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Council backs social media in disaster

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 16/01/2014

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Wellington

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A national emergency management tool, designed to be a one-stop shop for vital information during major disasters, may have to be ditched because Wellington's councils refuse to use it.

Instead, Wellington's regional civil defence office has opted to spread information via other means, including social media sites Facebook and Twitter.

Wellington-based company Readynet provides a web-based database that emergency services and civil defence managers can use to access vital information about schools, rest homes, organisations and community groups. Targeted alerts can be sent out via email and text messages.

The system has been praised for its usefulness in mobilising the volunteer workforce that helped clean up the Rena oil spill off the coast of Tauranga in 2011.

About 1400 education facilities and nine councils use the system, including Auckland Council, Christchurch City Council and all Bay of Plenty councils.

However, late last year, the Wellington Region Emergency Management Office (Wremo) opted to give Readynet the flick, which founder and director Matthew Nolan said had put the company's financial future at risk.

Porirua City Council and both Hutt Valley councils used Readynet from about 2006 until they joined forces with the rest of the region's councils to form Wremo in 2012.

Their annual subscription costs, which varied depending on population, were between $15,000 and $44,000. It would have cost Wremo about $124,000 a year to join.

Mr Nolan said Wremo's decision, coupled with the Bay of Plenty councils also considering withdrawing, had made the Auckland and Christchurch councils rethink their commitments.

They were now looking at developing their own in-house versions of Readynet, rather than supporting a national network.

"At the end of the month, Readynet, as a centralised, nationally capable organisation, will be gone," he said. It had already closed its Wellington office and axed 1.5 staff positions along with it.

"I think these guys [in Wellington] are being naive and foolish. We've had no complaints from the Hutt and Porirua councils, or from their emergency services. "But the new management structure have decided to save money and go through social media."

Bruce Pepperell, the region's civil defence manager, said Readynet was used during the June storm to find which schools were without power, but its database did not live up to expectations.

"A number of responses came back saying, ‘I don't know why you texted me, I haven't worked there in years'," he said.

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Wremo had chosen to focus on delivering one-off, low-cost tools to organisations that helped them get their own disaster management systems up to scratch, Mr Pepperell said.

He defended the use of social media, pointing to the popularity of the Wremo Facebook page, which, as of yesterday, had 36,470 followers.

It now has the largest per-capita following in the world for a civil defence page. Civil Defence Emergency Management Canterbury has just 1289 followers.

"It's no good sending a text alert to my mother, because she doesn't have a cellphone," Mr Pepperell said.

"She gets her information from the radio and newspaper. It's also no good trying to reach young people through the newspaper, because they get their information from Twitter and Facebook."

But Mr Nolan argued there were flaws when it came to relying on social media to get Civil Defence messages across.

For example, if a tweet was to be sent asking which schools did not have power, that would alert criminals to which schools did not have their alarm systems activated, he said.

- The Dominion Post

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