Rekindling Communications During Natural Disaster

The recent bushfire crisis has taught us many things about the nation’s ability to respond when natural disasters strike. While fires have devastated homes and towns, in many cases they have also blocked our access to information and disabled vital communication networks, exacerbating the challenges in which many Australians find themselves.

Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher echoed this when he said, “if you were someone who has been in a bushfire affected area, and a communications network has gone down, it clearly adds stress and difficulty in dealing with what’s already a very challenging situation.”

Further, only 32 percent of Australia’s land mass is connected through traditional cellular coverage, meaning bushfire sufferers in more remote locations around the country aren’t able to be contacted through cellular networks.

The Australian Communication and Media Association (ACMA) has promised to conduct an investigation into the performance of the telecommunications sector in the wake of the crisis. Undoubtedly, this disaster will force regulators to acknowledge the limitations of mobile and cellular coverage, particularly in times like these, and seek out alternatives.

With more than 72,000 volunteer firefighters in New South Wales alone, the recent disaster has shone a light on the complications of keeping firefighters safe and connected during critical times.

Volunteers are often under resourced and provided with outdated communication equipment which means that although bushfire agencies can keep track of their trucks and assets, the location of individuals risking their lives on the front-line is not usually monitored. Is this the best we can do for our firefighters?

A solution to these issues is to have a contingency plan for when these events take place, often unexpectedly. We can prepare for these occurrences, make better use of the existing satellite networks and leverage the technology we have available to us.

Satellite systems and solutions are important tools for managing crises when other communications infrastructure is disrupted. By enabling internet connection, remote messaging and tracking, satellite allows Australians to request help, coordinate responsive action and send and receive critical data – all vital capabilities in the midst of a disaster.

Satellite networks are flexible and provide a reliable and robust network when we are faced with fires or floods. At a government level, this can assist with the ability to restore critical communications infrastructure. National and regional government can benefit from incorporating satellite systems in their emergency response preparations.

We’ve recently worked with the Canterbury Regional Emergency Management (CREM) Office in New Zealand who are a great example of how local authorities can utilise satellite technology to retain communication links and ensure the safety of their front-line team members.

Having been through the Darfield earthquake of 2010, the Christchurch earthquake of 2011, the North Canterbury earthquake of 2016, and the Port Hills bushfires of 2017, they know how important it is to ensure effective telecommunications are maintained at all times when infrastructure and regular communication channels may be severely compromised by an earthquake or other disasters.

CREM has implemented a layered communications system so there are multiple backup options if one fails; from VHF radio networks through to satellite phones and BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) terminals. BGAN has proven particularly valuable in ensuring uninterrupted service. With New Zealand’s relatively small land mass and varied geography, conventional mobile and satellite signals can sometimes be unreliable, but a geo-stationary satellite network ensures constant coverage, even when infrastructure is damaged in a disaster.

CREM’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Andrew Howe, has affirmed his reliance on satellite time and again.

“All the stuff we’ve had happen to us and what we could have happen to us, still being able to communicate is essential for the emergency response effort. Satellite is one of the layers that we have, knowing that it can still work in any eventuality. Satellites don’t fall out of the sky so we can rely on satellites,” he said.

For volunteer firefighters or remote workers who often find themselves isolated without access to cellular or mobile coverage, satellite provides a line of communication and allows workers to remain in touch with their operations team as well as family and loved ones.

As our communities start to rebuild following the devastating bushfires, it’s a timely opportunity to review existing infrastructure and decide on how we might better ensure the safety of our nation’s first responders. The advancement and integration of satellite and cellular networks provides immediate opportunities to help preserve lives and properties in remote areas where coverage is unreliable or non-existent.