Broadcasting during fires and emergencies

The weather has eased a little, giving bushfire fighters a much needed reprieve, but the fire season is still not over and local radio stations continue to do what they can to keep their communities informed.

Over the past ten years, Steve Ahern’s company AMT has worked on disaster and emergency response plans for Australian and International government agencies and disaster relief organisations such as the Red Cross to develop and deliver training for those facing emergencies. He shares some insights and guidelines.


I have written this long article about what I have learnt, as a reference for those who need it now and also for the future. I hope you find it informative.

If you have other training tips or insights, please share them in the comments section below, or email [email protected]


Broadcasters and emergency services are working together more closely than ever these days, but there is always a tension between the need to know, the right to know and the want to know. When reporting news, be aware of this tension and respect the fact that emergency services may not always be able to give all the information we want. There is a need to strike a balance between public interest and public panic/confusion.

People in fire or other disaster areas are physically and mentally stressed. Their minds and bodies retreat to the primitive flight or fight instincts, so they may not be thinking clearly. Do not assume that your listeners are behaving as they normally would, they may be angry, despondent and will almost certainly be frightened and confused. Audiences do not always listen carefully under these circumstances and messages may be misinterpreted, so try to use precise and consistent words to minimise confusion.

The federal government has just committed resources in response to the current bushfire emergency. Relevant references are listed below.

Disaster response usually happens in three stages.

The first stage is preparedness, make sure you have thought ahead when times are calm and you have decided your station’s level of response and its ability to deliver what you plan to do. Run practice drills during calm times so that when the emergency strikes you won’t be doing things for the first time. As well as planning how you will respond on air, ensure that you have also planned how you will keep your building and staff safe during the emergency conditions.

The second stage is the immediate response to the disaster, this is when your staff and listeners will be facing levels of high stress. Minimise the need for trivial organisational things like food, equipment or bureaucratic paperwork by preparing your station in advance and having stocks of food and water ready. Ensure you have kits with protective clothing, touches, spare batteries and that staff have agreed in advance about recalls to work, rostered shifts and how they will be compensated after it is all over with days in lieu or overtime pay. If this is all known in advance your team can concentrate on the job at hand, not be thinking about other issues.

The third stage is recovery. When it is all over, the national media will leave the area, the response teams will move on, and the local media and residents will be left. The effects of the emergency will last a long time and your station will play an important role in recovery. Be aware that you are there with your listeners for the long term, try and understand their needs, let them vent their frustration in healthy ways, and cover the work of the professional recovery service teams so that listeners know how to contact them and how they can help.

Here are some tips for each stage, particularly relating to fires. They are not comprehensive, but I have pulled out the ones that I have seen to be most useful for broadcasters I have worked with over the past ten years. If you have more tips please contribute them and we will include them in this article as a reference for the future


Before:  Be prepared

  • Plan what is needed inside your station to keep working: fire blankets, extinguishers, water, food supplies, masks, two way radios (in case phones go down), generator and UPS, safety of external and internal environment, etc.
  • Evaluate your stay or go trigger plans. If you have to leave, will the station stay on air with a looped message telling people where else to get information?
  • Know your essential contacts, have multiple lists. Don’t depend on a cloud hosted shared google doc, your internet may go down, use locally hosted files and hard copies of documents, keep then in a fireproof cupboard with your fire kit.
  • Disasters and emergencies are handled by government agencies in the context of a legal and governmental framework. Learn about the constraints and guidelines that emergency services work under, they are bound by official procedures and may not be able to give you exactly what you want when you want it.
  • Consider in advance what words you are going to use when you are on air, don’t just ad lib as you may normally do in a more relaxed program. What would be the impact of your words on victims and volunteers? Plan templated scripts for warning messages and be aware of where to find the text of official messages. Have some team training where you can practice writing and reading scripts, be sure you know all the local towns and village pronunciations. Make a list of local place pronunciations and keep it in your preparedness kit.
  • What are the benefits and downsides of victims/witnesses telling their story publicly? For example: Benefits could include being able to pay tribute to those who have died.  Drawbacks could be that the audio may be replayed regularly and for many years after the victim has attempted to get over the disaster. Decide in advance how you will respond if your listeners want to call and tell their stories.
  • If you work at the ABC, there will be specific plans and protocols in place and there will be  a national coordination team. Local transmitters will mount local programs during the fire period.
  • If you are at a station that has signed a MOU as an emergency broadcaster, ensure that you know what you have committed to do and that you have initiated training and put resources in place to deliver what you have promised. In return, you will get priority access to information briefings and emergency services will try to protect your critical infrastructure to keep you on air.
  • If you are not a designated emergency broadcaster, you will still have a role to play, especially if you are a local community station embedded at the heart of the community. Discuss your approach in advance, understand what other networks will be doing and plan how you will support your colleagues in other media and help your community. Leave network rivalries behind for this period.

During: Safety and accuracy

Some stations are designated Emergency Broadcasters. This designation means that they have agreed to a required set of guidelines about how and when to broadcast emergency updates, the wording of those updates and the content of other material that is heard around the updates. If your station is an emergency broadcaster follow the specific guidelines you have been given.

If your station is not an emergency broadcaster there are less formal guidelines, but it makes sense to follow the same approach as emergency broadcasters. Some guidelines are:

  • Broadcast accurate information. Don’t speculate or guess, use only the information you have in front of you and make sure it is the most up to date version of the information.
  • When a situation if constantly changing, use the ‘Guliani principles for communicating information: Tell people (1) what is known, (2) what is not known, (3) what is being done (4) what listeners should do.
  • If speaking to callers who are recounting information about the fire, remember that they only know for sure what they can see. Ask them exactly where they are, because fire behaviour varies from place to place. Ask them to describe only what they can see. If they begin to talk about what others have told them about somewhere else or something  else, interrupt them, take them off air and get the contact of the other person, so you can speak to that person directly.
  • Tell your listeners when the next fire update will be. If you have agreed on a regular update time (such as top of hour, twenty past, twenty to) then tell your listeners to listen then.
  • The information you will be giving will be repetitive to you, but there may be people listening who have just turned on and are hearing it for the first time, so don’t be glib or flippant about the repetition. Tell people you are repeating the same information as the last update, or, if there is new information tell the listeners to listen carefully for some new details.
  • Repetition is important because when people are traumatised and shocked they do not retain information as well as normal.
  • If there is a specific instruction, such as ‘leave now,’ make sure the wording is clear. Don’t reinterpret the words used by the provider of the information.
  • Also be as specific as possible about areas that are affected, for example “the main road is cut in both directions between tenth and sixteenth streets.”
  • If you are playing music, check your playlist to make sure there are no inappropriate song titles or lyrics. If there are, don’t play them.
  • Ensure that you know the meanings of emergency terms, the details of weather warnings, the importance of wind speed (Is 15km/h considered a high wind speed? Is 60km/h considered a high wind speed? What effect would a 15km/h or 60km/h wind speed have on a fire or smoke?).
  • To understand weather terms, consult BOM Weather Words. Also understand fire danger rating terminology, alert levels and travel advice 
  • Don’t just refer listeners to websites or social media, as they may not be able to get internet if IP services are down. By all means mention the sites, but also read out all the relevant information on air in case it cannot be accessed by listeners (see a discussion about this in the comments section of this earlier report).
  • Often a radio station will get more information from listeners who are directly at the fire front than from the emergency services HQ or the Fires app. If you are broadcasting information from listeners, tell your audience that it is not official information and has not been confirmed by authorities, tell them the specific location of the listener and the information they have given (if it is relevant and important) so that they can make their own judgement of whether the information affects their location.
  • Be aware that emergency services will usually not release information about injuries and deaths, because there are official processes to follow and relatives need to be informed. If for some reason you want to talk about a fatality on air and it is not confirmed, consider the consequences if a family member hears that information and does not yet know of the death. There are very few circumstances where you would want to give information about fatalities that has not been released from an official source.

In the past decade there have been significant improvements in the way warnings are issued. The 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires Royal Commission made a number of recommendations about improved warnings and communications and the adoption of a national uniform approach.

From these recommendations a new warning system was created called “The Australian Bushfire Warning Framework.” The new system included three warning levels which have  been adopted in many states: Advice, Watch & Act and Emergency Warning

In some work I did with the Attorney General’s department we developed guidelines for the use of words at different levels of emergency. Here are some key points that may be helpful:

Alert Stage: Minor events with small possibility of harm, use these words:

  •     Advice
  •     We advise you to …
  •     Be aware of …
  •     Keep an eye out for …

Warning Stage: Events that could cause harm, use these words:

  •     You are warned to …
  •     I/We warn you to …
  •     Prepare for more urgent information
  •     Prepare to …
  •     Listen for upgraded warnings

Action Stage: Severe events that will cause harm, use these words:

  •     You are in immediate danger if you live in …
  •     You must evacuate …
  •     Take action now  to …

Recovery Stage: After it is over, use this words:

  •     Support
  •     There is help for you if …
  •     To help you …

More details: Choosing your Words booklet

After: In recovery

After the emergency has passed and other media have moved on, local media will become most important in helping their communities to recover. Look after yourself, your radio station colleagues and your community by becoming aware of the symptoms of trauma and learning how to support people who are recovering (see more info below). You can also assist in supporting the recovery of your community by telling stories of courage, recognising local heroes, and giving ongoing information about services offered and  rebuilding activities.

  • Designate a segment (or segments) each day to community recovery information. Repeat several times per day at regular times, update it if necessary. Make this a politics free zone, you can discuss climate change, government responses, etc in news and other programs, but keep this segment politics and blame free.
  • Interview people who are assisting in the recovery, ask them specific questions about how they are helping and ask them to give (anonymous) examples of how they are helping people.
  • Does your station have wifi and power? You’re lucky, many people may not have. Why not share the wifi by setting up an open wifi router (separate from your main operating internet of course), putting out some chairs and a station banner and telling people that they can come and sit outside the station and use wifi for a while for essential communications – this will be a great way to show you are doing something practical for the community and also promoting your station. The same with power – if you have enough for yourself, why not roll out an extension cord and a powerboard or phone charger so that people can tap in and charge their phones.
  • Understand that your listeners will go through various phases of grief as time passes. This could include shock and feeling numb, pain/guilt, anger, depression, improvement, reconstruction, acceptance, hope. Let people tell their stories whatever stage they are at, acknowledge their feelings and talk about the stages of grief to help them, and the wider listenership, understand what they are going through.
  • Tell stories of courage and recognise local heroes.

The Red Cross, Communicating in Recovery Booklet outlines some of the key things to think about during the recovery phase.

After an emergency, people’s processes for receiving information may be impaired in three areas:

  • Concentration: The amount of new information that can be taken in and understood the amount and complexity of detail that can be absorbed the length of time a person can focus for
  • Decision-making ability: Weighing up possibilities and risks dealing with complex ideas and outcomes planning and prioritising actions
  • Memory: For spoken, written and/or visual information to recall simple or complex knowledge to recall recent or past knowledge

Make sure your communications take these factors into account.

  • Only provide necessary, relevant information.
  • Keep information consistent, accurate, short and sharp.
  • Use clear language and uncomplicated sentences.
  • Use positive or value-neutral language wherever possible, e.g. use ‘survivor’ or ‘affected person’ rather than ‘victim.’
  • Provide information in various formats, including written material on the station’s website that people can read later.
  • Repeat information frequently.
  • If people want more information, provide a single contact point (maybe the station’s website or a community service hotline) rather than providing too much information at the one time.

Your listeners will likely have experienced trauma during the emergency. You may also have experienced it too. Take care of yourself

People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, similar to the fear they felt during the traumatic event. A person with PTSD experiences four main types of difficulties.

  • Re-living the traumatic event – The person relives the event through unwanted and recurring memories, often in the form of vivid images and nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic when reminded of the event.
  • Being overly alert or wound up – The person experiences sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event – The person deliberately avoids activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event because they bring back painful memories.
  • Feeling emotionally numb – The person loses interest in day-to-day activities, feels cut off and detached from friends and family, or feels emotionally flat and numb.

Are you having upsetting memories, flashbacks or dreams of what you experienced? Are you feeling physically and psychologically distressed when something reminds you of the event? If so you, or your listeners may be experiencing PTSD.

Distressing events can feel very overwhelming. Despite the enormity of the impacts, most people recover from a disaster with the support of their friends, families, colleagues and neighbours.

There are guidelines and a list of symptoms to help recognise PTSD at this link from Beyond Blue.

To support your friends, colleagues and listeners in times of trauma, the Red Cross advises: encourage them to spend time with family, offer support, listen without judgement, be patient, don’t be afraid to ask how you can help.




Red Cross: Communicating in Recovery booklet
Department of Home Affairs: Choosing Your Words booklet
Attorney General’s Department: National Guidelines For The Broadcast Of Emergency Public Warnings
Beyond Blue: Types of Anxiety
Life In Mind: Mental health support for bush fire affected communities
Transcripts from Royal Commission on Victoria bushfires
Canberra Bushfire Inquiry
AMT Training Course: Working Together in Emergencies
Radioinfo: How Radio Murrindindi Survived Black Sunday 


About the Author

Steve is the founding editor of this website.

He is a former broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd.

AMT provides consultancy, training and curriculum development for broadcasters and governments in the areas of broadcasting, disaster media services and business consultancy.

He is a regular writer and speaker about trends in media. More info here.


See all our coverage of how radio is responding to Australia’s bushfires at this link, or click on the tag cloud below. 



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