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Lost communications amid bushfire chaos

"April McHale" (2020-08-09)

A lack of reliable communications hindered the firefighting effort during Australia's unprecedented bushfires, a royal commission has been told.

Many areas lost communications during the 2019-2020 bushfires, with residents of a small town on the NSW/Victorian border having to drive to warn others of impending danger, the bushfires royal commission has been told

"Many in the community expressed their frustration with interruptions and loss of service from fixed line telephones, mobile phone service and loss of power and the length of time these services remained unavailable," senior counsel assisting the commission Dominique Hogan-Doran SC said on Tuesday.

She said firefighters also rely on services delivered by mobile systems, including critical communication between teams in the field and between fire management and brigades.

"There were concerns expressed including by firefighters themselves that the absence of a reliable communication network hindered the firefighting response, in particular the lack of mobile phone coverage in some regions," she said.

Ms Hogan-Doran said the royal commission had received some positive submissions about the information provided through emergency warnings, apps or television and radio coverage during the bushfires.

"But submissions also expressed frustration due to the difficulty, inaccuracy, irrelevance or timeliness of some emergency warnings and information," she said.

Mary Hoodless, who co-ordinated the NSW town of Jingellic's volunteer-run emergency welfare centre for 18 days during the December-January fires, said there was no mobile or landline coverage for more than three weeks.

"This resulted in congestion on the roads as people had to drive to let others know about the impending danger or provide an update on what was happening on the ground," she said in her royal commission submission.

Ms Hoodless, who is one of the community witnesses appearing at the hearing on Tuesday, said cross-border communication was also very poor.

"People were crossing the border from Victoria to NSW to get information and most of the time, the information was not current," she said.

"Road closures and policing were different on both sides of the border causing confusion and chaos."

Ms Hogan-Doran said thousands of firefighters and emergency services personnel worked tirelessly over the 2019-2020 bushfire season.

"They saved lives, homes and natural environments.

"They faced tough conditions and endured long periods away from their jobs and families.

"Tragically, some lost their lives and others lost their homes while protecting their own community."

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements is holding a two-week hearing focusing on the states and territories, which have primary responsibility for 까마그라 emergency management.