Tech lessons from our summer of crises

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Australia should adopt an emergency mass communications system similar to what is used in the US to better manage future crises, according to BlackBerry IoT Solutions managing director David Nicol.

Last month the federal government sent a text message to nearly 36 million Australian mobile phones, outlining precautions to take to fight the spread of COVID-19 and to stay at home if they are feeling unwell.

The message appeared on someone’s phone as if it came from their telecommunications provider, rather than an emergency government alert. This led to confusion amongst some, with the coronavirus warning appearing directly below other messages from their telco, such as special offers.

Crisis communications: Getting the message out at scale

It’s understood the government opted for this method as it was most efficient and to not create fear with an emergency message.

Once the crisis has ended and normalcy returns, the federal government should consider its use of mass communications during the bushfire crisis late last year and the coronavirus pandemic, and what is needed to improve this before the next situation, Mr Nicol said.

Mr Nicol oversees BlackBerry AtHoc, the company’s networked crisis communication technology, along with its secure government messaging and calls platform.

Improvements in Australia could include a better coordinated, dedicated service for sending alerts to Australians, better communication between government agencies and organisations during emergencies and ways to assist employers in getting warnings to their teams.

“There’s an opportunity to have a dedicated network that doesn’t contend with other traffic, that could quickly be identified as being from a trusted source, and that supports multiple modes of delivery, not just SMS,” Mr Nicol told InnovationAus.

“Our philosophy is you can never rely on just one mechanism for delivery in a time of crisis. You need to align it with how users are different and how they prefer to see communications.”

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System IPAWS) is the gold standard for this, Mr Nicol said. Launched in 2018, IPAWS is a nationwide alert system that can utilise radio, TV and the internet to notify people in the event of an emergency.

Through the system, different levels of government in the US can issue up to two minutes of information via text-to-speech or pre-recorded audio. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it allows authorities to send health orders, curfew information and other guidelines and restrictions to the vast majority of the country if needed.

The system has already been used by some states, including in Michigan, where citizens were sent a message telling them to “stay home, stay safe”.

This is a model that Australia could base its future emergency communications system on, Mr Nicol said.

“The US is particularly mature. They’ve had some natural and man-made disasters that have prompted the additional regulation and infrastructure around their systems and processes, and the establishment of IPAWS,” he said.

“One of the benefits of having a dedicated service and the regulation that is in place in the US is that when a critical alert is sent, it can easily be recognised on the user’s phone. It can include a dedicated ringtone and bypass the silent feature on the phone.

“We don’t have that capability here – that’s likely something that is being considered as part of improving the resiliency of our crisis communications. This would be a longer-term investment.”

The recent bushfires crisis in Australia also showed that there needs to be more effective communication and coordination between various government agencies and authorities. The bushfires saw state emergency services, military personnel and volunteer firefighters all working to combat the emergency, raising issues with making communications effective and consistent, Mr Nicol said.

A centralised crisis communications platform is something that Australian businesses should also be investigating, he said.

“Having regular, clear delivery of communications to those employees is critical. They need to be communicating and having employees acknowledge the OH&S policies and having the opportunity to report back to their employer if there are issues or any gaps in their ability to perform their work from home,” Mr Nicol said.

“Having regular communications from a consistent source and through a crisis communications platform – you can do that and you can provide links for additional information. There is a risk of providing too much information to employees so then it doesn’t cut through.”

BlackBerry has offered 60-days of free use of its software, which includes a crisis communications platform, for Australian businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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