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WA set to roll out alert system in wake of Bl -

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WA set to roll out alert system in wake of Black Saturday fires

Broadcast: 28/04/2009

Reporter: Hamish Fitzsimmons

In the wake of Black Saturday, Western Australia is offering to roll out an alert system it is had
up and running for 10 years, which it says is capable of targeting individual streets with specific
messages, or blanketing an entire state.


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: When the Black Saturday fires hit Victoria, many survivors say they were
unaware of the danger until it was almost too late. In an era of global terrorism and flu pandemic,
the benefit of an early warning system alerting people to impending emergencies would seem
overwhelming. State and territory governments agreed to a telephone-based warning system in 2004,
but that proposal stalled.

Now, in the wake of Black Saturday, Western Australia is recommending an alert system it's had for
10 years, which it says is capable of targeting individual streets with specific messages or
blanketing an entire state. But not all states seem willing to embrace this free offer from the
west. Hamish Fitzsimmons reports from Perth.

BARBARA MUIR, BLACK SATURDAY SURVIVOR: It was a perfectly ordinary day and we'd been here and had a
very busy lunchtime. We were still taking dinner bookings up to four o'clock.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS, REPORTER: Late on Black Saturday, Barbara and Chris Muir were wondering if
there were going to be diners in their Marysville restaurant at all after hearing on the radio that
the town was under ember attack.

BARBARA MUIR: I'd had friends who'd come and say, "Barbara, we're getting ready to go. They are
evacuating the town." And - but it just felt ordinary. There was no smoke in the town - nothing.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Like many, the Muirs were unaware of the scale of the catastrophe bearing down
on the town. Any information they received was general or through word of mouth and they say there
were no warnings recommending they evacuate.

CHRIS MUIR, BLACK SATURDAY SURVIVOR: There wasn't any official flow of information - none that I
received, anyway, apart from listening to the radio.

BARBARA MUIR: I was out on the street and our postmistress and her husband were across at the post
office and she just came across and said, "Barbara, we've got to go! We've got to go!"

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But the Muirs consider themselves lucky - they only lost their house and
business, while 34 people from Marysville died in the fires.

BARBARA MUIR: We were all late - nearly all of us were late getting out. And we didn't get out
until quarter to seven, and the fire was behind us, and at that time, the fire - the town was full
of smoke.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The lack of an early warning system is on the agenda of the Royal Commission
into Victoria's deadly fires. Plans for a national warming system have been in place since 2004. In
2007, the state, territory and federal governments agreed to adopt a warning system being developed
by Telstra, but the proposal stalled when some baulked at the $20 million price tag.

ROBERT MCLELLAND, ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's been before governments for too long is the bottom line.
And that was revealed dramatically in the Victorian fires. It hasn't been good enough, quite
frankly, and all state's, including all levels of government - state and federal government -
really need to redouble their efforts.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: A phone-based warning system has been operating in Perth in various forms since

ALF FORDHAM, WA POLICE: It's called P.C. C.O.P.S, and we use that for advising the community of
things that we thought they would be able to help us with, such as it might be a missing person or
it might be a crime prevention type message.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: In its current form, WA's internet-based state alert has the capacity to send
tens of thousands of messages every few minutes to a specific area, or the entire state, via
telephones, mobiles, fax, email, or SMS.

ALF FORDHAM: The system reaches out to a database that has the telephone numbers of virtually
everybody within a particular geographical area. What a commander is then able to do is to identify
a specific zone - it might be a street or a block or a suburb, whatever the area is that relates to
the emergency that we're dealing with.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: State Alert has cost the state's Fire and Emergency Services Authority less
than half a million dollars. WA is offering the system to all states and territories for free, and
the Authority says the software can be easily altered to suit particular needs.

JOHN BUTCHER, WA FIRE & EMERGENCY SERVICES AUTHORITY: You don't need a national system, you just
each of the states having the capably to send warnings. The state alert system has been built for
Western Australian processes and procedures, but it's very easily adopted to other states.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: In the wake of the Black Saturday fires, Victoria trialled an alert system of
its own - text messages warning of extreme fire conditions were sent to any mobile phone registered
in the state. But the message took eight hours to reach some people and was criticised as a scatter
gun approach.

BOB FALCONER, FMR WA POLICE COMMISSIONER: And it also went to half of Tasmania. I know that a man
who works for the WA Police got it on his cellular phone because he once had a billing address in
Footscray in Melbourne. Now that's not the way to go. It's gotta be more focused.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: In 1998, WA's Police Commissioner Bob Falconer, a former deputy Commissioner of
the Victoria Police, oversaw the expansion of Perth's alert system to cover the state. After the
September 11 attacks in 2001 in the United States, Mr Falconer, now retired, approached Emergency
Management Australia and the Protective Security Coordination Centre, the two peak bodies for
emergencies and security, suggesting they look at the WA system. He never heard back from them, but
renewed his efforts after the Bali bombings in 2003.

BOB FALCONER: Well, I'm still waiting.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: So this has been on the table to all states and territories for almost eight


HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: So this could've been in place in Victoria and NSW prior to any major

BOB FALCONER: Yep. It could've been, and, look, I'm not saying that everybody has to have the same
flavour. But this is my point: if they - for any reason, they did not want to take up the Western
Australian model, that's their prerogative. But what have they done as a working alternative? Where
is their model? They haven't got one.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The 7.30 Report understands all states and territories have now agreed to
partner Western Australia in the use of the state alert system, except Queensland and Victoria.
Victoria remains committed to a national system, now estimated to cost between $40 and $60 million
and take five years to roll out. The Victorian Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron declined to
be interviewed but a spokesperson sent the 7.30 Report a statement which said...

FEMALE VOICEOVER: The Victorian Government has pushed for a national system for a number of years.
... The Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin has said on the record we need a national
system that covers everyone, not a small opt-in system like they are trying to implement in Western

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: So why do you think the Victorian Government is so reluctant to take up this
warning system?

BOB FALCONER: That's the question. So what are you doing? Why are you not going the way of a model
that has been proven to work and is available for seemingly a lot less than this other all-seeing,
all-dancing model? Please explain.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The Federal Government says if the WA system can do what emergency authorities
say it can do, then it will be considered as a national model.

ROBERT MCLELLAND: We've moved on 100 years from the different railway gauge debate. That was an
issue that impeded the economic development of the country. We don't want this debate to prejudice
the safety and security of Australians confronting emergencies.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: As the Muirs sift through the remains of their business, they're not bitter
about failing to get any direct warnings on the day of the fires, but do want to see improvements
in the flow of information.

CHRIS MUIR: We certainly don't hold anybody responsible for the fact that we didn't get the
warning. Better information to them as much as better information to us, I think would've helped.

BARBARA MUIR: Anything has to be better than people driving up and down this street shouting,
"We've got to get out!," through their windows and everything. It was just - there has to be
something better than that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Hamish Fitzsimmons with that report from Perth.