On 22 November 2012 Telstra’s exchange in Warrnambool, on Victoria’s coast west of Melbourne, caught fire. The subsequent blaze gutted the exchange, which was out of action for weeks. The damage, estimated at $20 million, has still not all been repaired.
The outage affected more than 100,000 people in the Warrnambool district, with connections lost to 61,856 landlines, 16,149 ADSL services and 65 mobile base stations. Law firm Maddens has said it will launch a class action against Telstra over the fire.
The report found that many local businesses reported reduced business activity, lost customers and missed opportunities, resulting in damaged reputations and reduced cash flow. The inquiry found that one of the most important general impacts related to the role telecommunications services play in assisting with facilitating financial transactions
“In our modern society, we increasingly rely on telecommunications services to enable electronic financial transactions using online banking and account processing, or EFTPOS transactions in store. With the loss of telecommunication services, online services and EFTPOS were not available, leading to a reliance on local bank branches and cash to facilitate business at the local level,” says the report.
Specific impacts were reported in the retail, agricultural, tourism, utility and service sectors. The retail sector was impacted by the reduced business activity during the Christmas trade period. The agricultural sector was impacted by the loss of timely access to information about commodity futures markets and access to their brokers.
The tourism industry was impacted by loss of access to booking systems and the limited ability to confirm existing bookings or to take new ones. Utility providers lost efficiencies derived from the ability to utilise telecommunications services to monitor essential distributed network components or control them remotely.
“The inquiry also found that the outage had a significant operational impact on community service providers (e.g. the health sector, welfare organisations, council services, ambulance, police and fire), particularly impacting on their capacity to manage or coordinate staff and volunteers, and to perform otherwise routine activities.”
Health care providers noted the loss of telecommunication services limited their ability to conduct remote pathology and diagnosis, and to share patient records. Community care providers noted difficulties managing vulnerable persons within the community, largely due to uncertainty regarding the appropriate uses of personal information during the incident. Councils noted impacts on child care services, community and recreation facilities, approval processes, scheduling for planning and permits, and various community events. Police, fire and ambulance services were able to communicate using the state trunk radio system, but reported experiencing difficulties communicating with people at home, volunteers or the general public.
The inquiry found the impacts on individuals varied depending on social situation, personal health, employment and age. In general, the impacts on this group can be understood as economic and social. The key economic impact on individuals stemmed from the difficulty conducting financial transactions and the downturn in business activity.
This resulted in some casual staff temporarily experiencing reduced working hours, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors. The key social impact was the increased levels of anxiety and sense of isolation for some members of the affected communities. This was most prevalent among elderly people living alone and people with health concerns.
"The Warrnambool exchange fire highlights the critical role telecommunications plays in the day-to-day lives of Australians and the significant economic and social implications when access to them is disrupted," Senator Conroy said.
The report makes 22 recommendations, including:
- The government work with industry to develop best practice guidelines for owners of critical telecommunications infrastructure that includes the provision of early and accurate information, and publishing public notices outside affected areas.
- DBCDE continue to work with Telstra as it implements the recommendations of its inquiry into the causes of the fire, which includes improving its fire detection and response systems.
- Community service providers and businesses ensure that their business continuity plans take into account the total loss of telecommunications services.
- Vulnerable people who are concerned about accessing Triple Zero during fixed-line telephone outages consider keeping a charged mobile phone, as mobile phones can make emergency calls without SIM cards or active mobile accounts.
The Warrnambool Inquiry received 28 submissions and included public and business forums, as well as consultation with community services providers. The report also takes into account the findings from Telstra's own report into the incident.
The inquiry's report can be found at: www.dbcde.gov.au/warrnambool_inquiry