A burnt building in Tathra, NSW can be seen after a bushfire the previous day. (ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)
Poor mobile phone coverage in rural areas potentially put people’s lives at risk during the devastating bushfires on the NSW south coast and in south-west Victoria, according to the Country Fire Authority.
As well as being touched by a natural disaster, both communities also share a common problem — mobile phone blackspots.
Macarthur Country Fire Authority (CFA) deputy group officer Hugh McFarlane said the problem came to a head in Victoria on Saturday night when fire raced through farmland near Gazette, Macarthur, Penshurst and Hawkesdale, destroying three homes.
He said the bad phone service could have cost lives.
A house and car was completely destroyed by fire in Tathra on Sunday. (ABC News: Brooke Wylie)
(The World Today)
“It [takes] three or four phone calls on average to get through to a number,” Mr McFarlane said.
“That’s the frustrating thing — you can lose up to four or five minutes trying to get through.
“Time is a valuable thing on a fire ground.
“It’s putting firefighters lives at [risk] if we’re missing getting a phone call coming through. It’s also putting our communities at risk because we can’t get information in and out for the people who live in the area.”
Mr McFarlane said on Saturday night he and a colleague made about 90 phone calls, but it took almost 300 attempts for those 90 calls to get through.
“We’ve had bad phone service here for the last six to eight months,” he said.
“You make a phone call and it tells you the number’s been disconnected [or calls] will ring out and won’t go to message bank.
“Sometimes you can make up to seven or eight calls before you get through to a number.”
One of the three houses destroyed in the blaze that started at Gazette on Saturday night. (ABC South West Victoria: Matt Neal)
Telstra looking into issues
Telstra regional manager for western Victoria Steven Tinker told ABC Radio Ballarat last week Telstra was looking into the issues in the Macarthur area, and apologised for the quality of the service.
“Our engineers are investigating to see what potentially has been the cause of that,” he said.
“There’s quite a number of things that can cause an outcome where people see a degradation in mobile services.”
Mr McFarlane said the poor phone service had coincided with the introduction of the NBN into the Macarthur area, but Mr Tinker said that was unlikely to be the cause of the problem.
“We believe that would be … coincidence,” Mr Tinker said.
“All the mobile network and the NBN fixed wireless frequencies are very different, and obviously those spectrums are governed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.”
Different state, same problem
In Tathra, locals are hoping some good can come from the disaster that has devastated the town.
“It’s an awful thing that a disaster like this will get the attention of politicians to help us out,” resident David said.
“For far too long, Tathra has been forgotten with mobile telecommunications.”
A burnt-out playground after the Tathra fires whipped through the small coastal NSW town. (ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)
Rob White, who owns Beach House apartments in Tathra, said the mobile blackspots meant some residents had had no idea what to do when the fires were approaching the coastal town on Sunday.
“I didn’t receive any warnings to evacuate. Others may have, I don’t know,” Mr White said.
“Parts of Tathra, including our property, has very poor mobile coverage — limited Telstra, no Optus and no Vodafone.”
Bega Valley Shire deputy mayor and Tathra resident Liz Seckold said the quality of phone service in the area was not good enough.
“Many of us have been pushing for [improved mobile coverage] for quite a long time,” Cr Seckold said.
Member for Bega Andrew Constance said the topography of the area may contribute to the issue of phone coverage.
Farmland near Macarthur was burnt during the weekend’s blazes in south-west Victoria. (ABC South West Victoria: Matt Neal)
People left without information as systems fail
In Victoria, Member for South-West Coast Roma Britnell saw first-hand the issues created by the combination of mobile phone blackspots, power outages and bushfires.
She watched the horizon glow red on Saturday night from her home at Woolsthorpe, just 10 kilometres from the fire front.
“At Woolsthorpe, there’s no phone reception so you have to have your phone plugged into power because searching for a signal drains your phone,” Ms Britnell said.
With the power out and bad mobile coverage, it took some country ingenuity to find out what was going on.
“Our phones were just draining, and alerts were coming through every hour to evacuate,” she said.
“We needed to have information from our phones and we ended up having to pull the car up to the window of the house, leave the car going, have the car window open, charge the phones and listen to the radio because nothing else worked.
“It was really difficult to feel informed. That’s why we need [better] reception.”
Member for Lowan Emma Kealy said she was aware of people in the Gazette area who “couldn’t get a UHF signal, they had no mobile signal, and the landlines were out so they were literally in the dark looking at flames and couldn’t contact anyone”.
The ABC has contacted federal Minister for Regional Communications Bridget McKenzie for comment.