Australia has recently been subjected to some of the most violent weather extremes seen in this country for decades.
The typical Australian summer is hot, windy and devoid of humidity, however last year the heavens opened after a lengthy drought and floods replaced fires as the predominant threat to lives and property.
The top end of Queensland felt the brunt of cyclones and huge dumps of rain, resulting in cities as far south as Brisbane being subjected to swirling masses of raging flood waters consuming everything in their path.
In Victoria it was bizarre to have a situation where helicopter resources normally reserved for the protection of life and property from fires were being dispatched to assist with flood relief and the mapping of locust plagues. Helicopters were even dispatched from Victoria to assist with fires in Western Australia.
It is a fact that in every bushfire inquiry since 1939 one aspect of emergency management which has been scrutinized every time has been communications.
Typically communications falls into two categories – the processes applied to the dissemination of information to communities prior to, during and post an emergency and the processes applied between combatting and response agencies to ensure that the fight and response is as well co-ordinated and effective as possible.
This should be no surprise to anyone as similar inquiries since 1939 into fires in Victoria have all made recommendations to improve communications, some that have been partially addressed and others that have been ignored and will continue to be raised after future loss of life and property.
One thing is certain – no one technology or communications methodology will provide the level of capability necessary to ensure that a majority of communities will be accurately informed of any situation in a timely manner.
Those that consider a reliance on the Internet as a primary source of information forget that in most intense situations, such as floods anf fires, that power infrastructure is generally disabled and very few households have a backup system for their communities.
Listening to local radio stations, despite each station being accredited as an emergency broadcaster, may not be as fulfilling as possible, given that radio stations are relying on postings on the internet by emergency services. Given internet information is generally placed onto the world wide web at the Headquarters level, it takes some time for “real” conditions at the fire or flood front to be known at Headquarters and as a consequence the information on emergency service web pages may be dated.
And despite the confidence by various governments in the Short Messaging Service (SMS) to disseminate information to mobile telephone users, this is not an ideal medium for timely emergency communications.
To receive a timely SMS message implies that you have mobile telephone coverage and in many areas reliable coverage is not available. If you don’t have coverage you will not receive telephone calls, let alone SMS messages.
Secondly to receive a timely SMS message implies that the mobile telephone network is able to find your telephone service and advise you of a message. Simple, yes. Always possible, no.
The demands on the mobile telephone and data messaging services vary considerably. The explosion of handsets in use in the community has increased the strain on available capacity, together with the clever marketing of “must have” social networking programs such as Twitter and Facebook. More and more people are pushing data into the network at all times of the day.
In an emergency situation more and more people are using their mobile telephones to voice call or text friends and relatives to determine if they are safe. Even for a single motor vehicle accident on a road the number of mobile calls for that single incident can stress the local mobile network and 000.
In extreme cases the number of mobile telephone subscribers trying to dial into or out of an area will surpass the ability of the local mobile towers to cope with traffic and they will shut down.
And in such cases no one will receive mobile telephone calls, let alone SMS messages.
Tell me, how many times have you received an SMS message which has been delayed by minutes if not hours??
So in essence despite the rhetoric of government, or telecommunications carriers for that matter, no one product, service, technology or solution will provide the community with a sole “fix” to the “black hole” in communications prior to and during a threat situation.
What is needed is a willingness by Government, emergency services and telecommunications providers to set aside political and business rivalries to collectively develop an overarching system of communications that best meet the needs of all communities.
And with that willingness comes the need to spend as much money as needed to implement workable solutions and continuously improve such solutions – surely the money and emotional energy saved by not having to have just one future Royal Commission is an incentive to solve this problem once and for all.
Otherwise we will be talking about the same things Judge Stretton did on the 100th Anniversary of the 1939 bushfires.