Civil Defence to develop business case for telecommunications-based public alerting system

A recent announcement by Civil Defence Minister Nikki Kaye of $250,000 to develop a business case for the possible introduction of a telecommunications-based public alerting system raised a few eyebrows in the industry.

“The project is about reaching large numbers of people quickly through cellphone alerts to save lives in civil defence emergencies,” she says.

New Zealand doesn't have a standard public alerting system that has coverage nationwide. It does have a number of commercial civil defence warning applications, largely sold to councils, developed by companies such as ReadyNet. Are these then not sufficient?

Going back to before the Christchurch earthquakes, Civil Defence manager capability and operations national controller David Coetzee says the agency was in talks at the time with the main telcos about developing time-critical alerts to target communities.

“We had workshops with all the parties,” he says. “They signalled nervousness at the commercial propositions, whether their infrastructure could deliver in a time-critical way. They were worried the finger might point back to them. They said the existing infrastructure was not designed for mass broadcasting. Significant investment was needed.”

Then came the Christchurch earthquakes and the discussions were put on hold, recommencing at the end of 2011.

“We now need to form a steering group,” Coetzee says. As to the $250,000 budget: “We may not spend it all but all attempts to find extra resourcing out of baseline funding were unsuccessful.”

The initial debate was over using a separate cellphone channel or location-based SMS as is used in Australia.

“We don't need to reinvent the wheel but we need to get down to detail and a proper understanding,” Coetzee says. “We'll look again at both models.”

The eventual service will be all-of-government. It will cover more than civil defence emergencies, things such as biohazard alerts or even prison escapes in specific areas.

“It's about targeting geographical areas.”

He says the question around commercial offerings is their reliability. “They're all opt-in. For us it's a push scenario.”

That, of course, raises an ethical concern for the government.

Civil Defence is taking the project lead but working with other government agencies. Coetzee says, conceivably, it will develop a step process, first alerting local authorities, which best know their respective areas. They in turn can advise the ministry of local incidents.

Civil Defence will go to market on July 1 – when the new financial year kicks in – for a partner to develop the busines case. Whoever wins the business will have to provide the technical expertise.

“We hope to be all done within six months."

The agency initially estimated a cost of $8 million with annual operational costs of $1 million. Coetzee says that figure may have come down with technology improvements in the interim.

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