Have we really learned from past disasters?

Australian Radio Communications Industry Association

By Ian Miller, Executive Officer, Australian Radio Communications Industry Association (ARCIA) Inc.
Friday, 01 April, 2022

Have we really learned from past disasters?

As we reflect on the disasters of the summer of 2022, how can we not think back to the summer of 2020 and the disasters of that season? Then it was fire and now it is flood, but the same problems are still evident.

One of the more critical problems is the failure of our communications networks. During the floods of this year there have been innumerable reports from NBN Co of the national broadband network having service disruptions to tens of thousands of subscribers, yet there is very little reporting of this in the mainstream media.

So why would this level of failure be a cause for concern? Well, from recent reports, approaching half of our population no longer rely on traditional news sources like free-to-air television, broadcast radio or newspapers. Although there is recognition of this fact, it has not seeped into the collective thoughts of our bureaucrats and emergency agencies that getting the urgent messages out to the public at risk needs multiple avenues to be effective.

If we look at the recent blockades and disturbances in Ottawa in Canada, the government and, in particular, the Ottawa Police used social media very effectively to manage the situation, or more specifically to keep the public informed and able to go about their business and lives with as little disruption as possible. The use of social media relies very heavily on data systems like the NBN and wireless broadband. We are already seeing changes to information systems and heavier reliance on mobile devices for public education.

So how does this relate to the present problems with the NBN services interruptions? If you look closely at the NBN infrastructure, once you get past the devices at the premises and the shiny new blue and green optical fibre cables running down the streets, the actual infrastructure that provides the backhaul is an issue. In general, it has been cobbled together from multiple sources using facilities provided by the mobile phone carriers.

In most cases these facilities operate from the existing telecommunications towers to provide backhaul links and hubs for the NBN services, as well as the mobile carriers’ wireless broadband services. If the power supply to these locations is cut off due to fire or flood, the stand-by power facilities are woefully inadequate for any critical communications requirements and the site stops operating and so do the communications through that location.

Out of the 2020 bushfire disaster, there was a Royal Commission to examine what happened and make recommendations on how such disasters could be avoided in the future. The commission tabled around 150 recommendations on how changes could/should be made to try to ensure that similar situations would be avoided in the future, or that risks be managed better. From a communications perspective very little has happened — basically none of the recommendations have been implemented.

It seems that most recommendations have been conveniently forgotten by the mainstream media who are more interested in photo opportunities and quick grabs from politicians, who in turn have studiously avoided allocating funds to ensure the recommendations are implemented. The major failure is that our public safety and emergency management agencies, as well as those in our industry and the general public, have allowed this to happen without comment.

For several years, Geoff Spring, a senior Industry advisor for the Melbourne University Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety (he is also a Project Officer for ARCIA), has submitted papers to multiple government committees and tried to highlight the fact that our critical communications networks must be recognised as being part of the national essential services. This is important as that should then mean that attention would be given to ensuring the resilience and ongoing operational performance of these networks. That would mean that in a world where communications will be via multiple platforms, the wireless broadband networks, as well as the traditional news sources, will be examined and steps taken to ensure they keep operating during times of emergency.

One of the most frustrating outcomes from these submissions has been that although on occasions government select committees have agreed and recommended that changes should be made, changes of government or political personnel have meant that recommendations have not been acted on and, like the RC recommendations, have been lost in the passage of time. Too often we see situations where failure to heed the lessons of the past results in them being repeated in the present.

As an industry and as members of the public and first responder communities, we must again try to bring attention to the need for our critical communications networks of all types being recognised as part of our nation’s essential infrastructure. Only then might we feel a bit more confident that we really are protecting the future of our communities, our children and their children as well.

Our radio and data communications systems are an integral part of our lives and safety — time to recognise that and act accordingly.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/mino21

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