Fighting fire with comms firepower
The NSW Telco Authority found itself in the thick of battle during the recent bushfires.
During this summer’s awful bushfires, firefighters — both volunteer and professional — along with numerous other emergency personnel, utilities crews, council employees and many others, have worked tirelessly over many months to tackle the crisis. And many of those personnel have worked almost continuously during that period.
Unseen in the background, others too have been working to provide and maintain essential services to those frontline crews and, by extension, the wider public.
That dedication is exemplified by the NSW Telco Authority, whose Network Operations team and Telecommunications Emergency Management Unit had provided 150 continuous days (as of early February) of 24-hour emergency coordination of telecommunications support for the bushfire operations, including having liaison officers based at Rural Fire Service headquarters when required.
The Authority is responsible for managing the Government Radio Network (GRN), the primary network for NSW government agencies and emergency services organisations that use mobile radio communications.
The GRN provides the essential link between headquarters and firefighters on the ground, in all corners of NSW, supporting everything from firefighting to air operations, ambulance response and other emergency services tasking.
Almost 10 million calls were made across the GRN between 1 November 2019 and 1 February 2020.
“Next to Triple Zero, this is the most important emergency communications network in NSW,” said the Authority’s Managing Director, Kylie De Courteney.
The Authority has worked closely with agencies to protect radio communications towers throughout the crisis, some of which were damaged by the fires.
“Bushfires put a huge strain on our telecommunications infrastructure, limiting radio coverage and mobile phone coverage,” said De Courteney.
“It was vital to get the Government Radio Network communications back up for firefighters so fleets on the ground and in the air can continue to coordinate operations, response and recovery,” she said.
Where network infrastructure was damaged by the fires, the Authority rapidly deployed a series of ‘cell on wheels’ (COWs) portable base stations.
“After two Government Radio Network sites at Mt Wanderer and Batemans Bay were destroyed in the fires, we immediately deployed COWs to provide temporary radio communications at these sites, including working with the Australian Defence Force to airlift equipment from Coffs Harbour to Cooma,” De Courteney said.
The Authority’s bushfire support efforts also included restoring or expanded critical communications where existing infrastructure had been destroyed or where mains power supply was not available.
More than 20 portable generators were pressed into service to ensure electricity could be maintained where mains power had been affected, and many were put on standby for deployment into areas identified as being at risk from the fires.
As well as restoring communications, the Authority proactively put portable generators on standby, readied capacity expansion kits to manage radio congestion, and stationed four COWs at sites identified as being at risk of being affected by the fires.
New and enhanced sites brought on early
“More than 20 new and enhanced GRN sites being delivered under the Critical Communications Enhancement Program were fast-tracked and brought online early to support firefighting efforts,” De Courteney said.
“The sites were made operational using temporary satellite infrastructure, to provide essential and enhanced radio communications coverage for emergency services.”
During the firefighting operations, more than 10 Optus Satellite Services very-small-aperture terminals (VSATs) were used in affected areas to supplement radio communications.
NSW Telco backhaul architects also designed a satellite solution and installed it into portable pelican-style cases. The system used Kymeta satellite panels, which — unlike a typical dish that must be physically aligned to a satellite — are electronically steered and enable rapid deployments.
The Authority also worked with carriers to fix damaged infrastructure to restore essential services such as internet access, mobile phone coverage and electricity for hospitals, businesses, volunteer organisations and other services.
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