Firefighters say the lack of reliable communications hindered the firefighting effort during Australia’s unprecedented bushfires, with crews in one area having to drive half an hour to get any mobile phone reception.
Some towns were effectively cut off from the outside world when they lost communications, power and road access, and were surrounded by fire during the emergency, the bushfires royal commission has been told.
Many people were frustrated by the interruptions and loss of service to fixed-line telephones, mobile phones and power, and the length of time they remained unavailable, senior counsel assisting the commission Dominique Hogan-Doran SC says.
She says many of the services firefighters and the community depend upon are now delivered via 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 – colloquially known as black spots – in some regions,” she said on Tuesday.
NSW’s Katoomba/Leura Rural Fire Brigade noted the Blue Mountains has a large number of black spots where there is no radio or phone communication.
“In the Kedumba Valley, Megalong Valley and on many of the ridges, we had to travel in excess of half an hour to get any reception,” its royal commission submission said.
The small NSW border township of Jingellic, where a volunteer firefighter died and others were injured when their truck flipped over in a “fire tornado”, lost communications for about three weeks.
Community safety officer Mary Hoodless said mobile phones still worked at the time of the December 30 accident, but there were issues with getting information out to NSW and Victorian ambulances to help the injured firefighters.
“The ambulance were telling us that they weren’t allowed to get through,” she said.
“The roads weren’t in fact closed but the information was that they were.”
Once mobile and landline coverage was lost, communication among Jingellic’s 20 residents and the area’s 150 people was done by road, Ms Hoodless said.
“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.”
Many people also sought information from Jingellic’s emergency welfare centre and the Rural Fire Service staging area on the same site.
Adam Weinert, whose home was one of 84 destroyed in the Adelaide Hills blaze in December, said his town of Lobethal was isolated by the loss of communications and power, road closures and fires around the region.
“The population within five kilometres of Lobethal was essentially locked out from the outside world by all means,” he said.
“What that caused was an internal amount of fear, trepidation and panic that was only ameliorated by the formation of a local recovery centre that was ad hoc and spontaneous.”
Ms Hogan-Doran said the two-week hearing focusing on the states’ and territories’ responsibilities would include evidence from volunteer firefighters.
“Many were overwhelmed by the 2019-20 bushfires, but never gave up,” she said.