Critical cross-border interstate communication missing at height of Australia’s Black Summer bushfires
As a bushfire roared towards the Murray River in Australia the day before New Year's Eve, fire fighters on either side of the state border couldn't talk to each other. On the Victorian side of the river, Walwa local Robert Newnham and his fellow volunteer fire fighters still have vivid memories of watching the fire approach from New South Wales that day. “We could see the fire, we could see that there was people there, we didn't know what they were doing or what was coming our way really, we were just guessing,” he said. “We needed to know a lot more so that we could prepare more for what was coming our way.” Despite the NSW fire crew being within about a kilometre, Newhnam said they had no way of communicating with them. That's because different state fire and emergency services operate on different radio networks and in some instances different agencies within states also operate on different networks. “That's been an issue for many, many years now, that we've both got radios in our trucks but we can't talk to each other,” Newnham stated. “We can get angry but the main thing is to get something done about it,” he added.
On the NSW side of the border, community safety officer for the Jingellic Rural Fire Service (RFS), Mary Hoodless, said it had been a problem for the 35 years she had been in the border region. “It's an issue on every occasion and it was exacerbated on this occasion,” she said. “For me, it's like, where's the common platform? You know, the technology's there. Why haven't we got it?” The first week in June 2020, Hoodless reported to the Bushfire Royal Commission how difficult the natural disaster was for border communities. “There's a lot of border crossings with populations that have been highly impacted by that lack of communication,” she said. “We can only hope coming out of the royal commission, that we do see some improvement.”
Overhaul of radio networks needed
Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins said he takes some responsibility. “People like me need to take a bit of blame for this because we didn't do a lot about it in years gone by but it's now time to get that Australia-wide radio net,” he said. “Technically it can be done; it's just having the will to do it, having the money to do it.” Mullins said in the past it was not as critical because fires and fire fighters rarely crossed state borders. But with longer and fiercer bushfire seasons predicted, cross-border cooperation will be more crucial than ever. “What's becoming very clear is that if you have a raging bushfire with fire-generated storms, winds coming in all directions, you need to be able to speak at a tactical level,” Mullins stated. “Fire fighting units need to be able to speak to each other so they know what's coming at them.” It is not just an issue for border communities, with fire crews increasingly travelling interstate to assist on big fires. “We had fire fighters from every state and territory, from the US, New Zealand, even Papua New Guinea,” said Mullins. “For example, the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade units in regional NSW not being able to speak to the local units on their radio channels, Country Fire Authority from Victoria [had] the same issue.”
In a statement, the NSW RFS said liaison officers were deployed to help with cross-border communications. “These liaison officers were in place, on both sides of the border, during this period. There can be challenges when deploying vehicles interstate to enable radio communications between all vehicles. Significant work may be required to permanently resolve these issues ranging from the installation of compatible radios in trucks or the reprogramming of existing radio equipment.”
The Black Summer fires
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements was formed in response to the 2019/2020 bushfire season, since dubbed ‘Black Summer’, which saw blazes rage in nearly every corner of the country.
The fires left 33 people dead, 3 000 homes and 7 000 outbuildings destroyed and 10 million hectares of land burnt. On conservative estimates, the fires killed more than a billion animals. Thousands of people on summer holidays were evacuated from coastal towns as what was supposed to be a time of celebration on New Year's Eve turned into a nightmare. Even after the worst of the conditions eased, many of the fires took months to put out, with people in the south-east of the country helped by downpours in early 2020.
According to data provided to the commission by Risk Frontiers, a risk management and catastrophe modelling company, the total area of bushland burned during the Black Summer fires across Victoria and New South Wales was the largest in 19 years. Risk Frontiers' Dr Ryan Crompton said New South Wales was the hardest-hit state. “This is particularly so in New South Wales where the area that was burnt was more than three times larger than any other season,” Dr Crompton said.
Risk Frontiers also analysed the people who had died during the bushfires to identify who was most at risk. Dr Crompton said it noted “the disproportionately high rates amongst professional volunteer fire fighters”, as well as “males aged 60 and over trying to save their own property with pre-existing health conditions, males aged 55 and over attempting their own evacuation and males and females aged 55 and over in their own house.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, all hearings are being done electronically and streamed online. The commissioners are expected to hand down their report by the end of August to allow time for the implementation of any recommendations before the next bushfire season.
Victoria's CFA told the media it would not comment while the royal commission was underway.
Source: ABC News