Bushfire emergency calls diverted to dole office

Bushfire emergency calls diverted to dole office

14 May 2009

published by www.news.com.au

Australia — Desperate Black Saturday residents calling for emergency help were put on hold by Telstra and in some cases diverted to Centrelink.

As Victoria’s worst-ever fire advanced towards them, callers heard a soothing voice say, “Don’t disconnect, your call will be answered”.

The bushfires royal commission was told yesterday some people who tried to contact the Victorian bushfire information line on February 7 were diverted to Centrelink.

In an extraordinary breakdown, it also emerged that 24 hours after 34 people were killed in Marysville, Victoria’s peak emergency body believed all there were safe.

The Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner issued a situation report at 8am and 5pm on February 8, saying: “We understand everyone in Marysville is safe.”

The bushfires royal commission yesterday heard the situation report listed nearby Taggerty as a “concern”, when the fire had ripped through the town the day before.

Counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, said the information was “just embarrassingly out of date”.

Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin agreed, saying the reports were “unfortunate and wrong”.

On the communications breakdown, Mr Esplin said 9088 triple-zero calls and 970 SES calls were received on February 7.

He said Telstra emergency calls were passed on to the state’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority and if there was a surge, callers would hear the recorded message.

“My understanding is that Telstra activated a recorded voice announcement,” he said.

“I have been advised that ESTA didn’t activate a voice recorded announcement.”

Mr Esplin said if ESTA was overloaded it went to “second, third and fourth responders”, but he could not say if that happened on Black Saturday.

Ms Doyle asked if emergency calls were passed to CFA volunteers at their homes during a windstorm that hit Victoria in April 2008.

“Last year some CFA volunteers literally received triple-zero calls?” Ms Doyle asked.

Mr Esplin: “That is correct. Passed through from Telstra.”

Ms Doyle: “Some CFA volunteers responded by telling the person to wait while they themselves tried to call 000?”

Mr Esplin: “That’s correct.”

Ms Doyle asked what happened when the bushfire information line, which was supposed to relieve the load on triple-zero, was itself overloaded.

“My understanding is that there is a pre-arrangement with the Department of Social Security . . . in other words Centrelink,” Mr Esplin said.

Earlier, he said the Government did not approve a national phone alert system until 16 days after Black Saturday.

If the system had been in place on February 7 it would have been an “important tool”, but he could not say if it would have saved lives.

He said the system would be in place by October.

Mr Esplin also said a radio and television emergency break-in signal was not activated on Black Saturday.

He said the Standard Emergency Warning Signal (SEWS) was used routinely in cyclone-prone areas but was never discussed in bushfire planning meetings between emergency services.

The commission hearings continue today.

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