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Report highlights emergency warning shortcomings

The report into the emergency services response to last April’s windstorms and power blackouts, released without announcement by the government last week, raises serious issues about how well emergency services were prepared for summer’s tragic bushfires, Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources Robert Clark said today.

The Review of the April 08 Windstorm Melbourne, Victoria (August 2008) by Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin lists numerous failures in the emergency services handling of the windstorms on 2 April. These include:

• over half of more than 25,000 calls for emergency assistance were not answered (p.46, Fig 1)
• weather warning information was not passed on, or was received late. In particular, the Telstra 000 service was not given warning, and thus could not gear up for increased call numbers (p.43)
• there were long delays in transferring calls from Telstra 000 to the emergency services call centre (ESTA) due to ESTA being overloaded. This in turn reduced Testra 000’s capacity to take further calls (p.46)
• many calls were made to 000 simply seeking information, or seeking SES assistance, which added to delays (p.45)
• the CFA’s arrangements for diverting overflow calls to local brigades and volunteers meant volunteers received emergency calls without warning and often did not know how to handle them. Many made calls to inappropriate numbers to try to deal with the issue, further congesting the system (pp.46-48)
• the emergency pager system (EAS) can handle a maximum of 149,266 characters per hour before becoming overloaded, leading to delays (p.52) and error messages, often false, being received by ESTA operators, causing further delays (p.54)
• the CFA’s VHF radio system experienced severe congestion (p.55)
• the seriousness of the manner in which the severe weather warning was conveyed to the public “was not adequate for the event that followed” (p.59)

Overall, the report found that ‘significant improvements can be made in respect of public warnings, coordination and the provision of public information’ (p.2).

The report makes a wide range of recommendations for improvements to Victoria’s emergency warnings and response arrangements, including:

• that ‘Victoria progress, as a matter of priority, a telephony based public emergency notification system to reduce demand on Triple Zero and other emergency telephone lines during a major emergency’ (Recommendation 24)

• establishing a public system to provide emergency warnings and alerts (p.57)
• better provision of information to the media, effective use of the media to inform the public about current events, and use of new technology such as a direct web portal (p.57).

The report observes that ‘The proposed public system to provide emergency warnings and alerts provides an ideal opportunity to target specific geographic areas and update the community on
events …’ (p.57).

“This report paints a graphic picture of an emergency response system that was not properly prepared and couldn’t cope with the load of emergency calls last April, leading to confusion, delays and emergency calls going unanswered,” Mr Clark said.

“The report makes clear that the system needed urgent improvements. In the absence of those improvements, Victoria’s emergency response system seemed destined to fail again in any future similar emergencies.

“It is therefore extremely concerning that many of the report’s recommendations seem not to have been acted on prior to summer’s tragic bushfires.

“According to the government’s published response to the report, none of the report’s 35 recommendations has been fully implemented. According to the response, 19 recommendations are in the process of being implemented, while the government “intends” to implement the remaining 16,” Mr Clark said.

Recommendations that are still ‘being implemented’ include such basic items as:

• emergency services and the ESTA agreeing on the direct telephone numbers to use to contact each other (Recommendation 22)
• suspending scheduled call centre maintenance and testing during emergencies (Recommendation 21)

Recommendations the government still “intends” to act on include:

• fixing the problems with CFA overflow emergency calls being diverted to brigades and volunteers (Recommendation 18)
• testing of call queuing and recorded voice announcements to make sure they are working properly (Recommendation 19)
• ensuring the distribution list of emergency services recipients of Bureau of Meteorology weather warnings is kept up to date (Recommendation 13)
• establishing and implementing a model for communications flows during emergencies (Recommendation 14)

“This report was received by the government in August last year. It is unbelievable that so little seems to have been done in response between last August and February this year,” Mr Clark said.

“The Royal Commission should inquire into whether lives or property could have been saved if recommendations in this report had of been fully implemented immediately.”