Broadcast media most effective in emergencies: Joan Warner at Bushfire Inquiry

Australia’s 222 regional commercial radio stations “play a crucial role during times of emergency,” CRA’s Joan Warner this week told the Parliamentary Committee inquiring into Australia’s bushfires.

“The industry recognizes its responsibilities as one of the nation’s main information sources during crises,” she said.

In her appearance before the Inquiry, Warner emphasised that broadcast media is the most effective means for emergency service organisations to communicate with the public when critical events occur. 

Commercial radio broadcasters in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland have a Memoranda of Understanding with local re emergency services organisations in those states which complement Commercial Radio Code 7 and also set out useful processes governing the communication of information between the broadcasters and the emergency service organisations.  An MoU is currently being developed for Western Australia. All commercial radio stations will break into and from their normal programming immediately preceding and during emergencies, to provide the best possible information, includeing official forecasts and reports from local listeners. 

While commercial stations were diligent in their commitment to fulfilling their obligations to their communities and the codes during the recent bushfires, Warner said there are still lessons to be learned and more improvments that can be made in future:

“Communities relied heavily on battery operated radios.  Supplies ran out in many local centres.  One of our members suggested that governments run campaigns encouraging people to include battery operated radios in their bushfire plans…

“Consistency between different States could be improved.  For example, watch and act had different meanings in NSW and VIC.  Many journalists work across both States so it was very confusing to ensure the correct messages were conveyed over the air… The volume of messages meant that some key warnings were buried…

“There were some inconsistencies between local council and emergency service updates.  Council comms officers could be embedded in the emergency services teams to ensure consistent information is given.”

Slowness in messaging and updating of messages was also an issue for some stations, as was unavailability of relevant authorities to speak on air.

Warner made the point that designating ABC stations as emergency broadcasters can also cause authorities to give more time to being  on the ABC and less to being available for commercial radio. Considering that many people who listen to commercial radio do not normally listen to the ABC, relevant information should be available to both sectors.

She gave the example of the ACT, telling  the Inquiry:

“There is also a continuing issue with emergency service authorities advising listeners to tune into the ABC for updates, without mentioning the local commercial radio stations. This flies in face of the fact that there are 220 local commercial radio stations across 100 regional areas of Australia while the ABC has only 45 stations/hubs, and, around 80% of Australian radio listeners habitually listen to their local commercial radio station.   

“One example of this unacceptable situation is  example when the ACT government advised residents to listen to ABC radio for updates. This advice was included in a pamphlet that was delivered door to door.  The government has also erected road signs over the last few years advising motorists to tune to ABC 666 for emergency information… We are not saying it is either/or but for the safety of listeners it should be BOTH.”

Warner praised the Emergency Services and said that she was sure the issues identified could be addressed before the next fire season.



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