Floods, cyclones and radio communications

Qld Department of Emergency Services
Wednesday, 11 January, 2012

While radio played a major role in alleviating some of Queensland’s worst disasters of 2011 - the floods and Cyclone Yasi - the technology found itself stretched to the limit on occasions.

Some of those occasions were explained by Garry Kerr, manager of system support services at the Queensland Department of Community Safety, when he covered critical communications and emergency services during last year’s disasters in his keynote presentation at the recent RadioComms Connect event.

During the worst part of the Queensland floods, the Department of Community Safety and other public safety agencies used two-way radio to support front-line incident response and recovery. The department delivered ambulance, fire, emergency and disaster management services through a single agency.

Kerr told his audience that, with three quarters of the state declared a disaster zone, ambulance and fire received 14,349 Triple Zero emergency calls, which on average were over 1500 more calls than usual. There were over 560,000 transmissions on ambulance and fire radio networks across the state during the flood period.

The ambulance service in the Brisbane region handled 5236 emergency Triple Zero calls. The radio network managed 44,734 radio transmissions, totalling 143 hours of talk time, or 74% utilisation, which was 30% above the average.

All radio networks in Brisbane and across the state handled the workload well, with all operational ambulance and fire radio sites maintaining serviceability during this time. The solar sites with wind generators functioned well, keeping the batteries charged and operational he said.

Queensland was still recovering from the flood when tropical cyclone Yasi crossed the coast at Mission Beach just after 2.00 am on 3 February 2011. The cyclone unleashed winds of up to 290 km/h. The hardest hit communities were Cardwell, Tully, Innisfail and Mission Beach, with major flooding in the Townsville, Ingham and Giru areas.

At this time, the Firecom communications centre in Cairns undertook a controlled handover of the northern region radio network. In addition to this, the Triple Zero telephone calls to Firecom Townsville were programmed to immediately divert to other Firecoms around the state with no delay to call response times.

The hand-over of control worked by connecting both the Far Northern region and Northern region networks together at the Mt Cudmore radio site. Both networks were configured for wide-area operation so, when Cairns Firecom keyed a repeater in its radio network, all repeaters in both regions keyed simultaneously, providing one workgroup all-informed capability. Another option available was to use the radio management systems to activate RoIP services to connect into each region’s networks.

Swift Water Rescue teams

The Swift Water Rescue teams that worked during the disasters relied heavily on radio communications. The teams rescued people from swift-flowing water and floodwater and encompassed areas such as natural waterways, weirs, stormwater drains, floodways and inundated streets.

Rescuers worked under life-threatening conditions and radio communication devices needed to be ruggedised, reliable and as waterproof as possible. The Swift Water Rescue teams used waterproof radio harnesses, helmet coms and hands-free devices. Rescuers also used whistle, voice and hand signals to communicate with incident command due to the significant environmental noise.

Establishing incident communications

Although many networks had run into complications, the fire radio network in the Brisbane region operated normally as a conventional wide-area PMR network. During its operation, when one radio site repeater was activated, all repeaters across the region were activated simultaneously.

When establishing incident communications, one consideration was to isolate a selected radio repeater from the existing network. Alternatively, preconfigured dedicated radio communications channels could be allocated specifically to incident and emergency situations. This method worked well as it ensured uninterrupted communications at the incident zone, and allowed the operations radio network to function as normal.

Townsville ambulance service backup communications

The ambulance service in Townsville had a different story. As part of its planning, it had activated its backup communications centre that provided support services to the main communications centre.

In the hours after Yasi crossed the coast, there was no communication with Palm Island and Ingham. This suggested there was a problem at the Townsville Castle Hill radio site that had a UHF talk-through repeater service for ambulance to use throughout the Townsville area, Kerr said.

For this area, ambulance operations were able to use the Mt Stuart repeater as a backup to Castle Hill. A stand-by radio system that communicated to Palm Island was installed at the communications centre and, using the standby system, radio communication was established between the ambulance communications centre and Palm Island.

Ambulance operations in Ingham changed their channels to Palm Island to communicate with Townsville. With all appropriate business continuity plans and procedures in place, the ambulance service continued operations as normal.

501 Tango cyclone preparations

Fires incident command unit 501Tango was prepared for the cyclone. The unit travelled from Brisbane and set up a staging area and command post in Mareeba near Cairns. After Yasi passed through, Tango travelled to Tully and was placed into operational readiness for any specific incident requirements such as search and rescue, particularly swift-water situations.

The Tango and crew managed and provided support for large-scale emergency incidents. Services included email, printing, mapping, VoIP, external cameras, radio communications, wireless capability and computer-aided dispatch. The unit also supported NextG data services, video conferencing, audio visual and satellite connectivity.

Recovery operations

The recovery operations included inspecting all radio equipment for damage. Locations included radio sites, ambulance, fire and SES stations and it took 22 days after Yasi subsided to complete all site inspections.

Access to radio sites was one of the biggest challenges. Technical teams attempting to reach various radio sites were delayed sometimes by inaccessible roads and tracks and, in some cases, roads that were washed away altogether. In some cases helicopters were used to help technicians reach radio sites when road access was not possible.

An inspection following helicopter-only access showed that the antenna towers had been damaged by high winds although the radio equipment remained operational. The wooden towers are being replaced with steel monopole towers, he said.

The Mt Mackay radio site, normally managed from the far northern region operations, provides radio coverage to Tully and adjoining areas, providing services to ambulance, fire, EMQ, Queensland police, electrical utilities and many commercial businesses.

Kerr mentioned that overall the radio sites worked well. While some sites lost serviceability during the cyclone, the Queensland Department of Community Safety’s business continuity planning, incorporating the use of redundant radio services and dedicated incident channels, allowed the operational divisions to continue their service delivery to the communities, without compromise.

Queensland Emergency Operations Centre

A fit-for-purpose emergency operations centre is to be established at the Kedron Park Emergency Services complex.

The Queensland Emergency Operations Centre (QEOC) will ensure the department can more effectively coordinate day-to-day emergency responses and provide centralised management of large-scale incidents and disasters.

Sections of the QEOC have been opened and made operational to support flood and cyclone disaster response and recovery operations.

Ambulance and fire will relocate their communications centre facility to the QEOC. They will operate the Brisbane region emergency Triple Zero call taking and dispatch services from up to 80 available communications centre operator positions.

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