Bushfire help calls stranded in system

OF MORE than 10,000 calls made to the bushfire information line on Black Saturday, 82 per cent went unanswered, the royal commission heard yesterday.
Counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, said the figures were revealed in “materials that have been summonsed”.
“Overflow from the information line is referred to Centrelink phones,” she said.
Ms Doyle asked the manager of another emergency call service that was flooded that day, Owen Kiernan, whether he had yet heard the bushfire line figures. He said he had not. Mr Kiernan had given evidence that emergency operators picking up triple-zero calls told those asking for bushfire information – such as advice on whether to evacuate – to call the bushfire information line.
He acknowledged the operators later reported that many callers said they had tried the bushfire number and had not been able to get through.
Mr Kiernan is operations support manager for the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority. When Telstra receives triple-zero calls, it forwards them to the authority. The Telstra operator holds the line and stays with the caller until an authority operator picks up the call.
If it is not picked up within 75seconds, it is presented to another line. This can happen up to five times.
Mr Kiernan said 28 of his operators were taking fire-related calls on February 7. He said the authority had 126 staff but would have needed the equivalent of 300 full-time permanent staff – as well as larger centres and more equipment – to have managed the 6974 calls that came in for all emergency services. Of those, 3246 were for fire services.
Mr Kiernan said no calls overflowed from the authority to incident control centres or Centrelink. But he accepted a lawyer’s suggestion that the authority became a bottleneck in the call system on Black Saturday.
Michael Garner, for Telstra, said: “ESTA simply did not have the resources in terms of staff or workplaces to handle that unprecedented call activity on February 7. And this caused a bottleneck, did it not, which flowed back to the Telstra answering point?”
“That’s correct,” Mr Kiernan said.
This was because Telstra operators holding on for the authority were delayed from picking up other triple-zero calls.
Mr Kiernan agreed that in 2004, Telstra had tried to change the protocol for major incidents that generated many calls so that Telstra operators did not have to wait for authority operators to answer. The idea was rejected as several emergency services did not have queuing facilities and would have lost calls.
But Mr Kiernan said every caller who stayed on the line on Black Saturday was answered, regardless of which service they wanted. He said 59 callers had disconnected.
Ms Doyle asked whether the operators were briefed about the spread of fires. Mr Kiernan replied: “They wouldn’t have had that type of information to hand.”
He said counselling had been provided to operators who were distressed by the burden placed on them.
“People who had worked that day didn’t know what had happened … until they read the papers the next morning. It was a very difficult time.”
Mr Kiernan said a manual audit of all Black Saturday calls would not start until July and would take up to six months to complete.
Earlier, the chief executive of the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority, Neil Foster, said a State Government review of the authority’s funding had begun and an extra $3million had been provided for 2009-10.
First published in The Age.