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3 low-cost early warning systems that save lives in remote places

Source(s):  United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR)

By Gabriella Beer

There are many technically impressive and sophisticated tsunami warning systems installed on some of the world’s most glamorous beaches. But they are expensive to buy and hard to maintain. Not every coastal community can afford such sophisticated equipment. And in time of disaster, something that successfully raises the alarm so people can get to high ground is important, no matter the device.

Disaster disproportionately affects the poor. Between 1996 and 2015, 47% of the people who died in tsunamis had low incomes. People can have as little as 5 minutes or as long as 12 hours warning before a tsunami strikes. With this in mind, here are three cheap ways marginalised communities can access disaster information that can save their lives:

1. Radio

In some remote areas radio remains the communication medium of choice. Sometimes it is the sole source of information a community receives. Because of this, local radio stations often have dedicated listeners. Hijacking the radio waves when a tsunami is inbound and giving people updated weather information is an invaluable and inexpensive way to warn people of an imminent threat. A radio tsunami warning uses the local native tongue, with battery-operated receivers that are reliable during power outages. Radio transmission can also reach people in numerous locations, whether they are out on the road, at sea or relaxing at home, and will help them to react quickly if danger is near.

Radio technology can also be easily tapped into by other communication systems. A low cost early warning system by Flinders University has incorporated a small FM radio transmitter into their early-warning tech. It creates a ‘village radio station’ that plays content fed via the satellite signal at a fraction of the cost of more elaborate designs.

2. Existing loudspeakers

Sirens are designed to provide a rapid alert to potentially threatened people. They are currently one of the most reliable ways to notify large, outside groups. But these types of systems tcan cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. Newport Beach in California spent over $200,000 last year updating their alarm system after the old ones rusted. These systems also rely on electricity which in rural or disaster-struck areas might not be available. Clearly not all authorities have this kind of money to spend or the availability of resources.

Instead they can use sound systems already within a community.

Tannoys in schools, places of worship such as mosques or sports facilities can address the public with information that is tailored to the community they’re serving. These existing loudspeakers can be used to air pre-recorded messages and are available all hours of the day. Mosque loudspeakers in Aceh, are now a trusted source of information for the Indonesian region that tragically lost 170,000 people in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Tannoys are on hand to order residents of the province to seek safety, with locals now participating in regular drills so that they remain prepared and can act with minimum warning.

If a community does not have a loudspeaker then other sound-making devices could work. Communities with local churches could also make use of church bells. Although, these less direct means of communication would need to be coordinated with other alerting methods, as sometimes the instruction to flee may not be as clear.

In both situations these signals are clearly only useful to a community if they know what they mean. Educating nearby residents so they know exactly what to do when they hear the church bells ring in a certain way or mosque announcements is key to the system’s success.

3. Door-to-door warning

If someone is banging on your door telling you to leave the house and get to high ground it is almost impossible to ignore them. One of the simplest ways to get people to safety is being notified by a trained volunteer. In residential areas these volunteers can deliver a note that advises on the nearest evacuation zone or route. For larger, commercial properties volunteers start a cascade of warnings for everyone on site to hear.

When carried out correctly this basic form of early warning is very effective. It can reach people at home and at work and gives everyone the information they need to get to safety. No internet connection, phone signal, electricity or snazzy devices are needed.

Using volunteers makes this early warning system extremely affordable . But communities will need to make sure they get high quality training and have ample recruits. This door-by-door process can also be fairly slow, so is most effective in small, remote areas 

Low cost doesn’t mean low performance. A quick response is key to stop communities being wiped out by tsunamis. These three methods prove that early warnings do not need to be fancy to avert disaster.  



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  • Publication date 26 Mar 2020

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