Saturday, February 14, 2009

Early bushfire alert cover-up exposed

It's all about the money. We in the U.S. better get use to it.

February 13, 2009

CANBERRA and the states baulked at the $20 million cost of a telephone-based alert system that would have given early warning of the deadly Black Saturday bushfires, a secret report shows.

The confidential review for Victoria's State Emergency Service in December 2007, obtained by The Australian, reveals that the technology to bombard mobile and fixed phones with danger messages had been trialled successfully for the agency.

While the test run of Telstra's Community Information and Warning System was for flooding, the Victorian SES found it would work "for all types of hazard", including bushfire.

Despite this, the system was not introduced because the Howard government and the states bickered over the expense.

The internal report for the Victorian SES concluded: "Apparently governments are baulking at ... their contribution to the $20 million cost."

The Australian revealed yesterday that the federal Government was fast-tracking legislative changes to give emergency services in the states access to a national database of phone numbers so people could be warned on mobile and fixed phones of bushfires and other natural disaster threats.

The official death toll in the horrifying bushfires that ripped through communities north and east of Melbourne remains at 181 but is expected to rise to 300 as police, soldiers and emergency crews continue the search for bodies in the ashes of more than 1000 homes.

A spokesman for Premier John Brumby confirmed last night that Victoria "has been very keen" to set up a national telephone alert system.

"It did stall for many years," he said.

It is understood that NSW and Western Australia opposed the Telstra scheme, and that the then federal Coalition government was also cold on introducing it.

Western Australia has been pushing for national expansion of its own version of the "electronic doorknock" system, which is cheaper than Telstra's.

But the Victorian SES concluded that the WA service was inferior because it was limited to residential numbers listed in the White Pages. Phone alerts could not be sent to mobile phones or through company switchboards.

The report by consultants Molino Stewart for the Victorian SES said the Telstra system had been tested successfully in Stawell, northwest of Melbourne, and Mount Evelyn, east of the city. "Would be a good system for all types of hazard alert," it said.

"This has the advantage over the current systems, which need opt in and need to keep numbers updated."

However, the Telstra model failed to provide "the opportunity to keep the community educated about the system".

The report to the Victorian SES noted this was mitigated by "having a single system for all hazards across the state or even the country".

West Australian Emergency Services Minister Rob Johnson yesterday wrote to federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland urging him to fast-track changes to the Telecommunications Act during the next sitting of parliament to give state emergency services access to the national database of phone numbers. Otherwise, Australia-wide introduction of a phone alert system would be held up for a further six months.

"I know governments are often criticised for going at a snail's pace, but we've seen the tragic events in Victoria and I want to avoid a similar event happening here," Mr Johnson told The Australian yesterday.

"This is something that can give our community the earliest possible alert of fires raging towards them, floods and terrorist attacks, through phones, SMS messages, fax or email.

"It's absolutely essential, in my view."

Mr McClelland last night said there had been no possibility a phone system could have been introduced ahead of last Saturday's bushfire tragedy in Victoria, the nation's worst.

"Our target will be to have it up and running by the next fire season," he said.

Western Australia's StateAlert system had been offered to the other states and territories for free, yet none had taken it up as some were interested in Telstra's more costly Community Information and Warning System.

Western Australia has spent $460,000 developing StateAlert, which automatically calls all phones in a designated area, as well as mobile phones that are registered via a website, at a rate of 40,000 messages every 15 minutes. The running costs would be $300,000 a year.

Telstra's system - which would automatically call and text-message every mobile and landline phone within a selected area - has been costed at $40million to $66 million to introduce nationally over five years, with ongoing costs of $1.7million to $2.6 million a year.

"Some states may want to go with the Telstra system but in Western Australia we believe we can do it at less cost financially to the community," Mr Johnson said.

He said all states and territories wanted some form of emergency alert. "All that's holding it up is the ability to have access to people's telephone numbers," he said. "I have urged the federal Government to speed up the process. They could probably do (the legislative amendment) in one page ... I would like it done in the next few weeks. I am personally disappointed it's taken so long."

Mr Johnson said his predecessor had written six months ago to the Attorney-General as well as to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, asking that they expedite changes to the Telecommunications Act.

In his letter to Mr McClelland yesterday, Mr Johnson said the Act was the only impediment to Western Australia using StateAlert this bushfire season.

A Telstra spokesman last night refused to comment on the cost of its system, citing commercial-in-confidence discussions with the states.

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