Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

Warning: Don’t rely on SMS during fires

10 January 2013

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Australia — PEOPLE near a fire’s path should not rely on mobile phone disaster alerts in place of their common sense, bushfire experts and Victoria’s acting Premier Peter Ryan have warned.

Victims of a bushfire that tore through farming communities at Carngham in the state’s west on Tuesday night have criticised authorities for failing to keep them informed about the blaze.

During a packed community meeting in nearby Snake Valley on Wednesday, several residents were angry about not being able to access information about the blaze, with some complaining they did not receive emergency SMS alerts.

Melbourne University’s Kevin Tolhurst, a panellist on the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, said he was concerned people were not getting time-sensitive and accurate information online. ”I’ve been trying to get some information as a member of the public on particular fires and was told it was a fast-moving fire and it is five hectares. That message continues for three or four hours and it doesn’t make sense. The detail is not being updated.”

Mr Tolhurst, who designed a computerised fire modelling system for the Department of Sustainability and the Country Fire Authority, said he was concerned the CFA website would not withstand a real disaster after it crashed last week.

”It is really concerning that we are not able to build a website that can cope with that many hits. I find that a bit unbelievable. I would have thought it would have. The first bit of pressure and it hasn’t performed.”

He said it was unrealistic to expect mobile phone reception in all parts of the state and people should rely on television, radio and their common sense.

Mr Ryan said the CFA website and its app have now been split across two servers and that he was confident both online tools would cope with millions of hits from the public and provide the latest information on bushfire threats.

‘‘The web and the apps are working very well at the present time and we anticipate no problem with them,’’ Mr Ryan said.

‘‘We took 12 million hits in 12 hours on the website last week and we expect that if we have a similar flow of traffic we will be able to accommodate that.’’

Mr Ryan said concerns about mobile phone warnings should be viewed in their full context and praised the work of firefighters and other emergency services who controlled the blaze at Carngham. He said the first of 12 different warnings, including SMS messages, was issued 20 minutes after a grassfire took hold in Chepstowe, west of Ballarat, on Tuesday.

”That fire ultimately burnt out 1200 hectares,” Mr Ryan said. ”It is the case that eight properties were lost, it is the case that about a dozen people were injured but it is also the case that no lives were lost and as the commission has reinforced repeatedly – and as we have said so often since – the primacy of life is the critical issue when we are fighting the ever-present threat of fire.”

Mr Ryan said those who complained about not receiving an alert may have fallen outside the ”polygon”, a line on a map that is drawn by the fire’s incident controller to decide who receives an alert. He said it was ”a question of balance”.

”You don’t want to be causing undue alarm in elements of the community where the threat isn’t actually imminent, so you are drawing a line on a map and by definition that could mean some people are left to it.”

He said a ”suite” of bushfire information was available, including the CFA website, the CFA app, ABC radio and the bushfire information hotline, that people should monitor on high-risk days.

Last June, Mr Ryan called on the Gillard government to improve telecommunication services to ensure Victorians were warned of impending disasters. He said his office had received complaints about black spots in about half-a-dozen areas, including the Alpine region and Traralgon South.

Mr Ryan said he had written to Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and was writing to Senator Stephen Conroy, to ”urge him to consider the safety of Victorian communities”.

Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association spokesman Randal Markey said 99 per cent of Australians received mobile phone coverage but there were limitations, particularly during extreme bushfires when electricity supplies to base stations were sometimes cut. ”We understand this is disturbing to some people but we are not talking about normal conditions,” he said.


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