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Telcos, emergency services battle Aussie bushfire season

Scorching summer temperatures in Australia have put telcos and emergency service organisations under the pump to keep services up and running.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor
(Fire Danger Sign in Australia image by Robert Paul Van Beets, Shutterstock)

As temperatures hit over 40 degrees Celsius in Victoria last Friday and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) had 60,000 firefighters on-hand in the event of a repeat of the horrific Black Saturday bushfires, the authority's website and app failed to keep up with demand from local residents.

With residents checking for potential fire dangers, the authority reported on Friday that its website and the FireReady app had been getting up to 700 hits per second.

Victorian Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said on Friday that he had ordered CFA CEO Mick Bourke to conduct an analysis of the CFA website.

"We need to learn lessons from today and ensure the technology can keep up with the demand. The capacity of the website and also the FireReady App has been increased in response, and we are continuing to work through the problems with our service providers," he said in a statement.

Lapsley advised residents to switch to local radio stations, the ABC, social media, and television to get up-to-date information in lieu of accessing the website or app.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is today touring fire-ravaged Tasmania, where more than 100 homes have been destroyed and 100 people are still unaccounted for.

Power has been cut in the Tasman Peninsula, with 300 power poles reportedly destroyed by the fires. It will be approximately a week until power is returned to the area.

Telstra said that its three main exchanges in Dunalley, Nubeena, and Koonya are now powered by high capacity generators, but 500 landlines across the more remote parts of Dunalley, Eaglehawk Neck, and Carlton River remain down. The telco said that it was in the process of deploying generators to these locations and repairing a fire-damaged cable between the Dunalley exchange and homes in Dunalley.

There were currently three 3G sites offline in the state, and Telstra said that these services would be restored once emergency services assist Telstra in accessing those locations.

The company last night sent for a Mobile Exchange on Wheels (MEoW) from Melbourne that can replace landline ADSL2+ services in affected areas, and Telstra said it was also assessing whether a Satellite Cell on Wheels (SatCOW) would be needed to provide temporary mobile services in Tasmania.

Telstra's National Broadband Network (NBN) demo trailer, which was touring Tasmania, has been sent to the Sorrell evacuation centre to provide information to residents on accessing phone and internet services. The company has also supplied phone chargers to the centre.

Optus confirmed that only one site in the Tasmanian town of Nubeena was currently out of action for 2G and 3G coverage, however Optus customers in that area are still able to make calls to the emergency number. Services are expected to be restored once Optus refuels the generator for the base station.

Vodafone said that none of its services in Tasmania were currently affected by the fires.

Prior to bushfire season, the Australian government spent AU$60 million upgrading its emergency alert system so that it could send location-specific SMS alerts to residents in affected areas.

Gillard said today that the alert system had worked well.

"That's a great example of how you can learn and improve, and the technology can take you to a different way to communicate with people."

Late last year, concern was raised over the alert system's incompatibility with 4G services. Optus and Vodafone do not currently have 4G services deployed in Tasmania, while Telstra said that the alert system had worked well in Tasmania. Telstra currently only has  4G services activated in parts of Burnie, Devonport, Hobart, and Launceston in Tasmania, none of which were affected by the fires at the time of writing.

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