ABC Australia: Amateur Radio Skills Prove Useful During Bushfire Emergencies

From ABC Australia, this article details how amateur radio operators have provided communications in areas where the local communication infrastructure has been damaged by fires.

Amateur radio enthusiasts have proved themselves useful during the recent bushfires after traditional telecommunication channels broke down.

Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, is a skill and international hobby whereby enthusiasts use specific radio frequencies to communicate with each other.

In Australia, users must complete an exam to obtain a license through the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

It was volunteers with these skills who were called in to assist during the recent New South Wales bushfires.

Neil Fallshaw is vice-president of WICEN NSW Communications, a group of volunteers with amateur radio licenses who can help in emergency situations.

He said about 30 members provided a temporary radio system in the Bega, Cobargo, Narooma, and Bermagui areas after some of the local radio infrastructure was damaged or had lost power.

A man sits at a desk operating a radio
Photo: Neil Fallshaw says radio operators were able to step in when mobile phones went down. (Supplied: Neil Fallshaw)

“We deployed one of our radio repeaters on the mountains. We put a radio repeater system on that mountain to cover a portion of the south coast,” Mr Fallshaw said.

He said that radio system assisted the NSW Volunteer Rescue Association and Bega Valley Shire Council staff to communicate from bushfire-affected towns like Bermagui and Cobargo.

“They normally use just mobile phones, but the mobile phones in the area were down because of fire damage,” Mr Fallshaw said.

Members of WICEN NSW also provided support operating regular radios at fire control centres in towns like Glen Innes, Port Macquarie, and Kempsey.

“They needed people who would be able to operate the radios in a communications environment which can get pretty hectic,” Mr Fallshaw said…

Tony Falla, an amateur radio user in central Victoria, said ham radio skills could be particularly useful when there were significant power outages.

For example, like that on the NSW south coast on New Year’s Eve when mobile coverage, the national broadband network, and the local ABC radio transmitter all dropped out.

“What I think amateur radio people have going for them is their ability to contact people outside the threatened area when there’s no contact inside the threatened area and pass on messages of a health and welfare nature,” Mr Falla said…

Mr Falla believes amateur radio skills could become more useful with the increased likelihood of extreme weather events leading to power outages.

“Amateur radio is considered old fashioned; why would you want a radio when you’ve got the internet?” he said.

“We have proved this year that the situations in place right now aren’t adequate in the extreme.”

Three people on the phone in a call centre.
Photo: WICEN operators also help with answering calls at the RFS headquarters in Sydney. (Supplied: Neil Fallshaw)

Mr Morley said there were some within emergency services in Victoria who were unaware of the skills amateur radio enthusiasts could provide.

“You have a lot of different staff coming in during emergencies, and while some people know what WICEN can do, probably many don’t,” he said.

Mr Gibson said the small size of WICEN NSW limited their ability to assist, but the work they had been doing was excellent.

“Since November 9, the WICEN group has completed 2,900 hours of radio communications, and that was only done by 30 members,” Mr Gibson said.

“WICEN, as a communications network, you won’t get any better.”