Living with disasters like fire, flood and cyclones are unfortunate parts of life in Australia. But after more than 100 years connecting this great nation, we’ve learned how we can be more resilient during these incidents to help people stay connected. Here’s how we’ve prepared for this year’s disaster season.
Before the storm
Preparing for disaster season for us is more than just battening down the hatches ahead of Summer. It’s a year-round exercise that brings in hundreds of people around our business. And the risk analysis and climate modelling we’ve done on our network infrastructure has culminated in a new summer disaster preparedness program for a range of sites across regional Australia.
This Summer we’re expecting it to be wetter with floods and cyclones on the cards, so we’ve continued to bolster our defences to make sure our infrastructure holds up.
Throughout the year our monitoring systems capture around 100 terabytes of network data each day which helps us identify potential issues so that we can proactively strengthen our fixed and mobile network ahead of disaster season.
Many of our network sites – like exchanges and towers – have had resilience works carried out to make sure they’re fully operational, safe and accessible. We’ve been checking and rechecking everything, from back-up power systems like generators and batteries, through to sourcing additional material and equipment so they’re in the vicinity should we need them.
Mains power outages cause the vast majority of interruptions to our services during emergencies. So we’ve replaced batteries at over 2,100 network sites nationally since July 2019, and this will continue through FY22. And with assistance from the Australian Government’s Strengthening Telecommunications Against Natural Disasters (STAND) program, this year we boosted battery back- up power at 341 mobile sites across regional communities.
This upgrade means battery reserves have been extended from three hours up to 12 hours in some of the country’s remotest towns, and now include smart charging and monitoring capability. This was no small feat – not only did our teams have to contend with COVID restrictions and border closures, but they also had to transport more than 8,600 new battery cells weighing a total of 500,000kg across the country.
We’ve also gone and ensured our cables are adequately protected to defend them from fire and flood damage, and made sure no greenery or trees pose a fire or cyclone threat to our sites. All of this work is done with careful attention to Indigenous and Sacred Lands and vegetation near our sites to ensure we’re respecting our First Nations peoples and their land.
We even go as far as to source helicopter landing zones near critical infrastructure so we can more easily deploy our emergency response teams in the event of a disaster.
We’ve also worked hard to connect the right teams together and make collaboration simpler in the event of a disaster. Our national Emergency Management team works with local Emergency Service Liaison Officers (ESLOs), who all take part in large and small-scale exercises to test communication and collaboration between our field technicians and emergency services on the ground. We use the lessons from these exercises to continually adapt our procedures.
During the storm
When we have advance notice of a strong weather event like a cyclone approaching, we take action like sandbagging at-risk exchanges and roadside cabinets to reduce the risk of water damage, as well as moving temporary power generators into staging locations where they’re ready to be deployed once safe to do so.
Key to our preparations is ensuring our national resource pool of temporary network solutions like Mobile Exchange on Wheels (MEOWs) or Cell on Wheels (COWs) are in the vicinity and ready to deploy at any time. And we manage our teams of field technicians to ensure we have the right people in the right places if they’re needed. They’re often the first on the scene in disaster hit areas after emergency services have declared the area safe so they can start work on restoration as soon as possible.
When we see a site go down during a disaster, our teams are notified remotely, and they spring into action. They can rapidly respond and work to dynamically adjust how service and bandwidth is deployed in an area to provide back-up coverage in some instances.
After the storm
When disaster strikes, we know it can impact connectivity, and restoration can take time. But this year marks the first disaster season where our network of payphones will be free year-round. Make sure you know where your nearest one is in case you need it.
After the Black Saturday bushfires we developed new technologies to help connect communities and emergency services agencies faster. And after the more recent January 2020 bushfires, our emergency teams and field technicians were on the ground responding to impacted sites as soon as it was safe – delivering back-up generators and batteries, installing temporary mobile cells on wheels, and making repairs to infrastructure wherever possible.
In just a week after the initial fire, we managed to bring the number of impacted sites from 60 down to 15, but difficult conditions over several weeks meant that restoration was a complex process. Some of our infrastructure – like at Jingellic on the banks of the Murray River bordering NSW and Victoria – were repaired and service restored soon after fires swept through, but then knocked out again days later by returning blazes.
Weather is fickle and that’s why being prepared and able to adapt quickly is so important – to not only keep people connected, but also provide support in other ways like disaster assistance packages.