Bid to boost fire warning system ignored

  Bid to boost fire warning system ignored

26 April 2009

published by

Australia — The State Government ignored Victoria Police’s requests to upgrade the state’s ailing emergency communications systems — parts of which failed during Black Saturday’s bushfires — despite warnings that the community could be put at risk, leaked documents show.

Police documents obtained by The Sunday Age reveal police last year asked for money to replace the ageing Statenet Mobile Radio system, which became badly clogged on Black Saturday.

Police also wanted more staff and resources to improve the computer-aided dispatch, or triple-O, system, which was overwhelmed during February’s disaster. But applications to the Department of Justice for the 2008-09 budget were rejected.

The high-level police documents, which form a risk register that catalogues the force’s problems, specifically raised bushfires as an area where resources would be stretched. There was a risk, the documents said, of a shortage of trained and deployable staff to provide communications support in an event “such as major bushfires/searches/incidents”.

The police also named towns at extreme risk of having no radio coverage. They were Berwick, Beaconsfield, Pakenham, Upper Pakenham, Cockatoo, Gembrook, Warrandyte, Eltham, North Ringwood, Donvale and Mt Evelyn.

These radio black holes presented a “safety risk to (police) members and the community”, one document stated.

Sources have told The Sunday Age that the clogging of the radio network — the backbone of the state’s emergency communications — hampered the response effort to the bushfires, which killed 173 people. The system, which the police are responsible for, is used by the force, Department of Sustainability and Environment firefighters and some parts of the Country Fire Authority.

The documents reveal that police have, for several years, flagged to government that it needed replacing, yet funding was not approved. The triple-O system also struggled during Black Saturday, with some calls going unanswered. The Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority runs this system, but the police, as well as other emergency services, provide staff and expertise.

In the documents, police highlight confusion about control over the system and question whether the authority and the force had sufficiently trained staff to provide a reliable computer-aided dispatch system. The call-taking and dispatch systems, the documents said, were of “poor quality”. The reasons given for the problems included a lack of adequate budgeting to upgrade the radio system, a lack of staff to repair radios and run emergency communication services, problems in the organisation of the police IT department, and a lack of response from the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority.

The documents also reveal that the authority had been waiting for at least two budget rounds for funding to renew the computer-aided dispatch system. The Bushfires Royal Commission will scrutinise communication system breakdowns as part of its inquiry.

Police and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron did not answer specific questions from The Sunday Age about why the Government ignored police budget requests to improve the state’s emergency communications systems. Spokeswoman Sofia Dedes provided a statement about a record-high budget for increased numbers of officers and the refurbishment of police stations.

Victoria Police have refused to answer any more of The Sunday Age’s questions about its IT systems.

It was revealed recently that, in August last year, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin raised questions about the triple-O service in his review of the April 2009 windstorms.

The CFA also had its own communication problems on Black Saturday with messages on its paging system delayed for hours.

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