Disasters expose gaps in emergency services’ social media use


Tan Yigitcanlar, Queensland University of Technology; Ashantha Goonetilleke, Queensland University of Technology, and Nayomi Kankanamge, Queensland University of Technology

Australia has borne the brunt of several major disasters in recent years, including drought, bushfires, floods and cyclones. The increasing use of social media is changing how we prepare for and respond to these disasters. Not only emergency services but also their social media are now much-sought-after sources of disaster information and warnings.

We studied Australian emergency services’ social media use in times of disaster. Social media can provide invaluable and time-critical information to both emergency services and communities at risk. But we also found problems.




Read more:
Drought, fire and flood: how outer urban areas can manage the emergency while reducing future risks


How do emergency services use social media?

The 2019-20 Australian bushfires affected 80% of the population directly or indirectly. Social media were widely used to spread awareness of the bushfire disaster and to raise funds – albeit sometimes controversially – to help people in need.

The escalating use and importance of social media in disaster management raises an important question:

How effective are social media pages of Australian state emergency management organisations in meeting community expectations and needs?

To answer this question, QUT’s Urban Studies Lab investigated the community engagement approaches of social media pages maintained by various Australian emergency services. We placed Facebook and Twitter pages of New South Wales State Emergency Services (NSW-SES), Victoria State Emergency Services (VIC-SES) and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QLD-FES) under the microscope.

Our study made four key findings.

First, emergency services’ social media pages are intended to:

  • disseminate warnings
  • provide an alternative communication channel
  • receive rescue and recovery requests
  • collect information about the public’s experiences
  • raise disaster awareness
  • build collective intelligence
  • encourage volunteerism
  • express gratitude to emergency service staff and volunteers
  • raise funds for those in need.



Read more:
With costs approaching $100 billion, the fires are Australia’s costliest natural disaster


Examples of emergency services’ social media posts are shown below.

NSW-SES collecting data from the public through their posts.
Facebook
VIC-SES sharing weather warnings to inform the public.
Facebook
QLD-FES posting fire condition information to increase public awareness.
Facebook
QLD-FES showing the direction of a cyclone and warning the community.
Facebook

Second, Facebook pages of emergency services attract more community attention than Twitter pages. Services need to make their Twitter pages more attractive as, unlike Facebook, Twitter allows streamlined data download for social media analytics. A widely used Twitter page of emergency service means more data for analysis and potentially more accurate policies and actions.

Third, Australia lacks a legal framework for the use of social media in emergency service operations. Developing these frameworks will help organisations maximise its use, especially in the case of financial matters such as donations.

Fourth, the credibility of public-generated information can sometimes be questionable. Authorities need to be able to respond rapidly to such information to avoid the spread of misinformation or “fake news” on social media.

Services could do more with social media

Our research highlighted that emergency services could use social media more effectively. We do not see these services analysing social media data to inform their activities before, during and after disasters.

In another study on the use of social media analytics for disaster management, we developed a novel approach to show how emergency services can identify disaster-affected areas using real-time social media data. For that study, we collected Twitter data with location information on the 2010-11 Queensland floods. We were able to identify disaster severity by analysing the emotional or sentiment values of tweets.




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This work generated the disaster severity map show below. The map is over 90% accurate to actual figures in the report of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry.

Disaster severity map created through Twitter analytics.
Authors

Concerns about using social media to manage disaster

The first highly voiced concern about social media use in disaster management is the digital divide. While the issue of underrepresented people and communities remains important, the use of technology is spreading widely. There were 3.4 billion social media users worldwide in 2019, and the growth in numbers is accelerating.




Read more:
Online tools can help people in disasters, but do they represent everyone?


Besides, many Australian cities and towns are investing in smart city strategies and infrastructures. These localities provide free public Wi-Fi connections. And almost 90% of Australians now own a smart phone.

The second concern is information accuracy or “fake news” on social media. Evidently, sharing false information and rumours compromises the information social media provides. Social media images and videos tagged with location information can provide more reliable, eye-witness information.

Another concern is difficulty in receiving social media messages from severely affected areas. For instance, the disaster might have brought down internet or 4G/5G coverage, or people might have been evacuated from areas at risk. This might lead to limited social media posts from the actual disaster zone, with increasing numbers of posts from the places people are relocated.

In such a scenario, alternative social media analytics are on offer. We can use content analysis and sentiment analysis to determine the disaster location and impact.

How to make the most of social media

Social media and its applications are generating new and innovative ways to manage disasters and reduce their impacts. These include:

  • increasing community trust in emergency services by social media profiling
  • crowd-sourcing the collection and sharing of disaster information
  • creating awareness by incorporating gamification applications in social media
  • using social media data to detect disaster intensity and hotspot locations
  • running real-time data analytics.

In sum, social media could become a mainstream information provider for disaster management. The need is likely to become more pressing as human-induced climate change increases the severity and frequency of disasters.

Today, as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic, social media analytics are helping to ease its impacts. Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are greatly reducing processing time for social media analytics. We believe the next-generation AI will enable us to undertake real-time social media analytics more accurately.




Read more:
Coronavirus: How Twitter could more effectively ease its impact


The Conversation


Tan Yigitcanlar, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Queensland University of Technology; Ashantha Goonetilleke, Professor, Queensland University of Technology, and Nayomi Kankanamge, PhD Candidate, School of Built Environment, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drought, fire and flood: how outer urban areas can manage the emergency while reducing future risks



paintings/Shutterstock

Elisa Palazzo, UNSW; Annette Bardsley, University of Adelaide, and David Sanderson, UNSW

First the drought, then bushfires and then flash floods: a chain of extreme events hit Australia hard in recent months. The coronavirus pandemic has only temporarily shifted our attention towards a new emergency, adding yet another risk.

We knew from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the risk of extreme events was rising. What we perhaps didn’t realise was the high probability of different extreme events hitting one after the other in the same regions. Especially in the fringes of Australian cities, residents are facing new levels of environmental risk, especially from bushfires and floods.




Read more:
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But this cycle of devastation is not inevitable if we understand the connections between events and do something about them.

Measures to slow climate change are in the hands of policymakers. But, at the adaptation level, we can still do many things to reduce the impacts of extreme events on our cities.

We can start by increasing our capacity to see these phenomena as one problem to be tackled locally, rather than distinct problems to be addressed centrally. Solutions should be holistic, community-centred and focused on people’s practices and shared responsibilities.

Respond to emergency

We can draw lessons from humanitarian responses to large disasters, including both national and international cases. A recent review of disaster responses in urban areas found several factors are critical for more successful recovery.

One is to prioritise the needs of people themselves. This requires genuine, collaborative engagement. People who have been through a bushfire or flood are not “helpless victims”. They are survivors who need to be supported and listened to, not dictated to, in terms of what they may or may not need.

Another lesson is to link recovery efforts, rather than have individual agencies provide services separately. For instance, an organisation focusing on housing recovery needs to work closely with organisations that are providing water or sanitation. A coordinated approach is more efficient, less wearying on those needing help, and better reflects the interconnected reality of everyday life.

In the aid world this is known as an “area-based” approach. It prioritises efforts that are driven by people demand rather than by the supply available.

A third lesson is give people money, not goods. Money allows people to decide what they really need, rather than rely on the assumptions of others.

As the bushfires have shown, donations of secondhand goods and clothes often turn into piles of unwanted goods. Disposal then becomes a problem in its own right.




Read more:
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Combining local knowledge and engagement

Planning approaches in outer urban areas should be realigned with our current understanding of bushfire and flood risk. This situation is challenging planners to engage with residents in new ways to ensure local needs are met, especially in relation to disaster resilience.

In areas of high bushfire risk, planning needs to connect equally with the full range of locals. Landscape and biodiversity experts, including Indigenous land managers, and emergency managers should work in association with planning processes that welcome input from residents. This approach is highly likely to reduce risks.

Planners have a vital job to create platforms that enable the interplay of ideas, local values and traditional knowledge. Authentic engagement can increase residents’ awareness of environmental hazards. It can also pave the way for specific actions by authorities to reduce risks, such as those undertaken by Country Fire Service community engagement units in South Australia.




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Managing water to build bushfire resilience

Regenerating ecosystems by responding to flood risk can be crucial to increase urban and peri-urban resilience while reducing future drought and bushfire impacts.

Research on flood management suggests rainwater must be always seen as a resource, even in the case of extreme events. Sustainable water management through harvesting, retention and reuse can have long-term positive effects in regenerating micro-climates. It is at the base of any action aimed at comprehensively increasing resilience.




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In this sense, approaches based on decentralised systems are more effective at countering the risks of drought, fire and flood locally. They consist of small-scale nature-based solutions able to absorb and retain water to reduce flooding. Distributed off-grid systems support water harvesting in rainy seasons and prevent fires during drought by maintaining soil moisture.

Decentralisation also creates opportunities for innovation in the management of urban ecosystems, with responsibility shared among many. Mobile technologies can help communities play an active role in minimising flood impacts at the small scale. Information platforms can also help raise awareness of the links between risks and actions and lead to practical solutions that are within everybody’s reach.

Tailor responses to people and ecosystems

Disrupted ecosystems can make the local impacts of drought, fire and flood worse, but can also play a role in global failures, such as the recent pandemic. It is urgent to define and implement mechanisms to reverse this trend.

Lessons from disaster responses point towards the need to tailor solutions to community needs and local environmental conditions. A few key strategies are emerging:

  • foster networks and coordinated approaches that operate across silos

  • support local and traditional landscape knowledge

  • use information platforms to help people work together to manage risks

  • manage water locally with the support of populations to prevent drought and bushfire.

Recent environmental crises are showing us the way to finally change direction. Safe cities and landscapes can be achieved only by regenerating urban ecosystems while responding to increasing environmental risks through integrated, people-centred actions.The Conversation

Elisa Palazzo, Urbanist and landscape planner – Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW; Annette Bardsley, Researcher, Department of Geography, Environment and Population, University of Adelaide, and David Sanderson, Professor and Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With costs approaching $100 billion, the fires are Australia’s costliest natural disaster


Paul Read, Monash University and Richard Denniss, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

It’s hard to estimate the eventual economic cost of Australia’s 2019-20 megafires, partly because they are still underway, and partly because it is hard to know the cost to attribute to deaths and the decimation of species and habitats, but it is easy to get an idea of its significance – the cost will be unprecedented.

The deadliest bushfires in the past 200 years took place in 1851, then 1939, then 1983, 2009, now 2019-20. The years between them are shrinking rapidly. Only a remote grassfire in central Australia in 1974-75 rivalled them in terms of size, although not in biomass burnt or loss of life.

The term “megafire” is a new one, defined in the early 2000s to help describe disturbing new wildfires emerging in the United States – massive blazes, usually above 400,000 hectares, often joining up, that create more than usual destruction to life and property.




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Firestorms and flaming tornadoes: how bushfires create their own ferocious weather systems


Australia’s current fires dwarf the US fires that inspired the term.

They are 25 times the size of Australia’s deadliest bushfires, the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria that directly killed 173 people, and so large and intense that they create their own weather in which winds throw embers 30 kilometres or more ahead of the front and pyro-cumulus clouds produce dry lightning that ignites new fires.

The Black Saturday fires burnt 430,000 hectares. The current fires have killed fewer people but have so far burnt 10.7 million hectares – an area the size of South Korea, or Scotland and Wales combined.

There are easy to measure costs…

The federal government has promised to put at least A$2 billion into a National Bushfire Recovery Fund, which is roughly the size of the first estimate of the cost of the fires calculated by Terry Rawnsley of SGS Economics and Planning.

He put the cost at somewhere between A$1.5 and $2.5 billion, using his firm’s modelling of the cost of the NSW Tathra fires in March 2018 as a base.

It’s the total of the lost income from farm production, tourism and the like.

It is possible to get an idea of wider costs using the findings of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.


Final Report, 2019 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission

It came up with an estimate for tangible costs of A$4.369 billion, which after inflation would be about $5 billion in today’s dollars.

…and harder-to-measure costs

Tangible costs are hose easily measured including the cost of replacing things such as destroyed homes, contents and vehicles.

They also include the human lives lost, which were valued at A$3.7 million per life (2009 dollars) in accordance with a Commonwealth standard.

The measure didn’t include the effect of injuries and shortened lives due to smoke-related stroke and cardiovascular and lung diseases, or damage to species and habitats, the loss of livestock, grain and feed, crops, orchards and national and local parks.

Also excluded were “inangibles”, among them the social costs of mental health problems and unemployment and increases in suicide, substance abuse, relationship breakdowns and domestic violence.




Read more:
Disaster recovery from Australia’s fires will be a marathon, not a sprint


The cost of inangibles can peak years after a disaster and continue to take tolls for decades, if not generations.

One attempt to estimate the cost of intangibles was made by Deloitte Access Economics, in work for the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities.

Deloitte put the tangible costs of the Black Saturday fires at A$3.1 billion in 2015 dollars and the intangible costs at more than that again: A$3.9 billion, producing a total of A$7 billion, which would be A$7.6 billion in today’s dollars.

Black Saturday is a staring point

2009 Victoria Black Saturday bushfires.
ANDREW BROWNBILL/AAP

This season’s megafires are, so far, less costly than the 2009 Victorian fires in terms of human life, roughly on par in terms of lost homes, and less costly for other structures.

But given that considerably more land has been burnt we can expect other costs to eclipse those of Black Saturday.

As of today, 25 times as much land has been burnt.

Scaling up the royal commission’s Black Saturday figures for the size of the fire and scaling them down for the fewer deaths and other things that shouldn’t be scaled up produces an estimate of tangible costs of A$103 billion in today’s dollars.

The Deloitte Access Economics ratio of intangible to tangible costs suggests a total for both types of costs of A$230 billion.

As it happens the tangible costs estimate is close to an estimate of A$100 billion prepared using methods by University of Queensland economist John Quiggin.




Read more:
We know bushfire smoke affects our health, but the long-term consequences are hazy


The reality won’t be clear for some time.

There are several weeks of fire season remaining, and we are yet to reach the usual peak season for Victoria, which is in the first week of February.

What we can safely say, with weeks left to go, is that these fires are by far Australia’s costliest natural disaster.The Conversation

Paul Read, Climate Criminologist & Senior Instructor/Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Monash University and Richard Denniss, Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How should leaders respond to disasters? Be visible, offer real comfort – and don’t force handshakes


Rosemary Williamson, University of New England

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been harshly criticised for being on holiday in Hawaii as the catastrophic bushfires were burning Australia.

Since his return, he has visited stricken communities – most recently, on Kangaroo Island yesterday. He has acknowledged the emotional toll on victims and promised practical support.

But the criticism continues. Every detail of the prime minister’s performance is being scrutinised via the 24/7 news cycle and social media. There is plenty of scope for perceived missteps, and little tolerance of them.

Disaster of any kind throws qualities of leadership – or the perceived lack thereof – under the spotlight. By what criteria, then, do we evaluate a leader’s performance at such times? What do we look for?

Criticised for being out of touch, Scott Morrison made a visit to Kangaroo Island to tour the fire damage and meet with locals.
David Mariuz/AAP

How Jacinda Ardern got it right

These are questions that have guided my research on how prime ministers have historically connected with Australians during times of peril.

During crises, people expect two things, broadly speaking. One is practical information, advice and support to minimise the risk faced by those directly impacted. The other is “humanistic communication” – or, the ability to offer comfort.

Last March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed both of these qualities in her decisive response to the massacre of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch.




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Politicians need to listen up before they speak up – and listen in the right places


She immediately provided detailed information and promised aid and tighter gun control measures. And she unambiguously aligned all New Zealanders with the Muslim community by what she said – “They are us” – and by standing with community leaders and comforting those in distress.

Importantly, Ardern also wore a headscarf when meeting the families of victims. This was seen as a strong and culturally sensitive statement of solidarity and support – a mark of good political leadership.

Women across New Zealand wore headscarfs in solidarity with the victims of the attacks after Ardern’s gesture.
SNPA Pool/EPA

Being on the ground to see themselves

Australian leaders have long shown strength in times of need, but the way they do so has changed over time. Today, there’s much more emphasis on being visible.

Following the Black Sunday bushfires in Victoria in 1926, for example, The Age printed a speech by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce in which he promised federal government aid and praised the heroism and altruism of Australians.

When the Black Friday fires devastated the state 13 years later, The Age quoted an “appalled” Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who promised aid and expressed his “heartfelt sympathy” to victims.

But nothing was said in the newspapers back then about either prime minister interacting directly with victims.




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Scott Morrison’s biggest failure in the bushfire crisis: an inability to deliver collective action


A leader wouldn’t get away with that these days. Since televisions became ubiquitous in people’s homes, it’s become necessary for leaders to be on the ground following a disaster, surveying damage and consoling victims.

Prime Minister Harry Holt, a savvy user of the media in the early years of television, travelled to Tasmania in the aftermath of the Black Tuesday fires in 1967. Holt said he had to go to see for himself, to better understand people’s experience and needs. A detailed study of the 1967 bushfire response notes that Holt’s visit, while short, “caught the imagination” of journalists, who reported his reaction to the devastation in vivid detail.

This is what we now expect. Visits to disaster sites have become rituals vital to crisis management and a fixture of disaster reporting.

Listening to victims

For a prime minister, such visits are also a chance to express those inherent qualities of “Australianness” that guarantee a full recovery. Everything that is said and done matters, which is why small details are heavily scrutinised.

People do not expect to be held at arm’s length on these occasions. Expressions of empathy are often reinforced by physical contact, even hugs.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demonstrated this following fires in Victoria in 2009, as did John Howard in the wake of the fires that swept through Canberra in 2003. They shook hands, patted backs and embraced survivors and emergency service workers.

John Howard comforting a fire victim in a Canberra suburb in 2003.
Pool/AAP

Others have got it completely wrong. Among his many missteps in his response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush delayed returning to Washington from his vacation by two whole days. An image of him surveying the damage from Air Force One then backfired – a decision Bush later called a “huge mistake”.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas in 2017, President Donald Trump was likewise criticised for paying too little attention to victims when he toured the site. And after the Grenfell Tower fire in London, UK Prime Minister Theresa May admitted that not meeting residents on her first visit was a mistake.

Misjudging what type of response is welcome from a leader also risks being seen as symptomatic of poor leadership, of being out of touch with the people. As we saw recently with Morrison, not everybody appreciates a handshake.

Stilettos and camouflage jackets

Even what a leader wears may be important. First Lady Melania Trump, for instance, was widely mocked for wearing stiletto heels to tour the Harvey devastation.

And when Prime Minister Julia Gillard went to Queensland in early 2011 following extensive flooding and held a press conference with Premier Anna Bligh, some commentators focused on the differences in their attire. Gillard, with her tidy suit, was criticised for not striking the right note. Bligh’s more casual appearance, meanwhile, had the look of someone more in touch with the suffering of the people.

Earlier this year, Morrison was also faulted for wearing a military camouflage jacket when touring a north Queensland flood zone, with some saying he was “hamming it up” for the cameras.

Morrison visiting flood victims in Townsville last February.
Dave Acree/AAP

Authenticity matters more than anything

The reactions to Morrison’s handling of the bushfires shows how important these qualities are in our presidents and prime ministers and how they will continue to influence perceptions of leadership in times of crisis.

Just as every leader is different, every disaster also requires a distinct approach. Each demands quick and sensitive judgements about what’s appropriate for the occasion. Reaction to any perceived errors of judgement will be swift and will spread quickly.

Above all, we look for authenticity in these moments, rather than obviously scripted photo opportunities. And in times of crisis, we’re more attuned to those out-of-touch moments when authenticity seems to be lacking.The Conversation

Rosemary Williamson, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to manage your essential medicines in a bushfire or other emergency



In an emergency, like a bushfire, making sure you have enough of your regular medication can mean the difference between life and death. But there are many ways to prepare.
from www.shutterstock.com

Andrew Bartlett, University of Sydney and Bandana Saini, University of Sydney

Some people find managing their medication difficult at the best of times. But in an emergency, like a bushfire or cyclone, this can be harder still.

As catastrophic bushfires burn across Australia, here’s what to think about as part of your emergency planning to make sure you have access to the medicines you need.




Read more:
What you can do about the health impact of bushfire smoke


As part of your emergency plan, list your medications and where you keep them, along with contact details for your doctor and pharmacist and any other relevant emergency services.

If you have advanced warning of emergency conditions, check both your supply of tablets and any prescriptions you may need. Your prescription label will tell you how many repeats you have left. Try and keep at least one week’s medication on hand.

I need to evacuate. Now what?

If you need to evacuate, know how best to store and transport your medication. Most medications for conditions such as blood pressure or cholesterol need to be stored below 25-30℃. These medications will be OK if temperatures are higher than this for short periods of time, while you transport them.

Medicines sensitive to temperature will need to be stored or transported with cold packs in an insulated container of some sort, such as an esky. Putting them in a ziplock bag will help protect them from moisture.




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Insulin is one common medication you need to store cold. Your current insulin pen can be stored at room temperature. But store unused pens with a cold pack in an esky until you find refrigeration.

This also applies to thyroxine tablets. Fourteen days supply (usually one strip of tablets) is OK if stored at room temperature. But keep the rest with a cold pack. If you don’t think it will be possible to keep the rest below 25℃ for a long time, also keep these with the cold pack.

Many antibiotic syrups, such as cefalexin, also need to be kept cold. But check the dispensing label or speak to your pharmacist if you are not sure.

What if I run out of medicine?

If you are caught without essential medication, doctors and pharmacists can help in a number of ways.

This is easier if you have a regular GP and pharmacist who will both have a complete record of your medication. Your pharmacist can call your GP and obtain verbal approval to supply your medication. Your GP will then need to fax or email the prescription to your pharmacist as soon as possible and mail the original script within seven days.

Pharmacists can also dispense emergency supplies of cholesterol medicines and oral contraceptives, so long as you already take them. Under so-called continued dispensing arrangements, pharmacists can dispense a single pack of these medicines once every 12 months.

If you cannot get in touch with your GP, in an emergency, most states allow a pharmacist to dispense a three-day supply of your medication. But this is only if the pharmacist has enough information to make that judgement.

Some medicines, such as strong pain medications and sleeping tablets, are not covered by these provisions.

Medicines for people with lung conditions, like asthma

People with existing lung conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or bronchitis), older people, young children and pregnant women are most likely to be vulnerable to the effect of bushfire smoke. They can also have symptoms long after a bushfire if fine particulate matter is still in the air.




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How does poor air quality from bushfire smoke affect our health?


If you have a respiratory condition, follow the action plan you will have already discussed with your doctor, which outlines what to do in an emergency.

This plan includes instructions on what you should do if your asthma gets worse, such as taking extra doses or additional medication. It also tells you when you should contact your doctor or go to the emergency department.

If you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma, and live in a bush fire prone zone, this action plan needs to be part of your fire safety survival plan.




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You also need to make sure you have enough preventer and reliever medications, for asthma for example, to hand just in case there is an emergency.

If you don’t have an action plan, taking four separate puffs of your reliever medication may relieve acute symptoms. This applies for adults and children.

In a nutshell

Being prepared for an emergency, like a bushfire, goes a long way to keeping you and your family safe. That applies to thinking about your supply of medicines well in advance, if possible.

But if conditions change rapidly and you need to evacuate, an esky containing medicines for a few days, and contact numbers for your GP and pharmacist, could save your life.The Conversation

Andrew Bartlett, Associate Lecturer Pharmacy Practice, University of Sydney and Bandana Saini, Associate Professor, Pharmacy Practice, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why were tourists allowed on White Island?



The volcanic alert level on Whakaari/White Island remains at three, one rung higher than it was when the eruption took place.
AAP/GNS Science, CC BY-ND

Michael Lueck, Auckland University of Technology

Emergency crews have retrieved six bodies on Friday and continue to search for two further victims of Monday’s volcanic eruption at Whakaari/White Island.

The people on the island were tourists and tour guides, including visitors from Australia, the UK, China and Malaysia, along with New Zealanders. Several of the tourists were passengers from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

There is a 50% chance the volcano will erupt again in the next 24 hours.
Michael Schade, CC BY-ND

GeoNet, which operates a geological hazard monitoring system, says there is still a 50-60% chance of an eruption occurring that could impact outside of the vent area within the next 24 hours.

But the question being asked now is why tourists were allowed on such a dangerous island. This will probably feature prominently in investigations – both by police and WorkSafe.




Read more:
Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning


Safety guidelines for volcano tours

White Island is privately owned, and only permitted operators are allowed to take tourists on guided tours. White Island Tours is one of the main operators in Whakatane, a township on the east coast of the North Island, and they had people on the island yesterday.

This operator has stringent safety checks and was even named New Zealand’s safest place to work in a workplace safety award last year.

But earlier this month, GeoNet had raised the alert level to two (out of five), due to “moderate and heightened volcanic unrest”. Should that have caused enough concern to discontinue tours to the island?

Hindsight is always 20/20, but any visit to an active volcano, or volcanic field bears a certain amount of risk, and usually it is managed by governmental bodies generally, and the tourism industry in particular.

The management, or lack thereof, varies by country and jurisdiction. Commonly, organisations such as GeoNet provide real time updates on volcanic activities and issue warnings of potential hazards. In the case of White Island, it falls ultimately to the operators to decide whether or not to send tours to the island on any given day.

Leading geo-tourism researcher Patricia Erfurt-Cooper notes there is a “distinct lack of safety guidelines for volcano tours at most sites, which is compounded by language problems”.

Management strategies include multi-lingual signage, such as in Japan, and the closure of active sites, such as in Hawaii.




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Trouble in paradise: eruptions from Kīlauea volcano place the Hawaiian island on red alert


Often, volcanic geologists are able to read early signs of activity, and predict eruptions hours, if not days in advance. But this is not always the case, as we saw yesterday and in the 2007 eruption of Mount Ruapehu.

History of accidents in adventure tourism

Volcano tourism is a subset of adventure tourism, and New Zealand has had its fair share of incidents in this sector. Many will remember the collapse of a viewing platform at Cave Creek in 1995, where 14 people died. After the collapse, the Department of Conservation (DOC) inspected more than 500 structures, resulting in the closure of 65.

A commission of inquiry found a number of shortcomings in the building of the platform and DOC took responsibility for the accident. Since then, New Zealand law has changed so government departments can be held responsible and liable for negligence in offences under the Building Act.

Worldwide, there have been several deadly volcanic eruptions, including Japan’s Mount Ontake in 2014. This steam-driven eruption occurred without clear warning and killed 63 people hiking the mountain, in what became the country’s most deadly eruption in nearly 90 years.

In 2013, the eruption of Mayon volcano in the Philippines killed five climbers. Last year, one tourist died in an eruption of Italy’s Stromboli volcano, which has become a resort island.

Assessing risks

New Zealand promotes itself as the adventure capital of the world, and it is a fine balance for an operator to provide the (often advertised) excitement the thrill-seeking tourists are looking for, and the safety of everybody involved.

Research shows the majority of thrill-seekers are looking for risk, but in a controlled way. The adrenaline rush is paramount, but they don’t seriously want to be at risk of injury or loss of life.

The tragic events of White Island reiterate that we must be vigilant, and have excellent risk management strategies in place. Perhaps it is time for the tourism industry, government and volcanic experts to review current rules. We can minimise the risk, but we can never totally rule it out.

Any adventure tourist must be aware of the potential risk they are taking and should check the tour operator’s website for information about the risk they’d be undertaking, and how the tour operator plans to manage it. If the operator doesn’t have this information available – choose another one.The Conversation

Michael Lueck, Professor of Tourism, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why White Island erupted and why there was no warning



The sudden eruption at White Island was short-lived but produced an ash plume that rose several kilometres above the vent.
GNZ Science, CC BY-ND

Shane Cronin, University of Auckland

Five days after a sudden volcanic eruptions on Whakaari/White Island, off the east coast of New Zealand, on Monday, emergency crews have retrieved six bodies and continue to search for two further victims.

The island is a tourist destination and 47 people were on it when it erupted on Monday afternoon.

Volcanologists at GeoNet, which operates a geological hazard monitoring system, described the eruption as impulsive and short-lived, with an ash plume that rose to more than three kilometres above the vent.

This footage was taken by Michael Schade whose family got off Whakaari/White Island 20 minutes before it erupted.

Volcanic hazards

White Island is one of several volcanoes in New Zealand that can produce sudden explosive eruptions at any time. In this case, magma is shallow, and the heat and gases affect surface and ground water to form vigorous hydrothermal systems.

In these, water is trapped in pores of rocks in a super-heated state. Any external process, such as an earthquake, gas input from below, or even a change in the lake water level can tip this delicate balance and release the pressure on the hot and trapped water.

The resulting steam-driven eruption, also called a hydrothermal or phreatic eruption, can happen suddenly and with little to no warning. The expansion of water into steam is supersonic in speed and the liquid can expand to 1,700 times its original volume. This produces catastrophic impacts.

The expansion energy is enough to shatter solid rock, excavate craters and eject rock fragments and ash out to hundreds of metres away from the vent. We know of sites in New Zealand where material has been blasted out over three kilometres from the vent by such eruptions.

The eruption on White Island sent sent huge amounts of steam and ash into the air in the blast.
GeoNet, CC BY-ND

Potential for further eruptions

The hazards expected from steam-driven eruptions are violent ejections of hot blocks and ash, and the formation of “hurricane-like” currents of wet ash and coarse particles that radiate from the explosion vent. These can be deadly in terms of impact trauma, burns and respiratory injuries.

The eruptions are short-lived, but once one happens, there is a high chance for further, generally smaller ones as the system re-equilibrates. White Island is an acute location for such activity, but it is not the only location in New Zealand where this can happen.

Mount Ruapehu (crater lake), Mount Tongariro (Te Maari and Ketetahi) and geothermal areas of the central North Island all have the potential to cause such events. We know there have been more than 60 hydrothermal eruptions in the last 100 years in New Zealand. Some of these have caused loss of life.




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Each volcano has unique warning signs that eruption is imminent


No warning

Monitoring and warning for hydrothermal eruptions is a huge challenge. We don’t normally see these eruptions coming, no matter how much we would like to. Many systems are already “primed” for such events, but the triggers are poorly understood.

The warning periods, once an event gets underway, are likely in the order of seconds to minutes. Our only hope for anticipating these events is to track potential vapour and liquid pressure in hydrothermal systems and to learn from their long-term behaviour when they are at a super-critical state. Unfortunately there are no simple rules that can be followed and each hydrothermal system is different.

In this age of technology and instrumental monitoring, it seems irrational that there should be little or no warning for such eruptions. The eruption is not caused by magma, but by steam, and this is much harder to track in our current monitoring systems.




Read more:
Why Japan’s deadly Ontake eruption could not be predicted


We have seen several other fatal hydrothermal catastrophies unfold in other parts of the world, such as the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan. New Zealand has been luckier than many other parts of the world, until now.The Conversation

Shane Cronin, Professor of Earth Sciences, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia needs a national crisis plan, and not just for bushfires



Bushfires aren’t the only catastrophic emergency Australia is likely to see.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Andrew Gissing, Macquarie University and Michael Eburn, Australian National University

Calls are growing for a national bushfire plan, including from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who says they are an issue of national security and the federal government must provide hands-on leadership.

It’s true that more people are living in high-risk bushfire areas, emergency services are stretched and the climate is rapidly changing. Future crises are inevitable. We must consider the prospect of a monstrous bushfire season, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

But bushfires aren’t the only catastrophe Australia must prepare for. If we are to create a national crisis plan, we must go much further than bushfire planning.




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Not just bushfires

In the decade since Victoria’s Black Saturday fires, we have improved fire predictions, night-time aerial firefighting, construction codes and emergency warnings. All of these have no doubt saved many lives.




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What has Australia learned from Black Saturday?


There are calls for more resources to fight fires, as part of a coordinated national plan. But few people have proposed an all-encompassing vision of such a plan.

For a start, it should not be confined solely to bushfires. Far more people die during heatwaves and residential housefires. Tropical cyclones, floods and hail each cost our economy more.

Any plan must provide a strategic vision across these various facets for at least the next ten to 20 years.

A national firefighting force?

Calls for a national firefighting force to supplement existing state resources are fundamentally short-sighted. A national force – quite apart from the level of duplication it would create – would spend much of its time idle.

Even during severe fires, such as those now raging, there would be limits to its usefulness. At a certain point, the size and energy of the fires means no amount of firefighting technology will extinguish them all.

Research conducted by Risk Frontiers, the Australian National University and Macquarie University through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, has focused on better planning and preparedness for catastrophic events.

This research concludes it is unrealistic to resource the emergency management sector for rare but truly catastrophic events. It is wildly expensive to remain 100% prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Instead of simply scaling up existing arrangements, we need to think differently.

Bush firefighting could be improved by innovation and research. Future investments must focus on rapidly detecting and extinguishing ignitions before they spread out of control.

Everyone is responsible

States and territories are traditionally responsible for emergency management in Australia. But almost by definition, a catastrophic disaster exceeds one’s capacity to cope – inevitably drawing on nationwide resources.

This means preparing for catastrophic disasters is everyone’s responsibility.

Existing plans allow for assistance across state borders, and between state and federal governments. But there is no national emergency legislation defining the Commonwealth’s role, or assigning responsibility for responding to a truly national disaster.

The Australian Defence Force has a well-defined support role in natural disasters, but should not be relied on due to its global commitments.

However, resource-sharing between states could benefit from more investment in programs that enable emergency services to work better together.

International help in massive emergencies also needs better planning, particularly around timing and integration with local agencies.

Non-government organisations, businesses and communities already make valuable contributions, but could play a more central role. We could look to the US, which successfully uses a whole-of-community approach.

This might mean emergency services help community organisation provide aid or carry out rescues, rather than do it themselves. These organisations are also best placed to make sure vulnerable members of the community are cared for.




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The most important task is to reduce the risk in the first place. The vast majority of disaster-related spending goes on recovery rather than risk reduction. Calls from the Productivity Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) for more disaster mitigation funding have been largely ignored.

The federal government’s recent National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework highlights the need to identify highest-priority disaster risks and mitigation opportunities.

This would see priority investments in flood mitigation and strengthening of buildings against cyclones in northern Australia. (This will also help address insurance affordability.)

Land-use planning needs to be improved to reduce the chance that future developments are exposed to unreasonable risks.

Infrastructure must be constructed to the highest standards and, following a disaster, destroyed buildings should be rebuilt away from dangerous areas.

Finally, communities have the most critical role. We must understand our local risk and be ready to look after ourselves and each other. Governments at all levels must facilitate this spirit of self-reliance. Local leadership is crucial to any crisis plan and communities need to be involved in its construction.

Eastern Australia’s bushfire crisis has triggered emotional arguments for throwing resources at the problem. But planning must be careful and evidenced-based, taking into account the changing face of natural disasters.




Read more:
Friday essay: living with fire and facing our fears


The Conversation


Andrew Gissing, General Manager, Risk Frontiers, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University and Michael Eburn, Associate Professor in Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.