Emergency Warning Broadcasts

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By Ike Señeres

THE damage caused by super typhoon Yolanda has become a wakeup call for our country, and it has shown us what is lacking or what is absent in our system of emergency warnings. Yes you read it right, there are necessary and crucial components of the system that are not just lacking, but are totally absent. The absence of satellite phones is just one example, there are many other examples. The good thing is, it is now “raining” satellite phones after the absence was discovered.

There is still a lot of debate whether the national government did its duty to inform the public about the coming of the storm surge or not. I believe that the national government did its duty in informing the local government units (LGUs) about the coming of the storm surge, but apparently, it was not thoroughly explained how much damage it could do, or how powerful it could be. Either that or the LGU officials did not fully understand what a storm surge is, and what it could do.

While it may be true that the national government might have issued the warnings to the LGUs, it seems to me that no such warnings were issued to the general public by way of the commercial radio and TV stations, including the cable TV networks. I do not know exactly who should have made the decisions to issue the warnings through the mass media, but I did not hear anything over the airwaves, more so in the social media networks. This is a sad reality, because more lives could have been saved had the media warnings been issued.

As I understand it, all commercial radio and TV stations are required to interrupt their regular programming randomly, in order to air test broadcasts of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), for the purpose making sure that these frequencies would be available in case these would have to be pre-empted, during natural disasters and other emergencies. It seems that these stations are not complying with this rule, and it also seems that the NTC is not enforcing this rule either.

As I also understand it, all cable TV networks are supposed to open a community channel for public use, the same channel that could also be used to air emergency warnings. It seems that not too many cable TV networks are complying with this rule, and even if they do open community channels as they are required to do so, they are pre-empting the time and space in these channels by using these as their own barker channels. This is also a violation of the rules, because these cable TV networks are supposed to have barker channels that are separate from the community channels.

As it happened, the national government officials said that they did their duty to inform the LGU officials about the threat of storm surges, but they also said that it is up to the local officials to order mandatory evacuations or not. I think that this is a gray area that would be difficult to clear up in black and white. In the first place, it is a national government agency, the PAGASA that is capable of calculating the potential strength of storm surges, and perhaps this agency could also simulate how much damage the surges could possible cause. However, there is no doubt that the local officials would be in a better position to decide whether to order a mandatory evacuation or not, at least in theory.

In reality however, there is hardly any time left to argue as to who should issue the order to vacate or not, once a storm surge is seen to strike. Given that reality, it may be a more practical policy to empower the PAGASA to issue the order, for and on behalf of the national government and the LGUs as well. Once that order is given, PAGASA should also be empowered to order all commercial radio and TV stations as well as cable TV networks within the vicinity to pre-empt all their broadcasts in order to announce the orders for mandatory evacuations.

Under normal circumstances, I would not want government agencies to go beyond their normal jurisdictions, to the extent of usurping the functions of other agencies. In the case of emergency warnings however, human lives are more important than turf wars, and what is important is to act fast without wasting any time in pointing fingers or blaming each other. I understand that the PAGASA is nothing more than a weather monitoring and forecasting agency now, but certainly their powers could be expanded in order to empower them to do this new critical function.

It seems to me that High Performance Computers (HPCs) are rarely used in the Philippines, and as of now, I do not know of any organization that is regularly using these machines for really serious software based simulations research. Many countries are now using HPCs for medical research and weather forecasting, and it is about time that we do so for our national interest. I have already talked to some Filipino scientists who are capable of doing this kind of work, and my wish now is for them to get hold of these high end computers as soon as possible.

Given the budgetary limitations of our national government agencies, I think that it would be a good idea to have a privately funded and privately operated facility that could also do high end weather forecasting, parallel to what the government is doing. There is no issue of competition in this noble activity, because the purpose is to either complement what the government is doing, or to validate their findings as the case may be. There should also be no issue about how much it would cost, because the value of the human lives that it could save would always be greater.
For feedback, email iseneres@yahoo.com or text +639083159262


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