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How we prepare for Australia’s natural disaster season

Regional

Posted on December 6, 2018

3 min read

We know that staying connected is especially crucial during times of crisis. Natural disasters like fires, cyclones and floods can damage our infrastructure and disrupt the connectivity we’re all so reliant on.

In our long history we’ve had many years of first-hand experience dealing with disasters, which helps up prepare for future events before they even happen. If disasters hit, our plans are in place so as soon as it’s safe, we can jump into action and start restoring services.

Graham Potbury is one of our field services team leaders in central New South Wales, and has been on the front line of bringing connectivity back to disaster-hit areas. Restoring mobile and fixed line coverage is a top priority, but has to wait for emergency services to make the area safe. “Most of the time, we’re champing at the bit to get started and give our customers a service, so they can talk to loved ones and get their lives back on track.

“We talk to customers in the area to let them know we’re working and to keep them updated – and sometimes it’s not until after a week or so that the enormity sinks in; it drives you to keep working in trying conditions.”

Preparation is key – ours and yours

Our regular preparation for the summer months, where we’re more likely to experience extreme weather events, starts months beforehand when we test our network redundancy and develop plans to protect our property and equipment in at-risk areas.

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 staff and emergency services on the ground. We use the lessons from these exercises to continually adapt and update our procedures.

Key to our preparation is moving temporary network support close to where we predict it may be used. We have a reserve of portable base stations, mobile exchanges on wheels (MEOWs) and mobile cells on wheels (COWs). We also 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.

We’re always watching the weather around the country. When we have advance notice of a strong weather event like a cyclone we can take action like sandbagging at-risk exchanges and roadside cabinets to reduce the risk of water damage, as well as moving our temporary network infrastructure into a location where it is ready to be used when it’s safe to do so.

Our work in the field is backed up by high-tech investment that helps us respond remotely, like our Next Generation Operational Support System (NGOSS) that processes 8TB of network data each day to help us understand the impact to our customer while maintaining overall network stability, throughout events. Our work in transforming our network using digital platforms and building Networks for the Future also puts us in a stronger position to respond to service disruptions – including those caused by extreme weather – by dynamically adjusting service routes and network bandwidth digitally.

Tips for customers on how to stay connected

Mobile phones and portable devices

Invest in an alternative charger. If you don’t already have one, purchase a phone charger that isn’t dependent on a power outlet. A popular choice is a ‘power bank’ battery pack that can be charged from a power outlet prior to an event and used if grid electricity is unavailable, or a portable solar panel charger or in-car charger.

Back up your data. Store your important data, like contact information and personal photos, in the cloud using an online service. If you have an Apple or Google device, these smartphones have automatic backups that you can enable for extra peace of mind.

Know your emergency numbers. Store a list of essential contact numbers for your local Police, Fire, SES teams as well as friends and family on your phone and as a backup. Make sure you include our fixed line fault service number – 13 22 03.

Consider a satellite phone. In rural and regional areas, a satellite phone should usually be independent of any damaged infrastructure and can operate in remote locations. If your communications are critical or if you are in an isolated area, a satellite phone backup could come in handy.

Fixed line phones

Home phones on the NBN are different. Since the NBN carries your home phone line, it will be unavailable during a power outage. It’s best to have a mobile phone or satellite phone handy for this instance, especially in remote areas.

 

 

Keep a corded phone. A cordless fixed line phone is convenient, but remember, most cordless phones rely on electric power to operate, so you may lose the use of your landline during a power outage. A corded phone draws its electricity directly from the phone line (excluding fixed line phones on NBN) and can be used during a power outage.

Social media and online

Set up a virtual meeting place. An instant messaging group chat with friends and family, or a social media site like Facebook or even Instagram, can give your loved ones extra information during a time of crisis.

Download emergency services apps. These official apps will give you the most up-to-date information on what’s happening in your area, including natural disaster warnings.

Use local information sources. Online, social media accounts for your local authorities and emergency services will share crucial information. Your local broadcaster will also share information over the radio – make sure you have a battery-powered radio or car radio to listen in on.

Be alert. Subscribe to services that will alert you to weather changes, road closures and updates from other service providers in your area.

During and after strong weather and natural disaster

During strong weather, you should always heed the advice and directions of emergency services and local authorities. All mobile devices in Australia have the ability to place a call to emergency services using any provider’s mobile network coverage in the area, even if your contracted provider has disrupted connectivity.

In the event of a disaster, we set up a dedicated emergency response team to assist our customers in the area. The health and safety of our people and the community is paramount. When emergency services say it’s safe to do so, our trained field techs will re-enter declared disaster areas to begin restoring services as soon as they can.

Our ESLOs work with local and state emergency services to support their own communications needs, and prioritise the restoration of critical emergency and utility services. They identify infrastructure that is damaged or at further risk, including using drones for site surveys. Staff from outside the affected area may also be brought in to help when needed.

Graham Potbury has been on the ground in these instances, and has worked with emergency services teams to coordinate efforts. “In most cases we complete a reconnaissance run to assess what is needed. We would normally start from the exchange and work away from there, so we can have the most impact to restore customers’ service.

“We approach the command centre to gain approval to enter the area – then once approval is given, we brief our staff on what’s happening in the area, discuss safety issues and check all safety equipment.”

All natural disasters are different, but our teams work as quickly and as safely as possible to restore service. Graham explains: “I led a recovery team in the Victorian fires several years ago, and due to having the right systems and equipment we were able to spend three weeks repairing our infrastructure to restore service to those customers that had premises remaining.

“The longest I have spent in a disaster area was four weeks to restore our main infrastructure, but the effects can last several weeks later as individual customers return home.”

Depending on the impact of the event, we may also offer assistance packages to affected customers such as diverting calls from an impacted home phone to a mobile, or providing temporary mobile phones to customers who don’t have one. We may also provide temporary satellite phones to customers in areas with no mobile coverage. If customers’ broadband services are knocked out, we might be able to provide them with interim mobile data options.

We have a variety of ways to notify our customers ahead of a pending weather event, including through our social media channels. We’ll also keep you informed on our Service Status page of any outages and ongoing restoration work.

Restoring our infrastructure after a natural disaster is never a simple task, but we do have plans in place to ensure it happens as quickly and as safely as possible.

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