generally found to be an efficient method of delivering flood warnings and information, use of the Emergency Alert SMS warning system during the 2010-11 floods was hampered by several limitations.
For example, text messages attempting to convey warnings to citizens within the 160 character SMS format often lacked the detail necessary to give an accurate appraisal of the situation, with some causing unnecessary panic.
To combat this problem, the Interim Report has recommended that SMS messages be primarily used to refer recipients to other sources of information about where to go and what to do in the event of a flood emergency.
Technical limitations also plagued the use of the SMS warning system, with alerts experiencing significant delays due to telephone coverage problems and the requirement that all warnings be approved by Emergency Management Queensland or the state disaster coordination centre before they are issued. This resulted in the alerts being delivered to residents after their area had been inundated.
The Report also suggests that local councils and government agencies ought to make better use of social media platforms in order to connect citizens with their governments and emergency services.
“Where it was used, social media was found to be an effective way to provide information to the community,” the Report states.
During the floods, some councils and the Queensland Police Service (QPS) employed Facebook and Twitter to disseminate warnings and information about local conditions. The QPS’ James Kliemt told delegates at this year’s CeBIT Conference that the QPS Facebook page had become a crucial source of authoritative information for concerned citizens, with 80,000 people joining the page on 10 January alone; the day an ‘inland tsunami’ devastated Toowoomba.
The Report reveals that QPS’ success with the social media model was shared by the Brisbane City Council, with an independent review of the Council’s response to the floods indicating that social media was used extensively by the public to access information.
While increased uptake of social media is recommended, the Report cautions against the risks that may also arise, such as members of the public posting false or misleading information – something Kliemt explained at CeBIT that QPS had experienced. To combat this, the Report proposes that social media content be consistently monitored in order to ensure its accuracy.
In addition to more effective use of SMS warning systems and social media, councils in flood-prone areas should also consider adopting ICT-based flood warning solutions such as the Automated Local Evaluation in Real Time (ALERT) System, the Report recommends. ALERT provides a continuous stream of data regarding river height and rainfall gauges and can be configured to send an email or SMS alert to council staff when a predetermined trigger is reached.
The Queensland Floods Interim Reportwas announced by Premier Anna Bligh in late-January 2011. The final report is due by January 2012.