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Forging a telecoms bushfire emergency plan

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Bushfires currently rage across Australia (image by Toni Fish via Flickr).

I lived in Bucketty in the bush for more than 30 years. We luckily just moved to Brisbane before the bushfire disaster hit Australia.

In October, the bushfires started around Bucketty. While Bucketty has so far been safe (fires are hovering at around 10 to 15 kilometres from this community now for several months), the people here are totally exhausted. On several occasions, families had to be evacuated, children ended up in hospital because of the smoke.

Though the community spirit is amazing, I have never seen the people so depressed. So, it is with mixed feeling that we are avoiding all of this from our new home in Brisbane.

For all those 30 years, I have been a volunteer firefighter and because of my telecoms background I have been involved in many of the communications issues, be it the emergency radio networks or the public telecoms networks.

Just watching the current daily fire horrors on the news with people queuing up for public phones and seeing them crying because they are unable to communicate with neighbours and family drives the message home how critical communications is.

Full marks to our telecoms companies who are now deploying multi-carrier response units (CoWs) offering free telecoms access and WiFi services wherever they can in communities they can reach, together with generators that allow people to charge their mobile phones and using loudspeakers to broadcast the emergency coverage by the ABC.

While it took several decades it now looks like the emergency radio comms system are working better. In the 2001 fires, we needed four sets of different radio comms to talk to the fire vehicles, the police, the helicopters and the national parks authorities.

While interoperability remains an issue, it is much better.

In the Lower Hunter Valley, we lobbied hard for mobile access. Telstra was the first to come to the party in the late 2000s, providing access to the township of Wollombi, Optus followed several years later with a tower in Bucketty. However, in times of emergencies, when you need the phones the most, there could be problems.

One of the first things to go in a bushfire disaster is electricity as all wires are still above ground. The mobile tower batteries last for approximately 10 hours or so but then the service is dead. In following years, the telcos started to install generators and that was a great improvement. But the next problem was that in regional and rural areas telecoms technicians had to come from far and even worse when roads are blocked, they can’t come at all.

I lobbied Optus in relation to the Bucketty tower that our local bushfire brigade would be allowed to refuel the generator in times of emergencies and they agreed with that arrangement. Recently, the Rural Fire Service has issued notifications that the bushfire brigades are no longer allowed to do this, they quoted insurance and health and safety issues.

While I argued that this over the top bureaucracy I also started negotiations with Optus to perhaps employ a local contractor: a local handyman who could refuel the generator, however, this discussion was still ongoing when I left the area.

Obviously, this issue has become even far more prominent now. We need to make sure that all regional and rural mobile towers have both battery backup as well as generators.

Because of the scale of the current disaster and the reality that such situations could become more of a norm going forward, we need a national telecoms plan for such national emergency situations. Obviously the two above mentioned issues, radio comms interoperability (we now get fire trucks from all over the country working together) and matter of the fuel supply to mobile towers need to be addressed.

But there are many more issues that we need to review.

After the disastrous 2009 fires in Victoria – at the time a national fibre to the home plan was still on the program – I discussed with the then-Minister for Broadband Stephen Conroy that as new power infrastructure needed to be installed in these communities, we should at the same time bring fibre optic cables to these communities and bury them underground.

However, before such a plan could even be considered both the energy companies and telephone companies simply did what they had been doing for many decades in such situations just repair things the old way. After the disaster went on and no new emergency plan was prepared for the future. Now a decade later, we still don’t have a new plan.

If we work on a national telecoms emergency plan, we should look at on how to build more robustness into the system. For example, in areas where the Telstra copper cable will be replaced by a fixed wireless NBN service, rather than discarding the copper cable network, we should at a minimum investigate if we should maintain this infrastructure in the case of bushfire and flood-prone communities. 

Some communities could be connected to fibre if we also take the social and economic benefits of having good communications in place in cases of emergency and not just the costs.

All mobile infrastructure is now software operated this means that the mobile operators can with the flick of a switch share capacity with other operators. For example, if one of the mobile operators goes down it is possible to flick the switch and make the facility of the other operator available as a backup.

While the mobile operators are fiercely opposed to roaming, in emergency areas the operators could again easily allow roaming on each other’s networks. These are very simple solutions that are available at hardly any extra cost. Rather than proving blackspot money to build more infrastructure let’s investigate open network solutions, that allow for sharing between all the operators in regional and rural areas.

We have seen the enormous success of the multi-carrier response units (CoWs) in the disaster areas, so we need to have more of the units available

Another plan could be to provide all fire stations with a satellite phone (they often already have generators and fuel). The satellite phone can be used not only by the fire brigade but also by the local community.

If we bring the telecoms experts in this country together, they will come up with other plans and possibilities.

The scale of this disaster is so enormous that we must now start implementing plans that will not simply be a continuation of previous practices. We do need to look at new infrastructure options. There are synergy and cost-saving possibilities by combing electricity, telecoms and other infrastructure repairs such as roads. We need to start thinking outside the traditional box, technology can assist in being better prepared for the next emergency that sooner or later will be on our doorstep again.

Paul Budde is managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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