Over the last 15 years that Clint Dickson has worked in disaster recovery at Telstra, he’s been faced with some difficult scenes of destruction and damage in the course of his work – including the aftermath of raging bushfires and plains decimated by floods.
His story, and that of the many others who work across our disaster and recovery teams, is one of travelling into regions affected by natural disaster to help rebuild communities and restore connectivity, and going above and beyond to help those affected by adversity.
It’s not an easy gig. Immediately after disaster has struck, access to these areas is often restricted. Especially after the impact of bushfire, in areas with fires still close by, trees smoldering and winds that could change direction at any moment, the use of new technologies such as drones is crucial.
The Black Summer bushfires that burned from late 2019 into the early months of 2020 decimated millions of hectares of bush, including farms and homes, as well as critical communications infrastructure. Clint was enjoying a well-earned Christmas holiday with his family before the call came in to request that he end his break early and help restore mobile towers caught up in the inferno.
As the fire began spreading rapidly down the New South Wales south coast, Clint’s team was deployed. He was first sent down to areas around Batemans Bay to assess the situation and help restore our mobile network infrastructure in the wake of the destructive fires.
It’s a confronting situation to arrive in. When you arrive into an area that’s been swept by bushfire, the landscape is changed. “Lots of devastation, there’s just nothing left – all the trees are gone, but they’re still smoldering,” was Clint’s account of what he saw as he arrived on the south coast.
All disasters are different, and can require different plans and temporary solutions to restore services for local communities. After the Black Summer fires, Clint’s team’s first job was to bring connectivity back online and support the community to communicate as quickly as possible, deploying a portable mobile base station at Malua Bay to cover the infrastructure that had been severely damaged by fire.
“We deployed a temporary COW, which is a cell on wheels and is basically a mobile base station in a caravan/trailer type setup.”
Getting communities back online
In most disaster situations, it’s power failure that causes outages of mobile and fixed telecommunications.
Our network sites operate on the same power grid as our homes and businesses, so fallen power poles and disruptions to the electricity grid can take services offline. When that happens, our role in restoring connectivity often involves transporting and deploying temporary generators and fuel supplies for our sites until mains power is restored to the area.
As soon as these are online, the team’s next job is to assess the damage done to the network, work out what parts are needed for repair, and then jump in to fix it once it’s safe to do so. The impact of a natural disaster will be different in each area, meaning that individual assessments of our network infrastructure are needed to determine the best path for restoration.
In some instances, we’ve seen the buildings that house our network hardware destroyed, and in some cases our mobile towers holding antennas and wiring have needed to be replaced. It’s in situations such as these that we may also need to deploy temporary infrastructure such as a COW as part of the recovery effort.
Getting these towers back up and running quickly relies heavily on being able to assess the damage quickly and accurately so the right parts and crew can be sent in. In the last few years, the availability of drones has made this much faster and safer for our teams, especially in areas that are still under threat.
Clint is a talented mobile technician, but he’s also a licensed UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) pilot, so he‘s able to assess damage without the need for the big climb up a phone tower. On top of making things faster and safer, he also says it has a great advantage for wider assessments of areas where the damage might not be clear at a first glance.
In the 2017 Broombee fires near Mudgee in New South Wales, Clint was able to use a drone to identify work needed to restore a damaged mobile tower to full working order. “One of the things on the top of the tower was hanging down on an angle and was actually the transmit antenna for mobiles. It was still operating, so the system wouldn’t have alarmed as such, but it was a safety hazard and so we fixed it that day.”
Similarly, the team works with local emergency services where appropriate, sharing equipment to help get services back online faster. In Tathra, Clint worked with the RFS to use its specialised thermal imaging drones, assessing towers that were damaged but still in dangerous areas, so he could prepare the equipment needed to repair it as soon as the area was declared safe. Our teams always follow the guidance of emergency authorities so we can ensure they’re able to work safely.
“The RFS drone could fly around our tower, and because the heat put out by our radio units shows up quite clearly on thermal imaging, we could do one circle around a tower and instantly know if we needed to replace one of those units.
“On top of that, with thermal imaging I can look at whether there’s any hotspots on the structure itself. We need to be aware of whether the structure has suffered any thermal damage.”
Hard, but rewarding
Working in remote and disaster areas for more than 10 years now, seeing the first-hand impact of connecting isolated communities is something that keeps Clint going every day.
Clint and his colleagues can see almost immediately the direct impact of the work they do getting services back online. When their own phones start vibrating with notifications from friends and family, the most critical piece of work is complete.
It’s this moment for Clint that is the most rewarding, because he knows at the same point he can send a message, the rest of the community can finally do the same.
“You know that people in that area, that were impacted by that particular disaster, are doing the same thing.
“They may have lost all communications, and you know that you are having an impact on their ability to talk to their family and friends – and an impact on their ability to recover from that disaster, whether it be bushfire, cyclone, or flood.”