The shocking bush fires in Australia are now global news. We all hope they end soon – the loss of human life, wildlife and property is unprecedented and there’s nothing you can say to make things better. While the firefighters and other volunteers cannot be praised enough.
My family stayed with friends down the south coast of NSW over Christmas and New Year, and we were surrounded by some major fires, though never in high danger. But the smoke was incredibly thick every day.
We lost power for about 36 hours from noon on New Year’s Eve. Prior to turning in, we spent the night watching the tragedy unfold across the water at Lake Conjola – the fires were huge, even in the distance. Sadly, at least one life and 89 homes were lost, though we didn’t learn this until New Year’s Day.
As someone who works in the advertising/media industry, I was curious to see how the fires and news were reported in the different media channels. When we had power in our home, the television was definitely the best media for up to date information, along with local ABC radio. The media briefings were all live on TV, as were updates from the fire services headquarters.
The internet was close to useless. It worked intermittently if at all, and if you could get a signal, pages sometimes took minutes to download and sometimes didn’t at all. I posted images on Instagram, but these took up to 6 hours for the image to go live from the time I posted it. We had three different brands of phone and three different service providers at our home and all failed, due to damaged cell towers and downed lines.
Even when you could access internet news sites they were behind with the news compared to radio and TV. The fire service apps were not always helpful due to lack of internet, but they were also regularly behind real time, sometimes 14 hours behind in terms of last update. Even worse and very confusing was social media. In attempts to be helpful, people would post messages of roads open or closed, or locations of fires. These were simply their opinions, not facts.
I heard one discussion on radio where the caller referred to a social post. It had completely the opposite information from the official information at the fire services headquarters, being supplied by firefighters on site. The radio host had to counter the caller’s comments as they were creating dangerous confusion. Turns out the social post was incorrect and could have cost lives if people had believed it. Fake news even in this crisis.
On New Year’s Day when we had no power or internet, or battery-operated radio, we sat in our cars and listened to the radio for updates. It was the only reliable media that never failed due to lack of power or internet. The information was delivered in real time and was very accurate.
It also involved (or should that be ‘engaged’) lots of people in the community. People called to share local updates about safe havens, petrol and food availability and other useful information. Neighbours then shared the latest radio news with each other and checked on elderly people in the street to ensure they were OK.
Interestingly, the biggest complaint among those people who were trapped by closed highways but not in danger, was quite first-world – they complained about not having internet or phones. They felt helpless without them. If we didn’t have radio we would have been completely in the dark and clueless for information.
Once the power was restored the panic buying by those who were most likely leaving the area, left little for the locals. Maslow’s most basic needs on display in an ugly manner.
The one thing we all agreed, we’re getting a battery-operated radio and spare batteries to store in our homes. You never know when such old-fashioned technology might come in handy…