Five things I’ve learnt about Local Government Disaster Response

by Sam Kennedy

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As the climate continues to warm, the frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, flooding and devastating fires such as those currently being experienced in New South Wales; has increased on a national scale. The impact of these weather events can be catastrophic, and it’s an unfortunate reality that we, as a national community, must continue to improve our preparedness for such incidents.

As part of my role with Pivotel, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to discuss natural disaster response strategies at a number of industry and government conferences; highlighting the importance of satellite and remote technology solutions. Throughout the course of these conferences, I’ve gained insight into the implications of natural disasters and how our local governments respond to them.

Here are five things I’ve learnt about natural disasters and how Australia’s local governments respond to them.

1. Local government plays a CRITICAL role in responding to disasters

When it comes to emergencies, federal and state government intervention is quite visible through state emergency and rescue services, including SES, fire, police and paramedic services. When natural disaster strikes, it’s the local government who coordinates these services—operating from the frontline to protect the community.

The Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire is a region vulnerable to the wrath of Mother Nature, from cyclones and bushfires, to flooding and landslides. Earlier this year, I attended the Australian Local Government Association’s National General Assembly (NGA), where the CEO of the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council, Eileen Deemal-Hall, spoke.

During Eileen’s presentation, she discussed the emergency management network put in place by the local council to protect the community during disasters. This network allows phones and computers to receive emergency alerts when communication links are down. Eileen’s story reminded me of how crucial it is to remain sensitive to the needs of individual communities, and demonstrated the importance of satellite as a non-invasive, potentially life-saving technology.

2. Disasters have an increasingly personal and economic impact on communities

An Australia business roundtable found that more than nine million Australians have been impacted by natural disasters in the past 30 years. The economic impact of these disasters is expected to more than double to $39 billion p.a. by 2050.

While the financial impact of natural disasters is often highlighted, the personal toll they take on people is frequently overlooked. With the power to tear lives apart, it should come as no surprise that communities across Australia rely on local government to keep them connected in times of crisis. Recent conversations have demonstrated to me that citizens are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to do so when natural disasters occur.

This is not to say that institutional negligence is to blame; of those most impacted by natural disasters, many have representatives sitting in councils across Australia; it highlights an increased demand for access to emergency communication solutions. It’s satellite infrastructure that preserves critical communications when cellular coverage isn’t available, and it’s this technology that at-risk communities rely on.

3. Connectivity is an issue all governments are grappling with

Connectivity during cellular outages is a growing concern for regional councils across Australia. It’s also become a key talking point in the media of late, with government representatives alarmed by the lack of communication service continuity provided by the National Broadband Network during power outages.

69% of Australia remains unserviced by mobile networks, and hundreds of councils are seeking contingent solutions that enable the basic mobile coverage that many metro communities take for granted.

4. Safety is a big concern for council workers

During the Australian Local Government Association’s National General Assembly earlier this year, I had an eye-opening discussion with a representative from the Streaky Bay Council. A number of years prior, she’d set out on a motorbike trip and had an accident, leaving her injured, alone and without mobile coverage. She revealed it was a Pivotel SPOT device that allowed her to contact emergency services—saving her life. This was a humbling example of the impact satellite solutions can have, and how important Pivotel’s role is.

Council employees often work in off-grid locations, and they’re constantly searching for new ways to improve their safety when servicing the community. Accessible satellite solutions—that could be used day-to-day by Councils, or during natural disasters—already exist, but there’s a lack of awareness about the existence of this technology within regional councils.

5. Negative situations can produce positive outcomes

While natural disasters have an unrivalled capacity for destruction, this is often juxtaposed by a powerful display of human spirit. It never ceases to amaze me how times of despair and hardship bring people together, and how, in these times, people give one another strength and support, and help their neighbour any way they can.

I recently heard a story from a council employee in Darwin, who met his future wife on the night of Cyclone Tracy in 1974. After coming together in their time of need, they didn’t see one another for the three months following. One impromptu phone call later, and they’ve been happily married for over forty years—light can truly be found in the darkest of places.

Going about my day-to-day, it’s all too easy to forget the impact that Pivotel’s products have on people across this incredible and vast country. For me, listening to their stories first-hand helps put the work we do into perspective. It also enhances my understanding of the ongoing challenges our rural communities face.

I remain inspired to continue working towards a more connected future, and strengthening our support for our local governments and councils. I’m pleased to confirm that we’ll be getting our feet on the ground and visiting many of these remote communities in the near future—gaining insight into how we can forge better connections, everywhere.

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