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LIRNEasia’s 3rd Disaster Risk Reduction Public Lecture: Beyond Tsunamis

LIRNEasia’s thinking, right along, has been, if one is prepared to appropriately warn of rapid onset tsunamis then they are quite ready for all-hazards. Then why did the already established warning centre fail on 2011 November 21. Preparation, Warning, and Response are three linked components of the Disaster Management life-cycle common to all-hazards. Development of systems for those three components in relation to tsunami warnings can be extended to all-hazard early warnings. Question is “how does one extend those capabilities to avoid missing deadly alarming events beyond tsunamis such as the 2011 November 21 Matara Mini Cyclone as well as reduce the false warnings?


Sri Lanka Disaster Management Centre’s Director General: Major General Gamini Hettiarachchi (Retired), inaugurated the lecture describing the to-date Sri Lanka tsunami warning system. It is essentially a network of communications links combined with human capacity to get a warning to the house holds. The system is equipped with multiple modes of communications and multiple redundant channels. He admits that the links to the last-mile are weak but they are working on fix them. As one option, the DMC is negotiating with Sri Lanka Telecom to set up a call campaign to phone each house with a short voice message. The DMC is also negotiating with Dialog Axiata to obtain a priority voice channel to overcome the inherent caller congestion during a crisis. Additionally, the DMC has a database of all coastal army, navy, and air force facilities then can relay the message to seek their support in evacuations.

The DMC developments with their new CISCO equipped call centre and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system coincides with LIRNEasia’s recently completed pilot that used interactive voice-enabled Freedom Fone technology and Sahana Disaster Management System. The call centre with IVR and other DMC communications infrastructure can be extended to other national authorities. Thereby, those authorized authorities would have access to a common infrastructure to begin exchanging incident reports and alerting relevant members with respect to various hazard events. The shared infrastructure would be affordable for the nation opposed to each silo building their own dissemination system. Moreover, the DMC could generate some revenue to sustain their system by leasing parts of the infrastructure to other organizations.

The main talk: “making emergency communication effective” complemented the inauguration speech on the Sri Lankan tsunami warning system. The main talk’ highlight was on a way for the DMC to play a key role in all-hazards emergency communication and coordination beyond tsunamis. The DMC has positioned themselves as the National authority in charge of risk information dissemination. One challenge is bringing all emergency management agencies (or stakeholders) such as Health, Irrigation, Meteorology, Agriculture, so on and so forth under the same hood. All agencies should accept, not just on paper but morally, that the DMC should take lead in facilitating all-hazard all-media disseminations.

The organizational social complexities of getting agencies to agree and managing them can be overwhelming. They can be overcome with the DMC offering, all emergency management agencies, a common ICT-enabled platform to manage all-hazards all-media alerting and reporting. It’s a win win situation for the DMC with the DMC diluting some of the responsibility by allowing other agencies to utilize the DMC communications infrastructure in issuing warnings within their turf. It has been proven in many cases that such an integrated common platform approach can help break the silos and foster lateral information share between organizations for improved emergency coordination.

The Sahana Alerting and Messaging Broker is one such software that is capable of all-hazards all-media multi-agency alerting. The software uses globally recognized interoperable emergency communication standards, such as the Emergency Data Exchange Language suit of standards. Integrating the Sahana system with the DMC Call Centre and other DMC operations would allow the DMC to regulate and assist in coordinating emergencies of all scale. An important aspect of integrating the Sahana software is the database of macro and micro incidents can be leveraged for evidence towards climate change adaptation policy.

Mifan Careem, Respere Lanka’s CTO, reinforced what was mentioned in the main talk; thus, the need for spatial and temporal information to support situational analysis for effective rapid response. Respere Lanka, recently, completed the implementation of a Sahana-based system for the National Relief and Rehabilitation Department of the Ministry of Disaster Management. Respere was also involved in developing the Sahana Messaging and Alerting Broker that was field tested in several of LIRNEasia’s action research projects.

To demonstrate the concept of all-media warning, Prof. Dileek Dias, Director University of Moratuwa Dialog Mobile Communications Research Lab, explained how the Disaster Early Warning Network (DEWN) was standardized with the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) and the DEWN server could essentially receive a Sahana CAP message then convert that to GSM signals to transmit over to the DEWN specialized GSM devices and java-enabled mobile phones for trilingual messaging. Similarly, Radio, TV, and other main stream media can develop their own server to parse CAP messages, received from the DMC, to disseminate through their networks. Sahana is already capable of publishing in social media such as twitter.

Dr. Buddhi Weerasinghe, Regional Disaster Management Consultant, emphasized the need to intertwine the last-mile and local indigenous knowledge. The example he gave was that two people who heard a rumbling noise realized that a landslide was about to happen and they were quick to warn all the neighbours downhill. Involving the and empowering the local authorities to manage the emergency communications also establishes the trust. When people receive information of a crisis they naturally tend to confirm it with a trusted party such as a family member of friend.

The register of alerting authorities is designed to decentralize and hand down the alerting and reporting to the local District, Divisional, and Gramaniladari administrators. The alerting authority can be one such as the Fisheries Ministry who would want to communicate risk information with local Fishermen. The Ministry can register as an alerting authority, then distribute the responsibilities to the district and divisional level Fisheries departments to manage their own incident reporting and forewarnings. For example, the Meteorology Department may alert of an severe storm build-up in the Bay of Bengal. The Fishermen should be forewarned to prevent them from going out to see and unexpectedly colliding with the storm.

Implementing such an emergency communication profile for Sri Lanka would be one step towards moving away from the finger pointing game by bringing relevant Government agencies under a single platform and framework in relation to alerting and situational-reporting.

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