If a flood, storm or tsunami is about to hit, quick and effective communication is vital.

But for many communities in the Illawarra, the vital messages that are sent out by the State Emergency Service (SES) are often not accessible in the appropriate language or delivered in the right way.

This is where SMART researchers come in.

Dr Robert Ogie and his colleague, Associate Professor Rodney Clarke, are about to complete the first phase of a project called EmerCALD. EmerCALD is a project aimed at improving emergency communication for people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background.

Together with the SES and the Multicultural Communities Council of the Illawarra (MCCI), they have gathered data from seven migrant communities about their past experience with emergency messaging and their preferences for the future.

“The first phase is about engaging communities in surveys to see if there is a gap between the SES and different communities,” Dr Ogie said.

“We are also looking at translating messages and understanding the best channels for delivering those messages.”

The first phase involved almost 300 survey participants to identify the most effective way of targeting messages – whether via social media, dedicated mobile app, bulk SMS, radio or other means.

The survey looked at differences between communities in relation to emergency communication, but also differences in demographics and of age in particular.

Dr Ogie and his team are now applying for funding for a second phase that will use various techniques such as artificial intelligence, crowd-sourcing, social networks and social rewards to get translated messages across to CALD communities.

The project aims to recruit bilingual community volunteers to translate messages that are sent out to CALD communities. This will rely on a robust technology, which will ensure that the translated messages are relevant, error-free and delivered in a timely fashion.

The languages targeted will be Macedonian, Italian, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Serbian and Greek. The service can be rolled out to other CALD languages with time.

While the Illawarra is a perfect test-bed for the exercise, the researchers have already had strong interest from Victoria and hope that the results will be used nationwide.

“We are proposing a solution that is robust for all hazard types,” Dr Ogie said.

“For example, once implemented, Fire and Rescue NSW can also adopt the system to convey first risks and warnings to CALD communities in different languages.”

Joshua McLaren, the co-ordinator of community capability at the SES, said that it was vital that emergency messages were correctly understood.

He said he heard of one migrant family who hid under their table for hours after hearing a relatively routine severe weather warning.

“Refugees and migrants do not necessarily interpret our messages in the same way as the rest of the community,” he said.

“We wanted to change that.”

He said that while artificial intelligence had its place, it was still important to combine this with human native speakers, who could convey the correct nuance to messages.

Chris Lacey, CEO of MCCI, welcomed the research.

“To date, the messaging has been mostly in English and we know that the Illawarra is very diverse,” he said.

“We applaud the SES in its desire to communicate to diverse communities, and not just to those whose first language is English.”