File picture: ANA
This is an emergency. Or is it?

Is it hearsay? A “broken telephone”? “Fake news”?

How can we tell?

Study “emergency alerts” and you’ll read about the “four-minute warning” - the time for a Soviet nuclear missile to hit Britain in 1953. The population was instructed to take cover by air raid sirens, TV and radio.

Elsewhere, “civil defence sirens” call volunteer firefighters to action.

In the US, the “emergency alert system” (EAS), run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), enables the president to speak to the whole country in 10 minutes.

The “integrated public alert and warning systems” (Ipaws) provides the public with life-saving info quickly - when time matters most, protecting life and property.

So how do we rate, in the RSA?

A simple scenario: if a fire engine passes a gang gunfight, outside a school, how does the firefighters alert the principal - without starting to search for phone numbers?

How do law enforcement agencies give the principal live, unified advice?

How does the principal alert, advise parents - about immediate implications?

Or, following our recent disaster in Knysna: how did neighbourhood watches communicate with the unified command centre?

How was the small army of private security harnessed in the crisis?

How were homeowners advised to either flee, or “stay and defend”, when safe to do so - or safe to return?

A century earlier, in 1915, the bombing of Britain began, in World War I. The impact on the streets of London was devastating, hysteria as people tried to flee.

Their response?

The birth of the “civil defence” movement: the populace rescues itself from most situations, through effective and rapid co-operation with united professional emergency services.

Communication is a “basis operating system”, enabling this - as this column has argued relentlessly.

It’s on two levels: first, comms between official safety agencies.

Second, unified comms with active citizens.

We already have answers - like these two simple acronyms: Epic - an example of integrated deployment, in this case the City of Cape Town’s world-class “emergency policing incident command” system.

School principals or school safety managers in the metro area could be plugged into this integrated safety network.

Certs - community emergency response teams: civil society organisations, working together.

According to human capital theory in economics, a country’s population is more valuable than all of the land, factories and other assets it possesses.

But without “basic operating systems” for communications between us, all we have is hope.

And, usually, chaos.

Let’s improve, together.

We have the tools.