Australia — The Victorian Government is facing demands to overhaul the 000 emergency phone system used during February’s killer bushfires.
Residents say on Black Saturday the 000 emergency number went unanswered, operators did not know how to find callers’ locations, and valuable evacuation time was wasted while people waited for their calls to be answered.
Now it has been revealed the State Government received a report last August, well before the fires, warning that the triple-zero system was not able to handle the volume of calls expected during a major disaster.
The Opposition claims the Government’s slack response may have cost lives.
Straight after the fires, State Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron said the system had coped very well.
“We’re still trying to examine that matter, but what we do know is that the system was geared up to the maximum possible before the weekend, given the warnings of the chief fire officers, and a lot of the calls of course were multiple calls, and brigades and trucks were already out,” he said.
But the Government had already been warned that 000 could collapse during extreme events.
Nearly a year before the fires struck, in April 2008, the worst wind storm in decades whipped across Victoria, bringing down trees and powerlines.
Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin reviewed the state’s response and delivered his report last August.
It said that of more than 25,000 calls to 000 and the State Emergency Service, about half the calls suffered extended delays or were not answered.
Commissioner Esplin warned “that diverts the state’s capacity to handle time-critical and potentially life-threatening events”.
One technological fix has since been implemented, but the extent of its success is unclear and the Government says other recommendations are still being considered.
State Opposition spokesman Robert Clarke is not satisfied.
“The worry is that the problems that occurred last April had not been fixed come February 7 this year, and that many of the mistakes that occurred then were repeated, and that our emergency response suffered in consequence,” he said.
“You have to worry whether as a result lives were lost that could have been saved, or property destroyed that could have been saved.”
Commissioner Esplin’s report also called for an early warning system for residents in specific areas.
After the February bushfires, Victorian Premier John Brumby emphasised the problem had been a lack of national agreement and a lack of the right technology.
“Even if you’d had the best warning systems in the world, I honestly don’t know whether they would have helped, given the speed of the fire,” he said.
In a private consultant’s report, the Victoria Police state emergency response co-ordinator, Rod Collins, is reported as saying a warning system would cost $20 million but state and federal governments were baulking at the cost.
Mr Collins told AM he never made the claim about cost nor the reason for government inaction.
The Opposition’s Robert Clarke wants to know what happened.
“There were a range of basic, simple recommendations coming out of the Esplin report, and the question has to be asked, ‘Why have they not been implemented by February this year?'” he asked.
“For example, [there was a recommendation] that there be an agreement between the Emergency Service organisations and the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority on the direct telephone numbers that they’d use to make direct contact with each other, that they’d have a protocol for suspension of scheduled maintenance and testing during emergencies.
“These are, I would have thought, no-brainers. Yet the Government’s response to the Esplin report is simply that they are currently implementing those matters.
“There are other things that the Government says in its response that it only intends to implement; in other words, it’s not already underway; things such as fixing the system of overflow of emergency calls to individual CFA brigades, or the testing of the call-hearing arrangements at the emergency centre.
“All of these are basic, simple changes that could and should have been in place prior to February 7.”