Australia — It has emerged that a nationwide bushfire alert system could have been in place before the weekend’s devastating fires in Victoria, but it was held up by bureaucratic wrangling.
The scheme to use Australia’s telephone network to issue mass warnings to residents in areas threatened by disasters has been before the Federal Government since 2004.
The early warning system would allow emergency services to access the national database of fixed-line and mobile-phone numbers so they could telephone and send messages to people in danger.
Emergency services would target people using their addresses in the database, as well as the locations of their mobile phones at the time of the threat.
Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland says he regrets that the system was not in place before this bushfire season.
Mr McClelland has told ABC Radio’s AM program several factors still need to be addressed, following delays in amending privacy legislation.
“What the issues have been is to ensure the system would not crash – in other words, that you wouldn’t dislocate the normal emergency phone line – but it’s also been necessary to get the states on board,” he said.
“A lot of work’s been done, the legislation is ready to go and it is an important system.”
Mr McClelland says the Federal Government has been pushing hard to clear the roadblocks since taking power in late 2007.
But New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees says the proposal had the support of all the states and territories last year.
Mr Rees was the state’s emergency services minister when he and his counterparts discussed the system.
“I remember everyone signing onto it and people raising issues such as the Telecommunications Act as issues that needed to be navigated,” he said.
Telstra manages the national telephone database. Its managing director for public policy and Communication, David Quilty, has told AM the company is ready to implement the alert scheme.
“We are certainly ready to go if we are approached in the future,” Mr Quilty said.
“The fact of the matter is that this public number database, there are rules around its uses – what it can be used for and what it can’t.
“At this point in time, it can’t be used for the purpose we are talking about so there would need to be changes to legislation to enable it to be used for that purpose.
“I am told that the Federal Government is now looking to move expeditiously in terms of making those changes.”
The official death toll from Victoria’s bushfires stands at 181 but police expect the final figure could top 300.