Personalised warnings might be around the corner for those at risk of fire, flood and more

Receiving a tailored suite of flood, fire or cyclone warning information could be coming soon to a device near you if governments and private companies want it.

Communication has been a hot topic at Natural Hazards Research Australia’s (NHRA) annual conference – not just communication to the public, but within circles responsible for devising ways of understanding hazard conditions across the country.

After an AI and new-tech focus at the beginning of the conference, the conversation moved to how hazard professionals can improve communication with the public. Tailormade hazard warnings could be at the frontier of this ambition.

In her afternoon plenary speech, Sally Potter, a social scientist at NZ-based GNS Science, said personalised warnings were a natural consideration for authorities looking to improve incident prevention.

While many governments and emergency services rely on broadscale communications like community service alerts on mobile phones, radio and TV, Potter told Cosmos personalised warnings could be sent straight to a person close to a hazard.

She offers an example: “You’re sitting at your kitchen bench and your device alerts you that in 3 days a cyclone is going to come and hit your area.”

 “But it doesn’t stop there, it also says that the flooding is potentially going to cut off your road, it might have a link to a shopping list for you to approve that gives you all the supplies that it knows you’re running low on because it’s talking to your smart fridge.

“And it can give you targeted information about your particular house because maybe it knows your location, your material and the design of your house.”

She proposes such an app or service – entirely hypothetical at present – as connecting multiple data points to provide specific information to the individual.

There are obviously some major hurdles such a service would need to overcome (particularly data consent and privacy). Ultimately, researchers like Potter are pushing for better systems that give people the most relevant information amid a possible disaster.

“We’ve found that that more traditional hazard-based approach to warnings, is not as effective as it could be, so then the next step is to try and integrate what those potential impacts could be on people,” Potter says.

“But if you’re a government agency, or a national science agency trying to give a warning about impacts, everybody is impacted in different ways because they have different things going on in their lives.

“So that’s the point where you get to [asking] how can we make these impacts and, crucially, that guidance information more specific and personalised to people, so then they can make meaning of it?”

Comms remains an ever-present challenge but there are improvements

Communication is a persistent challenge for the natural hazard discipline – how can authorities deliver the best information about a life or property-threatening situation?

Actions on the back of major reviews and research exercises have been delivered in recent years. Most prominently, the first overhaul of fire danger warnings in generations was introduced in 2022 after much scientific input.

The Australian Disaster Resilience Index (ADRI) has also provided valuable insight into hazard adaptation and coping to the public, with nearly half a million people reviewing its data.  

But updating the fire danger signage system across the country is simply a case of refining a traditional approach to hazard warning. Likewise, ADRI provides information at a suburban level.

That’s why personalised services like those proposed by Potter would be truly next level in warning delivery.

Personalised warnings might be in the idea stage now, but scientists are also developing other ways to consider the needs of individuals among the macro-dangers posed by hazards to communities.

Evacuation planners have begun simulating the behaviours of individuals during fire events that could cause communities to flee. Insurers are also raising premiums based on individual house data, where properties are located in suburbs at risk of increasing natural hazards.

Communicating advances in hazard research, as well as the nature of hazards themselves has been flagged by scientists at the forum.

Some research presented at the event highlighted the knowledge gaps that exist when it comes to concepts of ‘uncertainty’, as well as the terminology used to describe events like flash floods.

But while communication challenges remain, NHRA chief executive Andrew Gissing says overall fewer people are dying amid natural hazards thanks to improvements in warning systems.

“It is a challenge for agencies to be able to communicate to communities to get communities to take action,” Gissing says.

“Globally, though, we’re seeing warnings be more effective. Look at global deaths from natural hazards – they’ve significantly reduced over the last few decades and that’s particularly down to the success of early warning systems.

“That’s about the design of early warning systems, but also greater capability in global telecommunications and technologies to communicate.”

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