2020 has already been one of Australia’s most memorable years, but not for good reason. We were barely through the bushfires in January, before facing a global health pandemic and stringent work-life measures that have enforced a ‘new normal’ for the time being.
As we continue to tackle COVID-19 and begin talks to ‘re-start’ the economy, the Federal Royal Commission into our ‘Black Summer’ of bushfires has also commenced, along with other State-led inquiries. Amid all this work to build a more resilient nation, a critical discussion must take place.
That is, Australia needs a national, coordinated approach to better plan for, respond to, and recover from unforeseen natural and man-made disasters.
This should start with regulation that strengthens and clarifies the obligations of governments and employers – so we can better protect our people and keep the country running. It should also enshrine a battle-hardened federal communications network and embrace interoperable, next-generation crisis technology to help build resiliency and save lives in the future.
Leading by Example
In this period of rolling disasters, we are witnessing the rapid escalation of crisis and resilience policies to the top of the agenda for the Australian government. New government agencies and councils have been formed, along with a series of new leadership appointments and increased funding. This includes the welcome appointment of former NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons to Resilience NSW, who said the new agency would “lead the whole-of-government prevention, preparedness and recovery effort.”
After stories of networks going down, old radios that didn’t work and improvised communication methods during our recent bushfires, further measures have been taken by the NSW Government to strengthen disaster communications in the future. Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello and Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott have promised to plough $217 million into a Public Safety Network for Emergency Services Organisations.
In this regard, the NSW government has started to lay down a template of how a national approach might work. The commitment to build a public safety network combined with a ‘whole-of-government’ agency approach could set a precedent for what should be a nationwide communications system and strategy for responding to and recovering from disasters.
Unifying Australia’s Approach to Disaster Communications
The Federal Royal Commission into the 2020 bushfire disaster also intends to address Australia’s non-uniform approach to emergency management, including inconsistencies between states and territories and challenges with integrating military and civilian forces. The findings are due in August.
A new report from the ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority), Impacts of the 2019-20 bushfires on the telecommunications network, will be taken into account by the Royal Commission. It has also prompted Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher to push for more reliable telecommunications infrastructure to withstand future emergencies
Australia has a history of investigations into our major fire disasters going all the way back to 1939. While we all welcome the discussion to do things better, we also want to see effective action.
This means, we need a coordinated national approach to disaster communications. Fires, floods and disease outbreaks do not respect borders. Responders from different countries, states and even individual agencies need a centralised communications infrastructure and reliable, interoperable technology supported by regulation that helps, rather than hinders, collaboration.
In addition to this, the reliance upon single mode (SMS based) communications and old hand-held radios no longer suffices in our digital age. Embracing new technology for incident planning and response that leverages a range of personal and public delivery methods, will improve resiliency and ultimately help to save lives and property.
In conversations about gaps that need addressing, the lack of resilience and interoperability of communications during a disaster is a consistent theme. In this digital age, we need to move swiftly into the future of emergency management where interoperable, real-time comms connects to anything with an IP address, even the fire trucks themselves.
To that point, we welcome the Hon. Paul Fletcher’s call for greater co-ordination between energy and telco companies but argue this is a wider discussion than the provision of power to base stations. It must extend to include key voices from both the government and private sector to ensure a robust regulatory framework that supports the use of complementary, interoperable technology – that removes the risk of relying on any single network.
We Are Not Alone: Learning Lessons from Others
Although we are living through our own set of circumstances, Australia can learn from other nations when considering emergency response best practice and coordinating national disaster response.
After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5) created a single system to synchronise federal, state and local responses to terrorism.
During the U.S. government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2011, emergency teams were unprepared to manage the 65,000 responders called to action from across the country, paralysed by poor on-ground coordination. This led to the passing of the Interoperable Communications Act, that requires U.S. government agencies to maintain interoperable communications in the event of a disaster.
Canada has also created a federated framework for the management of disasters and has instituted the National Public Safety Broadband Network, which aims to create and operate a dedicated, interoperable network for all first responders and public safety personnel in that country.
Australia’s 2019 and 2020 bushfires impacted 1390 telecommunication facilities, according to ACMA’s report, with most subsequent outage incidents caused by power outages rather than direct fire damage. The average length of outages was 3.5 days, cutting off communities and in some cases, rescuers.
Whether it is reliable access to alerts and real-time information or the ability for front-line responders to send and receive clear and critical data in extreme environments, we cannot only rely on telecommunication networks and services in an emergency.
The Future of Our Nation’s Safety is in Our Hands
In this age of new and unforeseen threats, we must take a federated, next-generation approach to crisis management.
These are all hugely complex issues and the government has a tough job that is far from over. There is no single answer when it comes to crisis communications and disaster management – but it is critically important to ensure there is no single point of failure in a crisis. This is where consistent regulation relating to networked communications and the use of next-generation technology plays a critical role.
The goal of the latest Royal Commission, and any ‘post-pandemic’ preparation, should be to devise a clear framework for action that can be supported by industry and government at all levels. We especially urge that interoperability and reliability of communication tools be as much in the spotlight as other priorities.
Though it is a long road ahead with complex challenges, by working together to address the gaps, we can establish a framework for the future that can ensure a stronger, safer and more resilient Australia.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Australian.