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Chapter 9: Essential services


9.1 Essential services are relied on by each and every individual, household and community for meeting basic, everyday needs. The provision of essential services is especially critical before, during and after a natural disaster – when people are at their most vulnerable. Despite this, we heard that disruptions to essential services were a common occurrence during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season for many regional communities in disaster-affected areas. These disruptions, among other difficulties, meant that people could not access information on the threat posed by the fires, purchase essential goods due to either supply chain issues or the inability to use EFTPOS, or contact friends or family.

9.2 At best, these difficulties add to the stress of an already stressful situation, and at worst, they place the lives and safety of individuals, households and communities at risk. The impact of these difficulties merits consideration of the ways in which risks to essential services and their supporting infrastructure are identified and addressed.

9.3 On supply chains, we heard three key considerations for understanding and assessing supply chain risks: do we have enough essential goods to respond and recover; can we get essential goods to the people who need them in a timely and equitable manner; and are we able to rely on international supply chains for essential goods and, if not, do we have the ability to manufacture those goods in Australia.

9.4 Unclear messaging and interrupted supply chains cause frustration and distress, as it is not always possible to provide essential goods to affected communities. As such, the viability of alternative options should be considered, including the ability to scale up domestic production of essential goods, where appropriate, or to source enough supply to meet requirements if domestic production is not possible.

9.5 There is also scope for more to be done to improve the identification, and mitigation, of natural disaster risks to electricity and telecommunications critical infrastructure assets. We heard that awareness of natural disaster risks to specific assets (such as powerlines and telecommunications mobile towers) varies between government and sectors, as do the actions taken to mitigate these risks. Given that electricity and telecommunications are highly interconnected, a holistic understanding of risks and the mitigations applied is required to prevent outages and facilitate the rapid restoration of services.

9.6 We also heard that existing processes for facilitating coordination and information sharing between critical infrastructure operators and government are not necessarily working as effectively as they need to be, and that there are opportunities for improvements to be made.

The importance of essential services

9.7 Essential services are the systems that we rely on for our everyday needs. They include, but are not limited to, electricity, communications, water and transport.

9.8 Essential services are especially important in the lead-up to, during and after a natural disaster. For example, electricity and telecommunications outages can prevent communities from receiving timely information, advice or warnings about the threat posed by nearby fires. They can prevent communities from making informed decisions about how best to ensure their own safety, or the safety of those in their care (eg when to evacuate). [1013] They can limit contact between friends and family members in fire-affected regions. Disruptions to essential services during the 2019‑2020 bushfires brought about all of these.

9.9 Supply chains, being the distribution of essential goods and services across the country, are critically important to our economy. [1014] Working supply chains deliver petrol to service stations, fresh food to supermarket shelves, household waste to landfill and essential pharmaceuticals to hospitals. [1015] In a natural disaster, the continuity, or rapid restoration, of supply chains is vital to the response and recovery phases.

9.10 Communities cannot receive essential services without the underlying critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure refers to the physical assets (eg power lines, water pumps, roads, mobile telecommunications towers, sub-stations etc) that are relied upon to deliver essential services.

The impact of natural disasters on essential services

9.11 A disruption to one essential service can trigger failures in dependent services (see Figure 35). [1016] For example, a damaged powerline can cause a power outage to a mobile telecommunications tower, which can then cause an outage in mobile telecommunications coverage.

The road closures had consequences for other sectors as it made it difficult to resupply towns with water, food, fuel and medical supplies [1017]

9.12 Natural disasters can interrupt transport routes. During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, some firefighting assets could not be transported between communities due to fires and road closures, [1018] which had a direct impact on the emergency response. Road closures also impeded the ability for communities to evacuate during the bushfires and disrupted the transportation of essential goods, such as food, across the country – impacting relief and recovery efforts.

Example of interdependencies

Figure 35: Example of interdependencies [1019]

9.13 We heard of power and telecommunications outages affecting fuel service stations, ATMs and EFTPOS during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. The lack of power, and consequential inability to access payment, prevented people from buying fuel to be able to follow evacuation orders issued by emergency services. [1020] Power outages also prevented people from using EFTPOS to buy essential goods and ATMs to get cash. [1021] These cascading failures caused significant difficulty for fire-affected communities:

Once the shops opened, they were cash only, as there was no communications and for some, no power. A lot of people did not have cash. We fortunately had a little, and were able to lend some to our neighbours. We met people who were begging or trying to do small jobs for cash, just so they could buy food … No banks were open, nor were any ATM operational so getting cash through this route was not possible. [1022]

9.14 We also heard from those who experienced essential service outages during the 2019‑2020 bushfires how these outages prevented them from accessing emergency information in the lead-up to and during the disaster:

When the internet and power failed we had no means of communicating with the outside world, [nor] could we receive information on the status of the fires … There was scant information available on the commercial station and the information was, at times, frivolous and not relevant to our specific area. [1023]

9.15 Essential service outages also had a distressing impact on those located in disaster affected regions, particularly in preventing people from contacting friends and family:

My husband went missing on New Year’s Eve while on a work shift. I didn’t hear from him for 24 hours as we both lost reception and the radio even went out as well. [In] my last contact with him [he] was telling me that he could see flames up ahead … I was so scared that he had been caught by the fire and that I might not ever see him again. [1024]

9.16 In addition, outages of essential services impacted the ability of governments to coordinate and respond to the bushfires. For example, the Snowy Valleys Council indicated that outages in telecommunications resulting from power outages cut-off its ability to contact the southern part of its local government area, preventing it from understanding the difficulties they were facing and the support needed. [1025] These outages also affected government agencies in other ways, such as requiring them to rely on backup generators to ensure communications equipment remained operational during the bushfires, [1026] preventing coordination efforts by emergency operations centres, [1027] and preventing firefighting crews from being able to obtain fuel from petrol stations. [1028]

9.17 The electricity transmission network, an interconnected system that runs from northern Australia to Tasmania, including SA is ‘oblivious to the State borders’. [1029] We heard that during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, the interconnectors between eastern states were threatened and it was reported that they ‘may fail’, which would have affected power supplies locally and nationally. [1030] A transmission grid separation between NSW and Victoria did occur on 4 January 2020, [1031] which we heard was remedied ‘fairly quickly’. [1032]

The causes of outages during the 2019‑2020 bushfires

9.18 Although the 2019‑2020 bushfires affected a wide range of critical infrastructure assets and essential services, the impacts of power and telecommunications outages – and the dependencies these cascading failures highlight – were the subject of many public submissions to us.

When disasters occur…there can be multiple failures, or failures of multiple assets, leading to cascading impacts, as impact in one aspect of life, sector or service flows on to others. [1033]

9.19 Australia’s electricity network ‘has a large number of very long lines which are expensive to maintain and vulnerable to natural hazards’. [1034] Power outages were a widespread cause of cascading failures during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. We heard that during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, more than 280,000 customers from various energy providers experienced a bushfire-related power outage at some point. [1035] These outages were largely attributed to fire damaging more than 10,000 power poles [1036] and thousands of kilometres of powerlines, including those located underground. [1037]

9.20 These power outages caused significant disruptions to telecommunications services. The Australian Communications and Media Authority’s review into the impacts of the 2019‑2020 bushfires on the telecommunications network found that, of 888 telecommunication outages observed between December 2019 and January 2020, 779 – or 88% – were caused by mains power outages. [1038] In comparison, fire damage accounted for only one per cent of telecommunications outages. [1039] The remaining 11% of outages were caused by a variety of other factors (eg damage to an upstream facility in the telecommunications provider’s network). Telecommunications providers including Telstra, Optus, NBN Co, and Vodafone confirmed that telecommunications outages were predominantly caused by mains power failures. [1040]

Shared responsibilities

9.21 Resilience to natural disasters, including with respect to critical infrastructure and essential services, is a shared responsibility. Governments, critical infrastructure operators and individuals and communities all have a role to play in understanding the risks of disruptions to critical infrastructure, ensuring that others are aware of these risks as appropriate, and managing the consequences of outages.

9.22 All levels of government — Australian, state and territory and local — have responsibilities for building critical infrastructure resilience:

  • Local governments are well placed to identify critical infrastructure on which their communities rely – whether this be an important transport corridor, an electricity substation or a mobile telecommunications tower. [1041] Local government’s role requires working with others, such as adjoining local governments, local emergency services, government agencies and critical infrastructure operators to identify and mitigate critical infrastructure risks. [1042] They also have a role in educating communities to ensure they are aware of the risks of essential service disruptions, and how these risks can be managed. [1043]
  • State and territory governments have an important role in setting legal and regulatory requirements for critical infrastructure and coordinating resilience measures across their jurisdictions. [1044] State and territory governments may also have ownership of critical infrastructure operators (such as Essential Energy in NSW). They are also responsible for managing the emergency response to natural disasters, which involves (among other responsibilities) facilitating operational coordination with critical infrastructure operators and emergency service agencies.
  • The Australian Government regulates critical infrastructure operators in the telecommunications sectors though the Australian Communications and Media Authority, [1045] and in substantial parts of the electricity and gas sectors through the Australian Energy Regulator. [1046] The Australian Government also has an important role in protecting critical infrastructure from national security risks. [1047]

9.23 Critical infrastructure operators have responsibility for the day-to-day management of their infrastructure assets and networks, including continued supply of the service and restoring service following outages. Part of this responsibility involves identifying and assessing risks to their assets and networks, and taking appropriate action to mitigate these risks. [1048] This includes ensuring others are aware of these risks, such as government and dependent infrastructure. Critical infrastructure operators can be subject to legal, regulatory and business requirements that prescribe minimum service levels or standards. [1049]

9.24 In addition, critical infrastructure operators can be owned privately, publicly, or through a mixture (eg public-private partnerships). This means that operators may also have responsibilities to their shareholders, in addition to consumers and governments.

9.25 Individuals and communities have a responsibility to understand that natural disasters can lead to disruptions, and prepare for those circumstances. They should access information made available to them by governments as to the risks to which they are exposed, understand how these risks could affect their situation and their households and, where necessary or appropriate, mitigate those risks and be prepared to manage any consequences.

9.26 We should not expect critical infrastructure to be completely resistant to damage, or for essential services to be immune to disruption. Individuals and communities should be aware that they may lose power, water and electricity (including information-technology services) and may be unable to access essential goods such as food at critical moments.

Supply chains risks

9.27 When understanding and assessing risks in supply chains during a natural disaster, we heard three key considerations: [1050]

  • do we have enough essential goods to respond and recover?
  • can we get essential goods to the people who need them in a timely and equitable manner?
  • are we able to rely on international supply chains for essential goods, and if not do we have the ability to manufacture those goods in Australia?

9.28 These three considerations must form part of routine planning and preparation processes for communities, businesses and governments. Awareness of, and planning for, interruptions to supply chains can assist to avoid or reduce the impacts of some of the interruptions that we heard of over the 2019‑2020 bushfires.

The National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy

9.29 Government and industry recognise that national freight and supply chains are a shared national priority. [1051] From that recognition flows the need to consider and implement measures that build natural disaster resilience.

9.30 On 22 November 2019, Australian, state and territory governments, under the auspices of the Transport and Infrastructure Council, endorsed the arrangements presented by each jurisdiction to implement a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy (Strategy) and associated National Action Plan. [1052] These plans provide an opportunity for Australian jurisdictions to address freight and supply chain vulnerabilities associated with, among other things, natural disasters. [1053]

9.31 The Strategy sets an agenda for coordinated and planned government and industry action across all freight modes, with the intention of achieving:

  • improved efficiency and international competitiveness
  • safe, secure and sustainable operations
  • a fit for purpose regulatory environment
  • innovative solutions to meet freight demand
  • a skilled and adaptable workforce, and
  • an informed understanding and acceptance of freight operations. [1054]

Availability of essential goods

9.32 We received many submissions from the public, and evidence from government organisations, describing the difficulties in obtaining essential goods during the 2019‑2020 bushfires.

9.33 The fact that the bushfires occurred during the holiday season exacerbated the strain on the supply of local goods and services. The Bega Valley Shire Council noted that during the peak of the bushfire emergency, the Shire had over 70,000 tourists, and a number of evacuees from East Gippsland, requiring assistance. [1055] The influx of additional people to small communities over the holiday period stretched community resources. Understanding the demands on community resources and the impact on the availability of essential goods must take into account seasonal or tourist, in addition to resident, populations. See Chapter 12: Evacuation planning and shelters for further discussion.

9.34 We heard that a domestic stockpile or reserve capacity of essential community resources may be necessary to ensure supply during disasters. [1056] The domestic stockpile of relief supplies could include blankets, sanitary items including soap or nappies, [1057] food, fuel and generators. [1058] This stockpile could operate similarly to the National Medical Stockpile [1059] which was called upon during the bushfires.

9.35 A national stockpile could complement the presence or establishment of localised stockpiles, such as community or regional caches. [1060] These stockpiles could be useful to provide immediate disaster relief and allow time for additional resources to arrive when roads can be opened to heavy vehicles, or when airdrops are possible. Disaster relief can take time as key transport routes may not go near, or are required to detour around, disaster impacted regions. [1061]

9.36 However, the development and management of facilities to hold localised supply caches are likely to be costly. There may also be significant wastage if the caches are not used within defined periods.

9.37 Additionally, personal responsibility should be acknowledged. In northern Australia, where riverine flooding and cyclones may isolate towns and cities for significant periods of time, it is not unusual for residents to have a 14 day stockpile of essential goods such as dry food, clean water, sanitary items, fuel for generators and batteries for radios and torches, which can be used until supply chains are restored. [1062]

9.38 Supply chain risks should be communicated to communities and individuals to enable them to better prepare for natural disasters.

Recommendation 9.1 Supply chains – government review

Australian, state and territory governments, in consultation with local governments and the private sector, should review supply chain risks, and consider options to ensure supply of essential goods in times of natural disasters.

Reliance on international supply chains for essential resources

9.39 Natural disaster events can also strain supply chains for various essential goods [1063] such as Australia’s aerial firefighting retardant supply – a key resource for our emergency services.

9.40 The demand on retardant was heightened in the 2019‑2020 bushfire season because many states and territories were fighting bushfires at the same time. Australia is currently reliant on a single supplier from the United States of America for aerial firefighting retardant, [1064] and generally only procures enough for a standard bushfire season. Emergency Management Australia secured additional aerial firefighting retardant over the summer to ensure that national stocks were maintained. [1065]

9.41 Some suggested that Australia should consider the domestic manufacturing of essential resources, specifically aerial firefighting retardant. [1066] Domestic manufacturing would mitigate risk in the supply chain to ensure that Australia has access to the essential resources when they are needed most. We heard that, due to the compounding disruptions caused by COVID-19, supply chains will ‘take a long time to recover and the impact on global manufacturing remains to be seen’. [1067]

9.42 Governments should ensure that Australia’s procurement plans match, or can accommodate, anticipated requirements. If these cannot be met, consideration should be given to domestic manufacturing.

Transport corridors

Opening transport corridors after natural disasters

9.43 Supply chains are directly affected by the ability to open road and rail corridors in disaster affected regions. Roads may be closed due to debris, or other unsafe conditions, including damaged or destroyed infrastructure, signs, guide posts and guard rails, or the transport corridors being made unsafe.

9.44 For example, the NSW State Government stated that, due to the 2019‑2020 bushfires, 24 local government bridges were damaged and 39 were destroyed, 880kms of state roads were repaired, 2,000 signs and 30kms of guardrail were replaced, and an estimated $77 million was needed to restore rail corridors. [1068]

9.45 Clearing debris and restoring transport corridors is a resource and time intensive task, often requiring large sections of roads to be closed [1069] and specialists, including arborists and engineers, to be engaged. Transport routes are especially important as the majority of goods are moved around Australia by heavy vehicles. [1070] As such, the time taken to restore roads to safe conditions can further disrupt supply chains.

Australia’s national freight (road and rail) routes

Figure 36: Australia’s national freight (road and rail) routes [1071]

9.46 We heard that, in NSW during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, multiple alternative critical supply routes were lost at the same time. [1072] We also heard that some jurisdictions do not have alternate supply routes. The NT told us that it does not have redundant supply chain routes and that to provide alternative road transport routes would be very costly. 70% of the road network is unsealed with restricted access for up to six months of the year during the wet season. [1073] Communities therefore generally ensure that sufficient supplies are available.

9.47 Freight routes can encompass road, rail, air and sea routes. While 85% [1074] of freight in Australia is transported on roads, some communities are entirely reliant on other methods including air and sea routes. States and territories should ensure that each community is served by at least one freight route that is resilient to natural disasters.

Inconsistent information – lack of nationally available data

In order to gain information you essentially set up your own intelligence network. [1075]

9.48 We heard that information on road closures can often be difficult to find, or require users to access and reconcile multiple sources of information. Information provided may not be current, may stop at borders, or may not be comprehensive.

9.49 For example, the NSW Inquiry into the 2019‑2020 Bushfires noted that state managed road closures are made public through the Live Traffic NSW app. The app, however, does not include information on the closure of council-managed roads. [1076]

9.50 With local roads comprising 75% of Australia’s road network, [1077] should an evacuation route move through multiple local government areas or states, assessing accessibility would require review of the app and multiple websites. [1078] Similarly, we heard that, in other states and territories, road closure information was primarily provided on state-controlled roads, although in some instances, information provided by local governments was included during an event. [1079]

9.51 Representatives from transport associations expressed their frustration that official information about road closures did not extend across state and territory borders. [1080] State and territory information tended to stop at state and territory borders. [1081] Further, different symbols or information may be presented differently on either side of the border. [1082]

9.52 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, Transport for NSW and Queensland Transport and Main Roads collaborated to ensure that consistent information was available across borders. [1083] We heard that NSW has upgraded or will shortly upgrade its website and mobiles apps to include cross-border information from Queensland, SA, ACT and Victoria. [1084] We also heard that the Northern Rivers Regional Organisation has developed the MyRoadinfo website which includes road closure information from NSW LiveTraffic, Qld Traffic, and Vic Roads as well as local road information. [1085]

9.53 Difficulties were experienced by some states in ensuring that information was coordinated with third party apps including Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze. For example, information on the third party apps was different to the information provided by states and territories, creating confusion for users. [1086] We heard that manual work-arounds were used and that steps were, or are being, taken in NSW to improve data integration with third party apps in some states and territories. [1087]

Having consistent data is very important but then providing that to various platforms in a consistent way I think is the really critical solution in the future. So it shouldn’t matter whether a user is on that individual State-based app or on a proprietary third party app, that they’ve got the same information. [1088]

9.54 The Victorian IGEM stated that Victorian users found that their traffic app did not initially provide enough information to determine whether they were able to access a road. While the app was later updated, a ‘significant amount of frustration’ with inconsistent messaging was experienced by residents of disaster impacted regions. [1089] However, the Department of Transport was subsequently able to adjust the app provide greater clarity of messaging. [1090]

9.55 We heard that due to the inconsistency of public information, transport associations in WA, southern Australia and the industry peak body initiated contact with governments and emergency management organisations, but felt that there was no ‘real engagement’ on transport difficulties. [1091] The South Australian Road Transport Association submitted that this was in ‘stark contrast’ [1092] to the practice and crisis response procedures of previous emergencies, when it was embedded in the Crisis Coordination Centre.

9.56 We heard some state transport departments did take some steps to engage with and support the freight sector during natural disasters. [1093]

9.57 While some states and territories advised that they already provide freight organisations with information on road closures, Queensland stated that providing information to freight organisations would be an ‘unnecessary burden’ as they already make this information publicly available. [1094]

If a road is closed unexpectedly, there are very few facilities in remote and regional Australia that would allow a road train to turn around or detour. [1095]

9.58 We also heard that road closures had significant impacts on freight and supply chains. During the peak fire events in the northern parts of NSW, the five main transport routes were closed simultaneously, forcing drivers on a 600kms detour, in some cases costing more than the value of the freight contract. [1096]

9.59 Additionally some detours were not appropriate for heavy vehicles due to the width or shape of the roads. [1097] While options for alternative routes during natural disasters may be few, whether the route can support heavy vehicles should be considered before the direction to use a particular route is issued.

9.60 Real-time and national information on road closures can assist freight operators to plan transport routes in-line with industry regulations and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of drivers.

Recommendation 9.2 Comprehensive information

State and territory governments should include road closure and opening information on all roads within their borders on public apps.

Recommendation 9.3 Provision of information

State and territory governments should provide information to the public on the closure and opening of roads. Information should be provided in real-time, or in advance based on predictions, where possible.

Critical infrastructure risks

Awareness of risks to critical infrastructure

9.61 Given the interdependency of critical infrastructure, awareness of natural disaster risks needs to be understood and shared across dependent services. We have seen that different operators have varying degrees of awareness about the risks to which their assets, and those on which they depend, are exposed. We have also seen that different operators assess risks in different ways, which may be at odds with community expectations.

9.62 By way of example, telecommunications providers acknowledge their dependence on electricity for continuity of service. In understanding and undertaking risk assessments, telecommunications providers appear to focus on the impacts to overall volumes of customers (eg per cent of total traffic disrupted) and on core networks, rather than on the impacts or duration of outages to specific communities, individuals or dependent services. [1098] Consumers, however, told us that they expect telecommunications providers to understand and mitigate the specific impacts of service outages, particularly extended outages, on those relying on their services. This indicates that telecommunications providers’ assessment of risks may not be aligned with consumer expectations and that there is scope for telecommunications providers to review, amend and communicate their risk processes accordingly.

In many areas, the lack of electricity also meant no mobile phone coverage, no water, no petrol and no access to credit facilities to pay for basics. Assessing and reconnecting electricity following a bushfire is critical to supporting an ongoing effective response. [1099]

9.63 Energy providers appeared to us to have good awareness of the risks to their networks and the risks electricity outages pose for others, including on dependent services, communities and individuals. Factors considered by energy providers in assessing risk include not only the number of customers affected, but also particular characteristics of customers impacted (eg those relying on life support), the duration of outages (even for small volumes of customers [1100]), the isolation of the area, weather and vegetation near infrastructure assets. [1101] Risk assessment processes by energy providers also appear reasonably sophisticated, with many energy providers adopting light detection and ranging technologies (LiDAR) to map and manage vegetation around infrastructure assets, for example. They acknowledged, however, that awareness of outages to specific sections of electricity grids (eg specific households) could be improved, such as by allowing energy providers to access data through smart meters. [1102] They also identified that their awareness of who owns dependent infrastructure assets could be improved. [1103]

9.64 The Australian Government maintains a register of critical infrastructure assets for national security purposes. The Australian Government, however, does not maintain a register of assets requiring priority protection from natural disasters, [1104] nor does it currently undertake risk assessments of critical infrastructure in relation to natural disasters. [1105]

9.65 The Australian Energy Market Operator has a national coordinating function as it relates to the National Electricity Market (NEM). [1106] It conducts an annual ‘summer readiness program’ for the NEM, involving: [1107]

  • working to minimise planned outages and mitigate unplanned outage or fuel supply risks
  • continuing operational improvement to better forecast and manage increased uncertainty related to supply, demand and reserve levels
  • contingency planning with governments, generators, Transmission Network Service Providers and others to identify relevant summer risk scenarios, briefings and emergency exercises to test contingency plans, communication processes, and decision-making at all levels, and
  • collaboration and communications across government and industry, and identifying opportunities to improve communication with businesses and households around supply risks.

9.66 State and territory governments appear to have a broad awareness of the critical infrastructure important to the state or territory (such as Victoria maintaining its own register of critical infrastructure assets), [1108] but this information is not necessarily used or analysed for emergency planning purposes. We heard from local governments, for instance, that critical infrastructure assets were not necessarily identified in emergency plans, [1109] were detailed at a very high-level, [1110] or where they were identified, the importance of the asset was unknown. [1111] As one local government described:

We weren’t fully aware of the importance of [a] telecommunications facility. It became quite evident when … somebody found out that it was actually a strategic location for the Defence Department, and [that] changed the ball game for us. It changed the way we responded to that event because, although we knew it was critical infrastructure, it was very, very critical infrastructure. [1112]

All mobile sites need to be mapped and locations provided to the authorities so that asset protection efforts can be concentrated in the right areas. During a bushfire, the authorities concentrate on protecting people’s homes and buildings. If the mobile sites were considered amongst these ‘important assets’, efforts could be coordinated to provide protection – for example, fire retardant could be dropped around these areas in advance of the fire. [1113]

9.67 Awareness of critical infrastructure assets and their importance is vital to informing preparedness and response efforts. The lack of this information means state and territory governments may not be able to make informed decisions on which assets require priority protection or restoration during a natural disaster. Further, information sharing between all levels of government on critical infrastructure assets may not always occur. [1114]

9.68 The Australian Government should facilitate the identification and assessment of risks in advance of a natural disaster, given its existing role in identifying sensitive infrastructure assets and in mapping infrastructure interdependencies and vulnerabilities through the Critical Infrastructure Program for Modelling and Analysis. [1115] This could involve the Australian Government leading a process, with contributions from state and territory governments and critical infrastructure operators, to determine key risks to critical infrastructure from severe or catastrophic natural disasters. This information could then be shared with governments and critical infrastructure operators to enable effective planning for and mitigation of risks, and inform response priorities.

How critical infrastructure risks are mitigated

9.69 The actions undertaken by critical infrastructure operators to mitigate risks can depend on a variety of factors. These include risk appetite and commercial considerations, such as volumes of customers affected, the level of market competition and the cost of the mitigation relative to the anticipated benefit. The cost of mitigating risks can also have implications for customers, such as by increasing the cost of services.

9.70 We heard that before, during and after the 2019‑2020 bushfires, critical infrastructure operators undertook a range of actions to mitigate risks including:

  • deploying technologies and equipment to restore telecommunications outages for an affected community, such as Cells on Wheels (COWs), Mobile Exchanges on Wheels (MEOWs), and NBN Road Muster Trucks [1116]
  • deploying equipment to maintain an electricity supply during outages, such as diesel generators or battery backups to provide power to a remote community and critical infrastructure assets during an outage [1117]
  • clearing vegetation [1118] and dropping fire retardant [1119] around infrastructure assets, and
  • replacing timber power poles with concrete poles as they are less‑flammable. [1120]

9.71 Throughout the course of our inquiry, we also explored a range of additional actions that could be taken to mitigate natural disaster risks to critical infrastructure assets, including:

  • strategic hazard modelling to inform infrastructure locations to minimise exposure to hazards, and to establish the optimal time to replace or relocate infrastructure in hazard prone areas [1121]
  • placing infrastructure (eg powerlines and telecommunications cables) underground to reduce exposure to natural disasters [1122]
  • conversion of core telecommunications networks into distributed cloud networks [1123]
  • stand-alone power systems, and
  • extending the duration of battery backups for telecommunications infrastructure. [1124]

9.72 On shifting infrastructure assets underground, it was noted that this is not always possible due to the terrain, [1125] is significantly more expensive, and that, in any event, underground infrastructure may still be susceptible to damage from fires or flooding. [1126] Energy providers agreed that stand-alone power systems would increase network resilience and reduce the exposure of energy infrastructure assets, and therefore communities, to power outages, [1127] but the Australian Energy Market Commission assessed that uptake of these solutions would likely be relatively small. [1128]

9.73 Telecommunications providers told us that extended battery backup is costly and would not necessarily prevent outages where the disaster lasts for weeks (such as the 2019‑2020 bushfires). [1129] Nevertheless, greater resilience in backup power for disaster-prone areas merits greater consideration. There may also be opportunities in permanently deployed solar powered/hybrid generators and enhanced satellite services to increase community resilience. [1130]

9.74 While we acknowledge the actions of critical infrastructure operators to mitigate natural disaster risks, particularly those in the energy sector, the extent of service outages during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season indicates that there are opportunities for improving the resilience of critical infrastructure to natural disasters. The Australian Government’s $37.1 million investment towards enhancing telecommunications resilience in disaster prone areas, announced on 12 May 2020, is a positive step forward in this regard. [1131]

9.75 Critical infrastructure resilience to natural disasters is a shared responsibility. Critical infrastructure operators have a leading role in managing and maintaining their infrastructure assets and networks.

9.76 Critical infrastructure operators need to continue working with stakeholders, such as government and other dependent infrastructure operators, in identifying natural disaster risks and ensuring that others are aware of and able to mitigate these risks.

Recommendation 9.4 Collective awareness and mitigation of risks to critical infrastructure

The Australian Government, working with state and territory governments and critical infrastructure operators, should lead a process to:

  1. identify critical infrastructure
  2. assess key risks to identified critical infrastructure from natural disasters of national scale or consequence
  3. identify steps needed to mitigate these risks
  4. identify steps to make the critical infrastructure more resilient, and
  5. track achievement against an agreed plan.

Critical infrastructure coordination

Improving coordination between critical infrastructure operators

9.77 Due to the potential for cascading failures, critical infrastructure operators need to coordinate to respond to natural disasters. Information sharing, both before and during natural disasters, is essential to understand the impacts on networks, including the length of an outage.

9.78 We heard of challenges faced by some critical infrastructure operators in obtaining relevant information across sectors during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. Telecommunications providers told us that coordination with energy providers was variable. Telecommunications providers reported that they relied on publicly accessible information to ascertain power status, restoration priorities and timeframes in the absence of more formal mechanisms. They also told us that they often did not have prior warning of plans by energy providers to de-energise or re‑energise the electricity grid. [1132]

Telstra must respond reactively to events such as the loss of mains power. Apart from the potential for duplicated or unnecessary effort, such as refuelling generators, or transporting and connecting a generator at a site just as power resumes, it can also put Telstra staff at risk attempting to reach sites or may occupy emergency service organisations unnecessarily in providing escorts into affected areas. [1133]

9.79 Telecommunications providers reported that their inability to readily access this information significantly affected their ability to predict and manage disruptions to their networks, as they could only respond, rather than proactively prepare, for power outages. The lack of warning of power outages meant telecommunications providers were unable to predict the need to deploy resources (eg backup diesel generators and other temporary equipment to restore services) to communities most at risk. [1134] Further, telecommunications providers found it difficult to determine if backup measures in place (eg battery backups) would endure the length of outages, and if other measures were required to increase power redundancy. [1135]

9.80 Energy providers, on the other hand, reported difficulty in identifying which telecommunications providers owned which assets – which prevented them from contacting and warning the appropriate telecommunications provider in advance when de-energising the grid. [1136]

9.81 We heard that the peak bodies of both industry sectors, being the Communications Alliance and Energy Networks Australia, through a working group chaired by NBN Co, are currently developing guidelines aimed at improving information sharing and coordination arrangements during disasters, and we encourage them, and their members, in this effort. [1137]

I didn’t feel that the coordination through TISN was really adding a lot of value, certainly for something of this scale. [1138]

9.82 Governments have led a range of mechanisms to facilitate information sharing between critical infrastructure operators. One such mechanism is the Trusted Information Sharing Network (TISN), managed by the Department of Home Affairs. The aim of the TISN is to facilitate engagement between various sectors on improving critical infrastructure resilience in an all-hazards context. We heard that the TISN has supported information sharing on natural disaster preparedness, [1139] but has been less helpful in facilitating information sharing during incidents [1140] and that participation in the TISN is voluntary.

9.83 The need for improvement to the TISN is acknowledged by the Department of Home Affairs, with it stating ‘the experience of the 2019‑2020 bushfire season and COVID‑19 has demonstrated that we need to do more to build close partnerships with industry and to connect them with the information and capabilities of the Australian Government’. [1141] We note that the Department of Home Affairs is currently updating the TISN, [1142] and as part of this process we encourage it to consider how the TISN could better facilitate operational coordination between critical infrastructure operators during large-scale natural disasters.

In my experience with Endeavour Energy, we didn’t have the representation from the [telecommunications providers] in the local emergency operations centres, and that made it very difficult, particularly in those early days. [1143]

9.84 Emergency operations centres at the local, regional and state levels can also facilitate information sharing between critical infrastructure operators during a natural disaster response. Energy providers told us that emergency operations centres play a vital role in facilitating information flows not only with government during an emergency response, but also with other critical infrastructure operators. [1144] During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season however, key critical infrastructure operators (particularly telecommunications providers) were not included in some emergency operations centres. [1145] This lack of representation prevented or limited opportunities for critical infrastructure to share information between each other, and with emergency managers.

9.85 There are opportunities to improve existing mechanisms for facilitating information sharing between critical infrastructure operators. While existing information sharing mechanisms used by critical infrastructure operators are valuable in a specific context or role, these mechanisms appear to have limitations and are not adequately facilitating the prevention of outages or rapid restoration of services during and in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is vital that mechanisms are in place to facilitate seamless coordination between critical infrastructure operators before, during and after a natural disaster. This could include, for instance, better ensuring relevant representatives from relevant sectors are co-located in emergency operations centres.

Improving coordination between government and critical infrastructure operators

9.86 We heard positive accounts of mechanisms for information sharing between government and critical infrastructure operators during emergencies – such as a model employed by the NSW Telecommunications Authority. Those mechanisms appear however, to be one way, with service providers providing information but receiving limited information in return. There is scope for improvement in this regard.

Effectiveness of existing mechanisms during the 2019‑2020 bushfires

9.87 Emergency operations centres facilitate the flow of information between government and critical infrastructure operators during the response to a natural disaster. We heard that some, but not all, telecommunications providers were invited to these centres. The lack of representation at these centres reportedly presented a number of difficulties for telecommunications providers – such as limiting access to up-to-date information, limiting their ability to obtain permits to access infrastructure in fire-affected areas, and limiting their ability to share the location of infrastructure assets which required priority protection. [1146]

9.88 More generally, telecommunications providers (including those represented in emergency operations centres) commented on the limited information sharing with government agencies. This includes receiving limited information on:

  • the establishment of evacuation and recovery centres to inform service restoration priorities [1147]
  • when roads were open or closed, which was critical to deploying personnel to assess and repair damage to affected assets [1148]
  • fire spread predictions, to enable forward planning
  • assistance available from the Australian Defence Force, and
  • current points of contact within emergency services (and within other critical infrastructure operators). [1149]

The NSW Telecommunications Authority

9.89 The telecommunications sector commended the NSW Telecommunications Authority and the model it employed in facilitating government-to-service provider interactions. During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the NSW Telecommunications Authority acted as the conduit of information between the telecommunications sector and the NSW Government’s response. This enabled key information, such as infrastructure locations and dependencies, evacuation centre locations, and fire prediction maps to be shared effectively. [1150]

9.90 The NSW Telecommunications Authority’s model for facilitating coordination was also valued by operators such as Vodafone, which reported it did not have a presence in emergency management centres. [1151] Although NSW and Victoria are the only jurisdictions with telecommunications authorities (with the Victorian authority having a different role from the NSW Telecommunications Authority during natural disasters), telecommunication providers suggested that the sector would benefit from the NSW’ model being expanded to other states and territories. [1152]

Interactions with the Australian Government

9.91 Telecommunications service outages are reported by telecommunications providers to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications using the Voluntary Major Service Disruption Protocol. Reported outages are then passed directly to the Crisis Coordination Centre, within Emergency Management Australia, in support of its function of promoting situational awareness across the Australia, state and territory governments and to reduce duplication. [1153]

9.92 Despite this, we heard that, during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, information on service outages shared by telecommunications providers with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications via the Voluntary Major Service Disruption Protocol was not always passed to the Crisis Coordination Centre. This resulted in the Crisis Coordination Centre providing incomplete reports to other government agencies on the status of the telecommunications sector. [1154] One telecommunications provider described information sharing arrangements with the Crisis Coordination Centre as ‘one-way’. Vodafone told us that:

As a national organisation Vodafone is required to discuss operational arrangements with each State/Territory jurisdiction separately, in effect the Crisis Coordination Centre is no more than a Commonwealth information sorting centre as there is very little coordination activity done between industry sectors providing information or seeking assistance and State/Territory jurisdictions. [1155]

9.93 The Crisis Coordination Centre informs Australian, state and territory government agencies and should receive and share essential service outage information.

9.94 Two-way information flows between government and critical infrastructure operators benefit both parties. This includes enabling a greater awareness of road accessibility, fire prediction forecasts, the types of assistance available and the location and importance of critical infrastructure. The 2019‑2020 bushfires highlighted some of the limitations of existing mechanisms that should support information sharing between government and critical infrastructure operators.

9.95 Information flows should be streamlined and enable relevant stakeholders to rapidly identify and engage with one another during natural disasters. Any improvements to information flows should avoid duplication with existing emergency management arrangements, where possible. This could, for example, involve a single point of coordination across jurisdictions to streamline the provision of information.

Recommendation 9.5 Improving coordination arrangements between critical infrastructure sectors and with government

The Australian Government should work with state and territory governments and critical infrastructure operators to improve information flows during and in response to natural disasters:

  1. between critical infrastructure operators, and
  2. between critical infrastructure operators and government.

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