Australia — Fewer people may have died on Black Saturday if the Government had acted on calls made before the February 7 blazes to improve emergency warning systems and triple O, according to unions and the Opposition.
A review of the April 2008 Victorian windstorms by Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin has raised major questions about the Brumby Government and emergency service response to the fires.
The report revealed triple O was unable to cope with the number of emergency calls it received. It found serious fault with the state’s severe weather warnings.
Mr Esplin found Telstra’s triple O service received more than 25,000 calls during last year’s storms, but more than half went unanswered. The review, dated last August, found “significant improvements” could be made in public warnings and the co-ordination of emergency services.
One recommendation said Victoria should progress “as a matter of priority, a telephony-based public emergency notification system to reduce demand on triple 0 and other emergency telephone lines during a major emergency”.
He also noted the telephone system “provides an ideal opportunity to target specific geographic areas”. The report and the Brumby Government’s response were released last week.
Responding to the recommendation on a telephone system, the Government said it was working with the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments to develop a system.
Seizing on the findings, the Opposition said the report cast the Government’s response to the February 7 fires in an entirely new light. Shadow attorney-general Robert Clark said: “The question has to be asked and needs to be answered if the recommendations made by Bruce Esplin had have been fully implemented, lives could have been saved that were lost on 7 February.”
The firefighters and ambulance unions have also said lives could have been saved if the windstorm recommendations were implemented.
Ambulance Employees Australia general secretary Steve McGhie said the work on a telephone emergency warning systems should have been done well before the bushfires.
Yesterday, Treasurer John Lenders said the report had to be considered in light of the Bushfires Royal Commission. “It is unfair to say nothing has been done, the Opposition will always make comments like that. What this Government has done is invested in emergency services,” he said.
The Community and Public Sector Union said the Opposition’s claims were cheeky as Black Saturday was an “incident beyond reasonable expectations”.