Australia — Telstra has spent $15 million restoring and upgrading the communications infrastructure devoured and damaged by the Black Saturday fires in Victoria early this year.
But despite claims from fire-affected residents that communications broke down during the devastating fires, the telco says it will not be implementing any new measures for this year’s emergency season preparations.
The Victorian bushfires on February 7 took 173 lives, ravaged thousands of hectares of land and burned down hundreds of houses.
Telstra and Optus were both hit hard by the fires too, with communications outages across fixed-line and mobile networks, internet exchanges and power stations.
Telstra says its current fire contingency plans are still the right course to follow in times of natural disaster.
“There were no headline lessons or big lessons that hit us in the face or one big thing we didn’t know,” said the telco’s acting chief operations officer, Michael Rocca. “But it did reinforce how important the plans we make are and we have to make sure we carry out these inspections and update our data and records.”
Eight Telstra Next G mobile towers, 2800 fixed phone lines, 2100 ADSL internet connections and 39 ISDN phone lines went out of operation as the fires burned bushland and destroyed infrastructure earlier this year.
But even though Telstra suffered heavy damage, the integrity of its mobile network coverage was maintained, Mr Rocca said.
Residents from bushfire-ravaged Narbethong complained that power outages and damaged communications equipment resulted in a blackout for those trying to access information about the fires.
The Country Fire Authority also reported that communication systems broke down, adding to the CFA’s ability to battle the Victorian blazes.
“We weren’t able to do the job that we thought we were able to do because the scale of fire knocked many communications systems offline,” CFA manager of geographic information services Mark Garvey said.
“The royal commission is scrutinising many of the communications shortcomings from the February fires so we don’t want to pre-empt what they may wish to say, but nevertheless we were challenged with the way we were able to get data on all the fires.”
In the lead-up to this year’s disaster emergency season, Telstra has already carried out extensive site maintenance — such as grounds and gutter clearings — on about 130 network sites across its fixed and wireless networks in Victoria. It is also inspecting fibre-cable runs in bushfire-prone areas across Victoria to ensure they have protection against fire threats.
The emergency mitigation measures form part of Telstra’s “peak season plan” that it enacts every year to ensure it is prepared for any natural disasters — such as flooding and fires — that might affect its critical infrastructure.
“As part of our peak season plan for floods, we have already sent 40 extra technicians to Brisbane because we know we need them there. Even though they are surplus we have them working there ready in case anything happens,” Mr Rocca said.
Telstra’s peak season plan also included the repair and upgrade of equipment damaged and destroyed in the February fires. So far Telstra has installed four new telephone exchanges in Marysville, Narbethong, Kinglake and Kinglake West at a cost of $1.2m each, and built seven new Next G towers at Arthurs Creek, Castella, Dixons Creek, Kinglake West, Marysville Recreation Reserve, Narbethong and Strathewen at a cost of $330,000 each.
The destroyed communications equipment had been affected by three main failures as a result of the fires: loss of power, destruction of transmission connections to base stations and fire damage to antennas, cables and towers.
Telstra’s upgrades come as the telco prepares to flick the switch on a $15m national bushfire warning system it has developed for the federal government.
The emergency alert system is expected to be ready for operation this week after successful tests were carried out last week.
Premier John Brumby joined fire authorities in Torquay last week for a public test of the system, during which more than 50,000 text and voice messages were sent to residents.
“This is a system that will save lives, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr Brumby said.
“It is a system that will get a message out to people quickly and efficiently in life-threatening situations.”
A second stage of the system will enable warnings to be sent to mobile phones based on their geographical location.