Just as the complex failures of a delayed national emergency warning system hit the headlines about Black Saturday, a startlingly simple suggestion, the Apocalypse Now proposal, has been made by an aviation authority.

Colin Weir, the managing director of the auditing service Flight Safety, says emergency services helicopters should be fitted with loudspeakers easily heard on the ground.

The system, made infamous in the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now, was also used to demoralise the enemy in various Asian theatres of war.

Loudspeaker-equipped choppers are used by some US police, coast guard and emergency services, including during forest fires. They have even been resorted to on an ad hoc basis by Australian shark patrols and, on at least one occasion, the crew of a Sydney television news helicopter, to warn swimmers of danger.

Weir is convinced that lives could have been saved, even at the last moment, in places hit by last Saturday’s fire storms, if simple guidance had been broadcast over areas where people had no information on the direction, speed and location of the fire fronts.

We live in Hidden Valley NE of Wallan and on Saturday 7 February when the fires started, we were in the direct fire-line for the first two hours. Temperatures reached 49C with winds of 100km/hour — Hidden Valley was given a 60 minute’s warning to evacuate or defend. We decided to monitor the progress of the fire from a vantage point on a hill lookout area on the Eastern side of Hidden Valley. The wind direction changed at 1700 and this turned the fire away from us. Subsequent to this, we have followed the resulting progress of the fire very closely, as my two young daughters are at school in Whittlesea and we have friends in the area.

As I am very closely aligned with helicopter operations and aviation safety management, I started examining the helicopter and ground operations in great detail. What has become apparent is that the powers to be have missed a critical fore-warning opportunity, that without doubt, if implemented, would have saved many lives. The issue is that there is no loudspeaker equipped forward air control helicopter to warn personnel and townships of impending disaster when a fire is bearing down on them, specifically when there is a sudden wind change. The problem is that, invariably, telephone and electricity supply lines are burnt through; in the same instance, police or CFA officers cannot access the township to warn the residents.

When I asked the CFA if they had any loudspeaker equipped aircraft, they confirmed that this is the case but that they are only used to communicate with or warn fire crews!

A night twin engine operation could also be provided with GPS and night vision goggles with external speakers fitted to warn residents.

If this method of warning had been in place for Kinglake and others, many of the residents would have had sufficient time and warning to leave.

It is ludicrous that the media is absorbed by bureaucratic failures concerning Telstra and text and phone warnings when, in this instance, people were running around with no phone or text message access.

In the January 1994 fires in Sydney’s Royal National Park, a loudspeaker-equipped NSW Water Police launch almost certainly saved lives near Gray’s Point, as picnicers who had anchored their boats beside a series of small sandy beaches in Port Hacking were unaware of a fast moving fire front obscured by a high ridge line.

The warning, “leave now a major bushfire is minutes away”, cleared the beaches about 20 minutes before the entire hillside above them was burned to the tide line, mangroves included.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey