• Tony Bosworth

“Community in disbelief” after Bilpin comms tower misses out on simple upgrade in $13.2m funding

During those three weeks over 2019-20 as bushfires tore through the Bilpin area, communications between as many as 300 RFS volunteers, emergency calls - and even SMS warning alerts to residents in the line of approaching fire - often could not be received or made as power cuts knocked out the Bilpin Telstra tower, putting hundreds of lives at risk.

Bilpin was a pivotal RFS staging area during the emergency with upwards of 300 fire fighters and 40 trucks regularly on the fire ground.

But communications failures were common as the Bilpin Telstra tower often lost power because of the fires, with no back-up available.

Storms too – of which we are having plenty at the moment – can also cause power failures to the tower which handles communications for the entire Bilpin area and beyond.

Despite all this, the Bilpin tower is not listed among the 467 tower battery back-up upgrades listed in the $13.2m of government funding just handed to Telstra, Optus and TPG Telecom communications companies.

That funding will provide a minimum 12 hours battery power for those sites chosen – but not Bilpin.

In a statement announcing the funding, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the back-up power move would make a “real difference for communities during and after a natural disaster”.

Local action group BRAG (Bilpin Region Advancement Group) who pride themselves on “working constructively” with all levels of government, are now so frustrated they have sent a strongly worded letter this morning to Communications Minister Paul Fletcher asking for help, saying leaving the Bilpin tower off the Federal upgrades list is “unconscionable”.

BRAG President and Bilpin resident Penny McKinlay says in the letter that a $10,000 generator – it could automatically kick in if mainline power goes off – would be the answer.

“The Bilpin community is in disbelief that we are not on the list for an upgrade considering Gospers Mountain was the largest bushfire ever recorded,” Ms McKinlay says in the letter.

“A very simple and achievable solution is a back-up generator and an upgraded battery back-up to be installed at the tower,” says Ms McKinlay.

“There is a complete lack of bushfire resilience at this tower and it has been an ongoing issue for over 15 years.

Storms routinely wreak havoc on communications across the Hawkesbury

“It continues to be the number one threat to Bilpin in times of emergency and remains a huge concern to first responders and residents alike. The inability to contact 000 during an emergency is directly life threatening to over 400 households and in times of bushfire up to 300 firefighters, plus support crews,” Ms McKinlay said.

BRAG have been talking to Telstra – who own the tower – and Hawkesbury Council to get their help too - but the Federal Government’s recently unveiled upgrade program does not feature the Bilpin tower and Telstra has no plans of its own to provide a back-up generator.

“We would like a response from you, Minister, as to how and why Telstra can be excused for failing to install a generator at Bilpin (using federal, state or its own funds) and why is Bilpin’s tower not on the federal program for an upgrade considering the comms tower was at the centre of the Gospers Mountain fire, was pivotal to the local RFS emergency response to preserve life and a vital part of the community updates.”

Ms McKinlay said the bushfire crossed Bells Line of Road many times over a three week period during the fire emergency and communications and power were lost on many occasions.

“Our local hall is used as a staging area for the RFS, over 300 meals are served per day and up to 40 trucks are staged there per day,” Ms McKinlay says in the letter.

“Bilpin was the community at the centre of fires approaching from the Wollemi National Park and then the Blue Mountains National Park with only one through road which was regularly closed/cut off or completely blocked by fire.

When power goes off during fire or storms, Bilpin has no communications

“Loss of power/signal at our tower meant that residents were unable to receive SMS evacuation orders, follow the Fires Near Me app and sometimes not be able to dial 000 – all this in a town less than one hour 20 minutes from Sydney.

“This directly affects the firefighting capabilities of our local brigade as personal mobiles are relied upon heavily when landlines are down, for logistics, crew rostering and communications.”

“We believe our expectations are reasonable and will prevent further risk to life and property to the Bilpin area. It is unconscionable that the Bilpin tower misses out on the upgrades,” Ms McKinlay said.

The Post has asked Minister Fletcher for a comment but he is on leave until Monday so we asked Deputy Prime Minister McCormack for his response and we’ll be putting that up here as soon as we hear back from him.

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