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Preparing for Australia’s summer disaster season

Telstra News Regional

Posted on September 23, 2019

7 min read

Fires, cyclones and floods are becoming more frequent and more intense, which means that preparedness is more important than ever. Here’s how you can stay equipped, informed and online during a natural disaster.

With the early arrival of fires this year and the impending start of the Tropical cyclone season in November, it’s important to have your emergency plan in place before a critical incident arrives on your doorstep. That way you can quickly and efficiently execute your family safety and evacuation plan.

When preparing, ensure you consider the following from our emergency toolkit to keep you online and informed.

Staying online with your mobile

Hands using smart phone in cafe

Your mobile phone becomes a beacon of essential information and connectivity during a crisis, so keeping it online and ready to go is key. If faced with an extreme weather event, ensure that your mobile stays online with these tips:

  • Stay charged: if the power goes out during a disaster, your phone could run out of juice when you really need it. Ensure that you have a large external battery, solar power charger or in-car charger at the ready to keep you online. When you hear warnings for your area, charge your external battery fully and keep it handy in case the power goes out in the following days. Make sure you get one that will last you a few days, as you don’t know when power could return to your home following a disaster. Check the capacity (usually represented in milliamp hours, or mAh) of your phone and your battery to ensure you have the right one.
  • Preserve your memories: If your home was under immediate threat, it’s a fair bet the last thing you’d grab before you got out was the box of family photos. These are precious memories that can easily be lost. Now that everything is digital, it’s far easier to ensure that your precious mementos are backed up days before disaster reaches you. Back up your important data like photos, data and contact information to your cloud. That way, even if your photos and smart devices are lost to a disaster, your data will be resilient.
  • Satellite phones: in some cases, damaged infrastructure and other factors out of our control can temporarily disrupt cellular networks in disaster areas. If communications are absolutely critical to your safety, consider opting for a satellite phone. These devices are designed to be immune from terrestrial network outages, making them perfect for disaster scenarios.
  • Know your numbers: it’s important to ensure you stay in touch with emergency services in a disaster. Be sure you store a list of emergency numbers for your local Police, Fire and SES teams in the area, as well as numbers for friends and family. Consider creating a group chat of friends and family members to stay up to date with their goings-on. Make sure you also include our fixed line fault service number handy: 13 22 03.

Making your home phone and nbn resilient

  • 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.

Staying informed

  • 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, dashboards and social media accounts for your local councils and 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.

How we prepare to keep you online through the worst

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 and telephone exchanges on wheels. 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 placing our temporary network infrastructure into readiness status for when a deployment is required, and declared safe to do so.

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 community 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 — one of our field services team leaders in central New South Wales – 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.

Depending on the impact of the event, we offer assistance packages to affected customers such as diverting calls from an impacted home or business phone to a mobile, providing additional mobile data, providing prepaid top-ups and for customers displaced from their homes or businesses waiving connection fees. 

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.