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Flooding in QLD & NSW Highlights Urgent Need for Multilingual Warnings

The Governments of Queensland and New South Wales are trying hard to communicate flood risks and evacuation orders to vulnerable communities - but in times of crisis, are English broadcasts enough?

Road closure due to flooding in Windsor, NSW

SES Issues Warnings to Residents in English

This week SBS reported that "the NSW State Emergency Service (SES) has issued more than 170 “warning products” since the onset of the NSW floods, and both news channels and social media have been saturated for days with flood-related alerts from the state government."

Despite this, Culturally & Linguistically Diverse communities (CALD) are suffering death and injury that they believe is attributed to this English-only messaging. While the SES website is built to enable translation in a select 6 languages, Australia is home to more than 300 languages. In NSW alone, the 2016 census indicated that 336,410 residents spoke very little English or none at all - and this number is increasing.

This presents a very real danger to CALD people who may receive warnings, but don't understand them or take the incorrect steps in a disaster situation.

Does the SES have Measures in Place to Mitigate Risk?

SBS contacted SES NSW for their opinion, and their spokesperson Phil Campbell stated that “we have what’s called an after-action review, where we debrief after these sorts of events,”

“The fact that we’ve had three deaths tragically from CALD communities and that increasingly we’re seeing people in at-risk situations from these communities [are things] we will look at very seriously during the after-action review process,” Mr Campbell said.

How to Future-Proof Warning Systems for Fires, Flooding and other Extreme Weather Events

The Australian public are now accustomed to receiving messages to their phone regarding COVID-exposure sites. This remains the optimal way to provide immediate alerts to people whose lives or property may be in danger. While many facilities exist to distribute alerts via SMS (and were employed during flooding), the language barrier makes the information inaccessible to thousands of residents who need it.

Example alert received in two languages

David Hayes, co-founder of Jeeves.Plus, notes that multilingual services are not only available, but should be obligatory to government bodies charged with keeping the public safe.

"The technology is ready to be adopted - and while our platform is primarily used in the corporate space, it can easily be utilised by those issuing alerts to communities too" says Hayes.

"If residents register their phone number with the appropriate government body, as well as their spoken language, we could be distributing the same message, but translated, to everyone in a risk area. Up to 109 different languages in fact."

SBS went on to report that Professor Shelton Peiris from the University of Sydney said sending out emergency alerts in a range of foreign languages will be effective in preventing such fatalities in the future. “Many people I know don’t speak English, so [flashing emergency] information on TV would be an effective way to reach them,” he said.

A combination of techniques will be the answer to preventing future deaths in disaster situations, especially as extreme weather events are on the rise in Australia.

Learn More about Jeeves.Plus's multilingual messaging here:


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