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Bushfire-hit Australian state sets global standard for emergency digital warnings


Bushfire-hit Australian state sets global standard for emergency digital warnings

A website and mobile app allowing residents of the Australian state of Victoria to receive bushfire and other emergency warnings is a pioneering step towards using digital technologies to unify citizen warning systems, their developers have told

The need for more effective systems is urgent: this month the Victorian authorities have been battling to keep bushfires under control as the state entered its longest heatwave in more than 100 years.

The new single VicEmergency website and FireReady app, developed by the state's Fire Services Commissioner with the Department of Justice, provide a single source of information and advice to help people prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies. VicEmergency replaces some 18 previous digital emergency sites or tools with a single site built around a real-time Google Map display.

"The development of VicEmergency as Victoria's primary website for emergency warnings for fire, flood, earthquake, storm and tsunami with links to fire and flood planning and response information has been a long-term goal in the Victorian emergency services sector", a Fire Services Commissioner spokesperson told this week.

"It was raised in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and was a recommendation of the Victorian Flood Review, which both called for a single emergency website as a one-stop shop for people seeking emergency information and warnings.

The website supports the Victorian Government's all hazards, all agencies approach to emergency management, providing information to help the community before, during and after emergencies."

The state's FireReady app for Apple and Android devices allows users to set up "watch zones" to receive tailored warnings for their home, business, holiday house or any other location for which they wish to receive warnings and notifications.

After Victoria become the first public body in Australia to develop such an app in 2011, it was completely rebuilt last year after it become clear the original app could not cope with the high levels of demand for digital emergency information, the commissioner's spokesperson said.

The new app was designed to be able to send millions of "push notifications" issuing fire warnings and incident alerts, using infrastructure supported by Amazon and Akamai, the same companies, "the same companies that support Facebook, which has more than one billion users", the spokesperson said. The app has already been downloaded more than 360,000 times since it was launched on December 16.

"The app design and functionality was tested... with the specific intention to make the information direct and easy to read for those experiencing increasing stress and anxiety, and for those with visual impairments", the spokesperson said. "Subsequent releases will improve and expand the information available on post-emergency assistance, health and community intelligence, building community capacity to plan for emergencies."

Pictured: Satellite image of smoke plumes from bushfires burning in Victoria, Australia by NASA/Wikimedia Commons
FireReady app:

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