NSW Labor leader calls for flood telecoms inquiry

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NSW Labor leader calls for flood telecoms inquiry
Image credit: NBN Co.

Former Telstra exec blames 'single point of failure'.

The leader of the NSW state opposition, Chris Minns, has called for an upper house inquiry into the emergency response in the days following the floods in the Northern Rivers, with a specific focus on the failure of the communications infrastructure and coordinated emergency communications response.

Minn's call came as former Telstra senior executive Rod Bruem told iTnews a single point of failure exacerbated the outages.

Now a Ballina Shire and Rous County Council councillor, Bruem told iTNews that the flood disaster has exposed a fundamental weakness in the national telecommunications systems.

“My understanding is there was a single facility at Woodburn which Telstra and NBN both rely upon and it is located in a flood-prone area. That failed and everything fell apart," Bruem said

"It underlines the need to identify and remove weaknesses in the network and ensure there is redundancy and backup.”

While addressing community and press in the flood recovery zone of Lismore, Minns described the aftermath of the emergency situation and economic help required to enact recovery for the affected communities as beset by “enormously complicated circumstances.”

Minns relayed that he was briefed on the communications systems failure that occurred in the first 24 hours of the emergency response.

“That communications failure didn’t allow volunteer and the SES services to communicate with many people that wanted to help rescue and emergency services in that initial opening 24 hours," he said.

"We need to make sure that the infrastructure is put in place to help emergency rescue sets of circumstances.”

He added that there was a need to ensure that the SES was properly resourced and called for the creation of a role holding responsibility for emergency management and resilient management - in much the same way that the chief health officer Kerry Chant was a single point of communication with the wider community during the pandemic.

“We will be pursuing an inquiry, most likely an upper house inquiry into what happened in the immediate aftermath of the floods and how the rebuilding program is going," Minns said.

"I want to stress that it's not under any circumstances to play politics with the rescue response, but we want to make sure that while it's fresh in people's minds, that the learning [of the] last two weeks is shared by the NSW parliament and that action can be taken in relation to that.

"The worst thing that could happen, worse than even the floods that we've seen over the last two weeks, is if we've gone through what this community's gone through, and we don't learn from the mistakes that were made."

As of Monday, Telstra ceased reporting daily on its restoration of services update.

Telstra Regional general manager Mike Marom confirmed to iTnews today across the flood affected areas of Northern NSW and Qld that “around 95 percent of mobile base stations are now back online and delivering coverage to their communities".

"We have [also] restored nearly 75 percent of landline services (excluding Telstra NBN)," Marom said.

He added that Telstra have installed temporary mobile base stations where appropriate, which at this point are in Woodburn (NSW), Uki (NSW) and Kilkivan (Qld), while Telstra smart modems "are on their way" to affected customers to ensure they can stay connected while repairs continue.

Marom explained that while temporary mobile facilities do have the same limitations of requiring power and access to an area in order to be deployed. “we carefully and constantly assess where and when they may be able to help.”

Telstra and NBN Co have also placed additional communications equipment at evacuation and recovery sites for use by the public and staff.

NSW radio network held up, 000 didn't

Bruem added that the NSW government radio network had reportedly held up well during the crisis, but questioned: “What good is a government network if it doesn’t connect emergency services to people who need help?"

"The other major failure was with the 000 emergency service, which went into meltdown at the height of the Lismore flood disaster," he said.

"There are many key problems that urgently need addressing.”

A spokesperson for NSW Telco Authority, which manages and operates the NSW government emergency services network, told iTNews last week that, “the Public Safety Network remains stable in flood-affected areas with no current outages on the network.”

This network provides radio communications used by frontline responders and essential services, which Minns reported had failed to provide coverage and interoperable communications in the first 24 hours of the crisis in certain areas.

The Authority stated that it continues to work with public carriers to help ensure access to sites so carrier technicians can restore telecommunications when safe to do so.

On March 5, one week into the flood disaster and when over 9000 NBN services were still offline, the federal minister for regional communications and minister for emergency management and national recovery and resilience, Senator Bridget McKenzie, announced that $10.9 million would be awarded to successful applicants to help keep communities safe during a natural disaster.

“Successful projects include the installation of permanent power generators, increased battery reserves, transmission resiliency upgrades to protect against network transmission outages and site hardening measures, such as protective ember screening to shield sites from potential impacts of embers, radiation or flames,” she stated.

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