CFA pagers failed on Black Saturday


THE Country Fire Authority’s pager system had a huge message backlog on Black Saturday because many messages were unnecessarily sent more than once, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
A report into the pager problems, commissioned by the CFA, concluded that the delays were due to the volume of incidents and the “ballooning effect” of individual messages being linked to multiple recipients.
Consultancy firm Mingara Services reported that:
■There were 10,624 messages logged that day but only 3043 were unique messages.
■Some messages were transmitted up to 90 times.
■Administrative messages were delivered up to 12 hours late and non-emergency messages up to 2½ hours late, but emergency messages were all delivered within 76 seconds.
Of non-emergency messages, 5703 of 7784 were delivered outside the two-minute benchmark, and of 3533 administrative messages, 1069 were delivered outside the five-minute benchmark. Administrative messages are the only level open to firefighters who want to send out information.
Ian Powell, manager planning and strategy with the CFA’s technology services, agreed under questioning that some non-emergency and administrative messages that day contained urgent news such as wind-change warnings.
The Age revealed last week that on Black Saturday the emergency pager system was locked down to 20 per cent of capacity by the government and the CFA, which were concerned that a high volume of messages would create black spots across the state. The 29,000 pagers alert firefighters.
Mingara found that the pager system on Black Saturday was congested by duplication and linkage of messages, which meant one message automatically went to several recipients. The problems would have been lessened if the system had been set up with messages delinked, which would have required two messages rather than eight to activate a strike team, for example, said counsel assisting the commission, Melinda Richards.
The company running the pager system reported that if messages had not been linked on Black Saturday it would have cut the sending time of emergency messages by 14 per cent, non-emergency messages by 83 per cent and administrative messages by 55 per cent.
Mr Powell said the CFA had mostly removed linked messages. But it had not taken up Mingara’s suggestion that CFA users be given access to the emergency and non-emergency levels of messages, which have higher priority.
It was believed CFA staff were not in a position to prioritise emergency messages, Mr Powell said. He said problems with limited radio channels that day could have been avoided with better communications planning and radio discipline. He said some black spots remained because of lack of funds.
The Justice Department’s emergency services policy and support director Craig Lloyd said a new public safety communications strategy had been approved and goes to cabinet today. The current system covered 98 per cent of people and 95 per cent of the state, he said, but aspects of the system were run by different contractors, making change complex.