Today saw the release of a report into how WA’s fire and emergency services dealt with February’s bushfire outbreak which destroyed 71 homes in the Perth Hills. It’s not a happy read, especially for the FESA CEO who has stood down based on what the inquiry learned – that the communication and co-ordination of the various response organisations is dysfunctional, at best.
At the time, I and others sought to piece together what we could from various snippets of web-based information. There was no central clearing-house for information. People relied on rumour and gossip and talkback radio. It quickly became obvious that WA’s emergency services did not have a clear idea of what was going on, nor how to communicate what little they did know.
We, online and out of danger, had had our expectations raised by the excellent response by the Queensland Police Service (and others), who carried out a well-oiled Social Media blitz to respond to the threats of Cyclone Yasi and the Brisbane Floods. The report suggests the Queensland authorities have a model worth imitating.
However, the report is lukewarm about the potential for social media to play a role in emergency responses. Recommendation 33 looks at how the ABC and the Fire and Emergency Services Authority could work together to get emergency warning messages out where they should be – with the people in danger. When the inquiry discussed the issue of Social Media with those people, it appears the target audience didn’t notice the lack of official Facebook and Twitter updates, or care about a haphazard social media strategy. The report cites “age demographic” and “power supply” issues, which roughly translates as “Hills people are too old, and forget to charge their mobile phones”. (I posted an ironic take on this approach at the time.)
The report does challenge FESA to get their web presence in order and figure out how to get useful content more accessible, and work with the ABC on a strategy that combines multiple channels, including Facebook and Twitter, to get the ‘message’ out. (I particularly like the way the report makes a clear distinction between emergency ‘messages’ and ‘media coverage’.)
The Perth Fires were notable in that there was no loss of life, despite widespread damage and loss. The report implies that was down to good fortune rather than good management of the emergency response. I dearly hope that lessons are learned before the start of the next fire season and that all the tools are sharpened and ready to be swung into action, social media included.