14 April 2010

Emergency services: resilience thinking needed

The Age’s investigative reporter Richard Baker has broken the story in today’s edition that:

The Victorian government and the Country Fire Authority deliberately restricted the operation of a new $108 million emergency communications system in the lead-up to Black Saturday, causing confusion and severe delays in messages sent to firefighters when the disaster hit.

Baker quotes the Department of Justice as saying that the system is a network of pagers used by 29,000 Country Fire Authority (CFA) members and other emergency services personnel to ''instantly receive clear and comprehensive information”.  According to Baker:

Sources from the Department of Justice, which oversaw the introduction of the pagers, claim the government's contract with the company that provided the system said it should operate successfully at 2400 bytes per second - delivering 720,000 characters of text per hour.

But the Government and the CFA chose to restrict the system to its lowest operating level of 512 bytes per second, reducing it to 149,000 characters of text an hour and slower transmission.

The decision was based partly on concern that operating it at its maximum level could result in communications black spots in parts of Victoria...[a problem that]...could have been eliminated by putting up more transmission towers in areas where coverage was weak.... [Also] there was opposition in government and CFA ranks to erecting more transmission towers due to cost.

“Resilience” is a word that is on every policy maker’s lips these days, but there is not much sign of resilience thinking here.  The first question that would have been asked by anyone skilled in the arts of resilience thinking would have been, “How much of a shock could this system withstand and still continue to perform its essential functions?”  Set to its minimum level of capability, the answer would have to be, “Not much”.  This was reportedly demonstrated by operating experience during a severe windstorm in April 2008.  At the peak of the storm, the system began to experience delays and send erroneous messages.

Not much sign of responsive thinking either. Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin reportedly warned the government of the problems experienced during the windstorm, but no action was taken to rectify the problem.

Not much sign of flexible or forward thinking either. The dogs were barking all week ahead of Black Saturday that Saturday would be a day quite out of the ordinary, but no-one thought to provide for the system to be unlocked to meet its contracted capability of 2400 bytes per second.

To read Richard Baker’s full report see State and CFA crippled alerts here.

To read an article by a world authority on what resilience is, visit the Australia 21 blog site and see Resilience – what is it?, a presentation made by Dr Brian Walker to Australia 21’s recent National Conference on Resilience.

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