8 out of 10 Black Saturday bushfire calls were unanswered

8 out of 10 Black Saturday bushfire calls were unanswered

30 June 2009

published by www.theaustralian.news.com.au

Australia — Eight out of every 10 calls to Victoria’s official bushfire information line on Black Saturday went unanswered, the royal commission investigating the disaster that killed 173 people was told today.

Those who persisted in waiting for an operator were forced to hang on for an average of 11 minutes and 25 seconds, with the longest wait logged at 16 minutes and 22 seconds.

Kathryn Venters, the manager of the information line which is jointly operated by Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Country Fire Authority, said the 82 per cent “abandonment rate” was due to the unprecedented number of calls received on February 7.

There was a total of 12,819 calls to the information line, which provides general information as well as details on warnings on specific fires issued by the CFA and DSE. This was four times more than received on the previous busiest days.

Of those 12,819 calls, just 1754 were answered, with other callers hanging up while on hold waiting for an operator.

Ms Venters said operators working on the day were frustrated and stressed by the long delays in getting information entered in the call centre’s data base about specific fires.

Initial CFA warnings about the Kilmore East fire, which started at 11.49am on Black Saturday and killed 121 people, were not received by email until 3.25pm and not entered into the database and made available to operators for a further hour.

Warnings about the Murrindindi fire, which started at 3pm and killed 38 people, were not received until 3.49pm and not made available to operators until 4.58pm.

Ms Venters said the delays in entering warnings into the database for operators to access when dealing with callers was due to the “immense amount of information” flowing in on Black Saturday.

She said further problems on the day were caused by technical difficulties in having Centrelink call centres take overflow calls from the bushfire information call centre.

A software upgrade at Centrelink on February 5 meant that its operators were no longer able to remotely access the bushfire information line database and see the latest information about current fires.

That information was being faxed to Centrelink when, in what counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Doyle described as a “comedy or errors”, the fax machine broke down.

The problems led to a three hour delay in Centrelink being able to start taking bushfire information line overflow calls.

Ms Venters said the bushfire information call centre had 90 telephone lines on February 7, although this had since been increased to 210 lines.

But the maximum number of operators able to work at any one time was still limited to 20, because that was the number of computer terminals available.

She said no additional terminals had yet been provided because of a “funding question”.

Ms Venters said the day had been stressful for operators, who had to deal with callers who could see flames or were worried about missing relatives.

But they also had to waste time dealing with non urgent calls, including one man who rang twice asking whether he would be able to use a coal fire to spit-roast a whole lamb the next day.

The hearing continues.

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