Port Arthur: Tasman Peninsula’s communications issues still not fixed 20 years on
17th April 2016
Communications issues continue to plague the Tasman Peninsula 20 years after the Port Arthur massacre.
- Whole-of-government radio network still not in place
- Agreement has been reached to set up network by 2020
- Mobile blackspots still plaguing the region
In April 1996, after Martin Bryant began indiscriminately shooting visitors at the Port Arthur historic site, phone lines were clogged and emergency service organisations could not communicate with each other because they used different radio systems.
Nearly a decade later, the State Government provided $1.5 million to establish a whole-of-government radio network, but the project reached a stalemate because the police, the SES, ambulance service and firefighters could not agree on a technical solution.
It meant, during the bushfire crisis of 2013, peninsula residents were left in the dark about the approaching flames due to unreliable mobile reception, power cuts and incompatible emergency radio systems.
“We didn’t know where the fire was, all we knew was there were heaps of people arriving here to be sheltered,” said SES unit manager Ian Kingston.
“We didn’t know if the fire was past Dunalley or past Eaglehawk Neck.”
It was a case of deja-vu for Mr Kingston, who was working security at Port Arthur at the time of the massacre and experienced first-hand the frustration of the communications failure there.
Uniform communications still years away
An independent inquiry into the bushfires heavily criticised the emergency response, singling out the lack of a single communications network as one of the major issues.
All the agencies finally came forward in good faith to set up a whole-of-government radio network by the year 2020.
Deputy Police Commissioner Scott Tilyard said it was a significant development.
“I think one of the challenges has been, in the past, getting people to come to the table and agree to be part of a whole-of-government solution, and we’ve now passed that point,” he said.
But not everyone was convinced the project was on track.
A public accounts committee recommended an independent project manager be appointed to help overcome the obstacles and for a new entity to be created to manage the network.
Independent MLC Ruth Forrest, who was on the committee, said she was disappointed a project manager had only just been appointed more than six months later.
“I’m finding it hard to accept that these delays can’t be moved on more quickly,” she said.
Ms Forrest was concerned it may become a problem for other remote areas of the state.
“We were only lucky this year that we didn’t see loss of life or significant loss of infrastructure and property in the fires all through my electorate in the north-west and on the west coast this year,” she said.
Tasmania Police argued an interim gateway had been set up, allowing radio networks to be patched together in an emergency, but Ruth Forrest is concerned it is not as effective outside populated areas.
Mobile blackspots remain major problem
The peninsula’s Tasman Council is trying to tackle the problem by lobbying for improved mobile phone coverage in the region.
Tasman Mayor Roseanne Heyward said mobile blackspots were still a major problem.
“It is about staying connected with the outside world if another event like that happened,” she said.
But the council’s application for federal funding to eliminate some of the blackspots at Murdunna, Port Arthur and Nubeena was knocked back in the last round.
They are hoping for more success in the next round of funding to be announced later this year.
Tourism operators are desperate for improved communications technology.
Mark Etheridge who runs a 40-cabin resort at Port Arthur said tourists did not respond well when they could not use their mobile phone or access free wi-fi.
“My words to them are: ‘Welcome to the wilderness’, and essentially that is what it is,” he said.
“People do not understand that.”
The Tasman Council said a satellite internet connection was not far away for parts of the peninsula.
What is more uncertain is the implementation of a radio network by 2020, with technical issues and cost highlighted as impediments.
The State Government is committed but a spokesman admitted the cost of the multi-million dollar system was still being determined.