IT WAS “troubling” that emergency chiefs failed to tell Police and Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron that Victoria’s $212 million emergency paging system would run at less than a quarter of its capacity on a busy day, and that fixing it had been postponed several times, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Melinda Richard, said Victoria entered three fire seasons with agency chiefs knowing that the system would not cope with an extreme event, but “the minister was kept in the dark”.
She said the failure to fix the system “bespeaks a troubling degree of complacency within emergency services and the CFA in particular”. “The agencies . . . knew that the system wasn’t ready for a really big emergency.”
The Age revealed, and the inquiry later heard, that the pager system was overwhelmed on Black Saturday as it was locked down to low capacity because when it ran at higher speeds to carry more messages, it lost coverage.
Ms Richards said Mr Cameron testified that he was not briefed about the lockdown decision and his permission had not been sought for it, nor was he told about serial postponements of the software upgrade designed to fix it. “The minister’s understanding going into Black Saturday was that the agencies were happy with the pager system . . . What this tells us is that the minister was kept in the dark.”
She said that two days before the fires, “the minister sought assurances from the heads of the emergency services that they were ready for the Saturday to follow, and those assurances were given. At least in the case of the emergency alerting system, it was not ready.”
The system was introduced in 2006 and its weakness identified the same year. Extensive work has been done to fix it since Black Saturday, with $21.5 million allocated to it in last year’s budget. The system dispatches crews to fires and other incidents, carries wind change and other warnings, and carries administrative messages.
Kerri Judd, SC, for the state, said it had not been fixed earlier due to technical problems, including the need for final testing of a software upgrade. She argued that the state had taken care to protect the emergency-message level of the system, which delivered quickly on Black Saturday. “The state was taking action and no finding whatsoever should be made that the state was complacent about this,” she said.
Another counsel assisting, Peter Rozen, said that by June 2012 CFA fire vehicles should have a global positioning system or other vehicle location equipment for the sake of firefighter safety. He said this would help with incidents such as the crash into a ditch of a Warrandyte tanker in Kinglake on Black Saturday, which broke the spine of the crew leader.
First published in The Age.
He said repeated maydays from the Warrandyte crew were hampered by the fact that they were surrounded by smoke and flame and could not identify where they were — 200 metres from Kinglake fire station.