The world has watched horrified over the New Year period as unprecedented bushfires have destroyed vast tracts of Australia, resulting in at least 23 deaths, destruction of close to 2,000 homes, and dislocation on a massive scale.
Australia is a wealthy country with a sophisticated infrastructure offered by some of the biggest technology companies in the world. Yet, under the pressure of the fire emergency, much of that infrastructure has wilted and been found wanting, significantly hampering communications and rescue efforts.
The pressure of the disaster situation has stripped away the trappings of modernism and created almost apocalyptic scenarios where technology failure contributed to the chaos.
Going Radio Ga Ga
Think, for example, of the thousands of people trapped in the tourist towns on the eastern Australian seaboard.
In some cases, there were only one or two automated teller machines IATMs) operational in these centers, and they rapidly ran out of cash. In cases where power was cut, the ATMs were useless.
Without mobile phones or internet connections to transfer money between accounts or for digital payments, thousands of people trapped by the fires were unable to purchase anything.
Either they were unable to transfer funds into relevant accounts or point-of-sale systems at retail outlets, and fuel stations had stopped working. It meant that payments could not be processed.
In another era, fuel pumps were gravity operated and could be pumped by hand, but not today.
Amid this frustration, people had to queue for up to three hours to purchase groceries and line up for six hours to buy fuel for their cars so they could get out of the disaster area. Inevitably this created conflict and the temptation for many people to grab what they needed without paying.
Then, as the power supplies failed, petrol pumps stopped working because they ran on electricity. In another era, fuel pumps were gravity operated and could be pumped by hand, but not today.
Meanwhile, power lines were destroyed by the flames, and mobile phone networks went down with them.
Only people who had batteries for old fashioned radios or used their car radios could tune into the broadcasts transmitting critical information.
Ironically, the people who were best informed were those watching the 24/7 news coverage from the safety of their lounge rooms in the major cities, which were not threatened.
Back to medieval times
In some locations, running water and sewage systems failed due to a lack of power.
Beyond the emergency warnings from officials, communication between families and friends was wholly cut off.
Normally, you would imagine hundreds of thousands of messages on a variety of messaging platforms being sent to keep loved ones in touch. In this emergency, none of that was possible due to the failures in mobile phone networks and the internet.
There were not enough satellite phones for everyone.
Satellite phones offered a solution, but this was limited due to the small numbers available. Telstra did reportedly hand out satellite phones among the public in one town, so they could check in with loved ones, but this was limited.
There were, however, not enough satellite phones for everyone. In one case, a 70-year-old Telstra customer who lost her phone connection in the fires traveled 200 kilometers to Sydney to hire a satellite phone so that her old and infirm neighbors were able to call emergency services.
One telco came to the party announcing free calls for firefighters over December and January, and assistance packages for residences, but of course this would be pointless if there was no connectivity.
Will 5G make us a digital victim?
The issues with 4G and 3G networks during the fires prompt the question of whether 5G would have performed any better.
Certainly, 5G holds out promises of better connectivity due to its greater use of low orbiting satellites. That in itself would have been a boon in the recent crisis, but 5G is only now being rolled out in Australia, and slowly.
Commonwealth Government, which has been seen as unprepared and uncoordinated in its response.
In the aftermath of the fires, there will be deep introspection and some significant analysis of what went wrong.
Much of this will be sheeted back to the Commonwealth Government, which has been seen as unprepared and uncoordinated in its response.
As one exasperated shopper, stuck in a queue at a supermarket, told a reporter: "Why didn't the Government just announce they would cover the cost of fuel and provisions as part of the disaster effort. It would have reduced queues instantly and saved so much frustration."
The bushfire disaster exposed many failings in Australia’s disaster preparedness, with digital communications at the core.
In the aftermath, planners will have the advantage of leveraging 5G technology and its promise of better connectivity, but this is unlikely to be enough.
Resilient digital infrastructure is only a first step. It should be seen as the enabler for a comprehensive and integrated communications system which can help clarity and organization, rather than being a contributor to the chaos.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/WildandFree