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We warned Piccolo on radio failures: CFS brigade

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A CFS brigade left without communications in the midst of last week’s deadly Pinery fire warned Emergency Services Minister Tony Piccolo one month ago that he would have “blood on his hands” unless the problem was fixed.

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Gilbert Group CFS officer Andrew Allchurch says crews were isolated without communications for four hours due to a failure of both the Government radio network and the Telstra mobile network in the midst of the fire.

He said multiple crews were subjected to a “burn over” in which they had to shelter in their vehicle while the fire passed over them.

The story, first reported by The Advertiser today, was confirmed by Allchurch who said he had been warning the Government about holes in the radio network for years. The problems included congestion on the mobile network and outright failure of the Government radio network.

He told ABC 891 this morning that he had met with Piccolo one month ago to raise his concerns, but he had consistently alerted the Government to problems with the radio network over 13 years.

“I said to Tony ‘this needs to be fixed otherwise blood will be on your hands’,” Allchurch said.

His previous warnings aren’t difficult to find.

In October 2014 he told the Stock Journal about problems with radio coverage in his region, which covers much of the area burnt by last week’s fire which killed two people.

“Our region is about 80 kilometres by 40km, and on real hot, windy days, we wouldn’t have (radio) coverage for half that,” he said at the time.

“We have to protect the five, six people in the truck, but we also don’t want our neighbours farms to burn.

“They’re not giving us the right equipment to operate.”

Allchurch said today that while he couldn’t say whether radio communications would have saved the crews from going through the horror of a burn over, the failure could have made a disastrous fire even more deadly.

“They tried to press the emergency button … they were left to fend by themselves and all I can say is thank God there’s not more deaths because of this.”

He said the communications failures also prevented the crew from sending warning messages to local residents.

“We had no communication at the height of the fire when we wanted to put out messages to the regions, to get warning messages to the public – the network wasn’t there.”

“If we can’t use the GRN (government radio network) to get out warnings, then the public isn’t safe.”

Piccolo said a planned upgrade of the network to digital would improve coverage, but he undertook to conduct an independent review into the failures.

He conceded there were gaps in the system’s operation, including coverage and capacity.

“There are problems at certain times,” he told ABC radio.

He confirmed he had met with Allchurch a month ago to discuss his concerns.

Premier Jay Weatherill said the Government would undertake a thorough review of the fire-fighting effort.

“We need to understand whether it’s damage to infrastructure that caused these difficulties, whether it was gaps in the network that cause some of these difficulties, or other infrastructure issues,” he told a press conference.

“Once we understand that, we’ll be able to sensibly respond.”

The Opposition said the failure of the emergency radio system had put CFS volunteers and the public at an “unacceptable risk”.

“It is scandalous that the Weatherill Government was alerted to the problems with the emergency radio system after the Sampson Flat bushfire but has failed to upgrade the system,” said Shadow Minister for Emergency Services Duncan McFetridge.

“The Weatherill Government has double and tripled the Emergency Services Levy tax on ordinary households but is yet to provide the CFS with a communications system that works in a bushfire.

“Having gouged hundreds of millions of dollars through the savage increases in the ESL the Weatherill Government has pocketed that money rather than investing in our emergency services.”

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