The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters recently reported that in 2019, 396 natural disasters occurred around the world, killing more than 11,000 people, impacting the lives of 95 million others and costing $130 billion in US dollars. Asia suffered 40% of the natural disasters, 45% of the reported deaths and 74% of all people impacted.
As compared to the global 10-year average of total annual natural disasters, 2019 was 15% higher. The International Disaster Database determined that the number of yearly natural disasters has increased from the low 100s in the early 1980s to nearly 400 annually over the last decade.
International Wildfire Trends
Evaluating wildfire trends as a subset of all disasters, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters also noted that the year was marked by a multitude of large wildfires, with significant loss of life and damage to the environment. According to Global Forest Watch, hotter, drier weather caused by climate change and poor land management create conditions favorable for more frequent, larger and higher intensity fires. Wildfire economic damage has jumped from $279 million in 2014 to $30 billion last year, with wildfires in the United States accounting for the vast majority of those costs at $25 billion.
The exponential increase in wildfires, structure fires and other fire emergencies are placing the safety of international fire fighters, the public and the environment in a constant state of escalating risk in many areas of the world.
Legacy Warning Systems Lag
Most communities around the globe either have no emergency warning systems or outdated mechanical siren systems. Communities that have implemented mobile phone alerts and electronic sirens are at risk if power and communication infrastructure fails, causing these systems to become inoperable when they are most needed. Maintenance is also a limiting issue and a barrier to reliability with many legacy systems. Even when operational, most of these systems are siren-only and incapable of providing audible voice alerts that contain clear warnings, notifications and instructions. According to Michael K. Lindell and Ronald W. Perry, emergency management experts and authors with decades of expertise, “Although sirens can alert a large number of people, they carry the least specific type of information. Sirens cannot convey clear instructions about the nature of the hazard and what are the appropriate protective action recommendations to a population at risk.” In areas where sirens are frequently tested, many people tend to ignore them or adhere to a one-size-fits-all emergency plan that could be equally dangerous or more hazardous than having no plan at all.
Recent advances in critical communications technology are being implemented in modern all hazard warning systems to bolster safety for firefighters and the public during wildfires and other crisis situations. These advanced systems are multi-channel and unify hardware and software to deliver dynamic, real-time warnings and life safety information.
The hardware systems combine sirens and voice in a single speaker array capable of broadcasting alerts with industry-leading vocal intelligibility and area coverage. The systems feature satellite connectivity, battery backup and several command and control options, including mobile apps.
Sophisticated acoustic modeling software enables design engineers to assess unique community environments, identify issues of concern and provide integration and equipment combinations specific to a community’s emergency notification requirements and topography.
The software systems include location-based SMS, text, email and social media alerts that target mobile devices in a defined geographic area with reliability, speed and ease. Through geo-fencing, only those in, or entering into, a crisis-affected area receive critical alerts, notifications and updates. Firefighters and first responders are given priority in receiving information to help ensure their safety and keep them up to date on public safety communications, before, during and after disasters and other critical events. According to the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, “Early warning is a major element of disaster risk reduction. It prevents loss of life and reduces the economic and material impact of disasters.”
Europe has experienced a major increase in large wildfires, with significant ones over the last year in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and other countries, and a continued high likelihood of wildfires the balance of this year and into 2021. More than 1,600 wildfires have been recorded in the European Union so far this year — more than three times the average over the past decade.
According to Copernicus’ European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), an average of 464 wildfires occurred in the European Union by mid-August between 2008 and 2018. In 2019, there were 1,626 wildfires between January 1 and August 15.
2017 was a particularly bad year with wildfires burning a record 1.2 million hectares in the European Union, including 800,000 in Portugal, Italy and Spain. The wildfires claimed 127 lives and caused an estimated €10 billion in property damage.
In a report released that year by the European Commission, the bloc’s Joint Research Centre warned that “climate change will reduce fuel moisture levels from present values” and that the Mediterranean region would “become drier, increasing the weather-driven danger of forest fires”.
Recognizing the importance of protecting its member nations during wildfires and other critical events, the European Union recently issued the European Electronic Communications Code Article 110 directive that requires all EU member states to implement a national public warning system by June 2022. These systems must provide geo-located emergency communications through mobile telecom networks that enable reverse 112 capabilities Member nations have already started to evaluate potential systems ahead of the 2022 deadline.
As of early 2020, devastating bushfires in Australia had burned approximately more than 18 million hectares, caused hundreds of thousands of evacuations and destroyed thousands of homes. However, the country’s advanced emergency warning and public safety communications technology combined with heroic firefighting and fire rescue efforts helped limit the loss of life countrywide.
In 2012, Australia implemented one of the world’s most successful national public warning systems. The implementation of Australia’s public warning system came in response to the tragic loss of 173 lives in the catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009. Communities affected by the bushfires filed a claim against the government for failing to adequately warn people of the approaching danger. In addition to a $794 million judgement, a royal commission of public inquiry recommended implementing a nationwide phone based warning system to alert residents and tourists of potential disasters and crisis events. Since its implementation, emergency services in Australia have used the system more than 1,500 times and sent out more than 150 million emergency SMS texts. Alerts are sent at 500 – 2,000 SMS per second. At these speeds, at-risk populations are alerted in a few seconds to less than a minute.
According to Michael Hallowes, Senior Advisor for Zefonar and former National Director of Australia’s Emergency Alert Program, “No lives have been lost in Australia since (the system’s) implementation due to a failure to warn.”
According to the most recent CoreLogic Wildfire Risk Report, nine of the 15 U.S. metropolitan areas most at risk for wildfires are in California, with Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and Sacramento near the top of the list. Despite having significant technological advantages, much of the U.S. is encumbered with outdated emergency warning systems, physical gaps in coverage and inconsistent operational and communications protocols that can leave firefighters and the public at risk.
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology determined that the content of warning messages is crucial to successfully protecting the public. This information is instructive to firefighters and emergency managers worldwide. The institute’s research found that the most effective messages included: the name of the agency delivering the warning; information on the specific danger; a description of the location and the risk of hazard; instructions to evacuate or shelter-in-place; and, updated guidance on when and what at-risk populations should do.
The Road Forward
COVID-19 is placing immense financial pressure on world economies and public sector decision makers tasked with balancing a range of priorities, including public safety, education, infrastructure and more. It’s important that decision makers remember the government’s top priority is public safety and includes providing front line fire fighters with the facilities and equipment they need to conduct their life-saving duties safely and effectively. Decision makers must become more creative in solving budgetary issues in order to fund and improve public safety and fire responses. Rather than remaining totally dependent on taxpayers, potential partnerships with entities sharing mutual interests, such as utilities, insurance companies and others could provide the resources needed to bring public warning systems into the 21st century and address the exponential rise in wildfires and other natural disasters.
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