Tomorrow, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin will face the Black Saturday Royal Commission -- but is the Commission ready to ask him the tough questions? asks Tess Lawrence.
Last week's resignation of CFA chief Russell Rees is yet another scalp claimed in the reputation-shredding climate that saw former Police Commissioner Christine Nixon well and truly forked over her revelations that she had more on her plate than what was on her mind.
But is the Royal Commission really properly investigating the appropriate issues?
Tomorrow, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin will step up to the plate.
In February 2, 2009, I sent an email
to Emergency Services Commissioner Esplin, dated February 2 -- four days before Black Saturday -- warning him of communications breakdown.
Some years ago, I acted as a whistleblower in the 1999 Intergraph scandal
under the Kennett regime.
My company had been engaged by Intergraph Public Safety Pty Ltd to handle its crisis management. We did not rely on the work of predecessors and conducted our own forensic (communications) investigations only to come to the horrible conclusion that corrupt activities had taken place.
A nightmare period ensued, but the incoming Bracks government appointed a Royal Commission, for which I was the first "in camera" witness. It also was to emasculate the Commission by removing those clauses relating to corrupt activities. Later, it was revealed that the head of the RC, Lex Lasry QC, wrote to the then Premier to voice his concern at this.
That background is relevant in terms of my history in crisis management (communications) and for what it taught me about the systemic potential for utter communications systems failure -- no cohesive effort -- no shadowing or mirroring -- and in the years since, little has changed, I can assure you. The RC needs to revisit all of this aspect. No question.
In 2008, I had two scheduled meetings with Esplin -- to discuss possible breakdowns in communication in the event of a crisis such as massive bushfires -- and both were cancelled. They were never rescheduled.
I was compelled to contact Esplin after being approached by concerned personnel within emergency services, distressed at the parlous state of communication systems.
I then followed up with this email from 2nd February 2009:
From: TESS LAWRENCE <[email protected]>
Date: 2 February 2009 8:07:00 PM
To: [email protected]
Subject: Current Crisis: Meeting and Report
Please forward to:
Mr Bruce Esplin
Emergency Services Commissioner
The New Year hasn't got off to a good start but undaunted, I wish you, indeed all of us, a better and peaceful 2009. It's not too late!
Recent and continuing events encourage me to write to you.
You may recall the several meetings with you last year that were ultimately cancelled -- you had a hospital appointment on one occasion and on the last occasion, I think you had to change the schedule to a date that meant [name withheld] wouldn't have been able to attend. The fates seemed determined to thwart us, however ...
One of the matters I'd hoped to speak with you about was the critical issue of communications and crisis management, a field I'd researched in the Middle East quite soon after the first Gulf War ended. I also wanted to speak with you about some preliminary grassroot findings in favour of an investigative report I wanted to conduct in Victoria.
The preliminary findings indicated a communications meltdown in certain scenarios. Our predictions have just manifested and exposed the endemic flaws we warned of, in those early assessments.
I am keen to discuss with you a commission to work on the report. You would know from your own investigative reports in the past that it is important to get in there whilst the embers are still hot -- and I mean that both metaphorically and in fact.
I'll call your office tomorrow, in the hope we can organise a meeting as soon as possible.
Tess Lawrence Media Services Pty Ltd -- specialists in crisis management and strategy and forensic investigations (communications)
I never heard back. I also sent a copy of the email to the Prime Minister's Department, twice. Again, I did not hear back.
I was just gutted at the subsequent deaths, injury, destruction and the entire communications debacle, and my (prior) discussions with Esplin's department was also on the basis of a critical incident basis -- man-made or no, for example, an air crash, terrorist/bomb attack and certainly, certainly bushfires.
In the months following the fires, I was approached in confidence and asked if I would be prepared to give evidence to the Royal Commission.
Of course I said I would be prepared to do that. I was told to expect to be called. I now believe I was basically conned into not providing a submission. I was never approached to give evidence.
In the days following the fires, I sent the following emails to Anthony Byrne, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, also the Chief of the Co-Ordination of Counter Terrorism, Science and Technology Unit.
At the time I was also dealing with Byrne and the Prime Minister's Department in relation to another matter:
From: TESS LAWRENCE
Date: 11 February 2009 8:01:52 PM
To: Anthony Byrne
Subject: URGENT:URGENT: CONCERNS RE STRATEGY AND STRATEGIC CRISIS REPONSE [sic] AND NEGLECT OF THOSE WITH DISABILITIES
I've already expressed to you my concerns about aspects of communications and strategies in terms of emergency services and logistics and tactical response in Victoria - but many of these aspects would be endemic in other States and Territories.
I should also inform you that I had voiced some of these concerns to the Emergency Services Commissioner last year, and twice, through circumstance, two scheduled meetings with him did not take place. Ironically, I wrote to the ESC only a few weeks ago, again expressing my concerns and seeking a meeting.
Sources within his Department -- and sources within other pertinent Departments have voiced their concerns to me in confidential interviews about the capabilities and various strategies of their various Departments, including communications strategies. This in no way reflects upon the wonderful calibre of people who work in these areas. They are good people stymied by circumstance and bureaucracy. And that is the truth.
More recently, I have warned people in authority about the inadequacies still inherent in the OOO Emergency despatch system -- try it yourself one day.
The system became overloaded during these bushfires -- we have been interviewing people affected by the fires -- who had to wait for ages, or just gave up.
This system has to cope with the Nation. Not just a State.
My experience and investigation into Intergraph/OOO and its operations, and earlier experiences on the ground in the Middle East soon after the first Gulf War honed my research and analysis for forensic communications & crisis management issues.
More recently, I have embarked on research, factoring innovative, contemporary and inter-active technologies, including GPS. We have the talent in this country to do this and the opportunity of paying tribute to the people who died in the fires, by producing innovative, ground-breaking technologies that can, in the future, help to save lives -- not only in Australia, but everywhere, in all manner of crises.
We have the opportunity here, not to simply follow -- but to lead.
It is our hope to commission technologies designed to fit our outcomes -- not the usual way -- have the equipment, then adapt the strategy.
Several years ago, on my then radio show, Talk the Talk with Tess Lawrence, on Vision Australia, I interviewed one of the Fire Chiefs and discussed the horrendous plight of the deaf, vision impaired and disabled in the event of a critical incident and bushfires, etc. There needs to be a dedicated program deployed for this section of our community. All Plans need to be inclusive and not exclusive. I will not measure the horror of not being able to see, hear, or understand the molten wall of fire that is approaching, let alone be pinned in a wheelchair to await your horrifying death. This is a death sentence that we - the rest of the community - impose upon our brothers and sisters.
Similar considerations should be paid to the elderly -- and people who live alone. Nor should these considerations be confined to bushfires of course, but should be inherent in our communications systems. Moreover, there has to be a uniform compliance of these new technologies, regardless of the carrier.
It's all certainly all do-able. Someone just has to say ' do it ' and ' get cracking. '
As for people for whom English is not the first language -- it's very difficult for them in an emergency. And kind of emergency.
I have long been concerned about the implications and false security inherent in current stay and defend campaigns. There are better crises response models that we should discuss and consider.
I ask for your direction as to whom we should approach -- whether Christine Nixon's new Unit -- or an existing organisation. I think it is important to work independently but still be part of a group and to report to that group -- whether it is a State group or a National Group, I know we will all be working together.
From: TESS LAWRENCE
Date: 12 February 2009 8:31:54 AM
To: Anthony Byrne
Subject: Remedial and Rehabilitation
Dear Anthony -- didn't finish last night's email to you -- worked nightshift re fires.
You would have heard this morning's ABC AM program re Telstra and emergency phone alerts -- there is more that could be done with that technology -- but that's part of what we put to authorities several years ago -- and more recently.
* Remedial and Rehabilitative Communications/Strategies. In many ways, this aspect is the more tenuous of all programs deployed after major disaster/trauma.
They have to be done NOW whilst the community (I include here everyone) is still enduring the immediate crises. There will be various waves of response from victims and authorities, including frustration, anger, relationship breakdowns, etc. Organisations and institutions now pledging support -- often break away once the immediate profile of the incident starts to slip off the media radar. People will feel alienated, forgotten, discarded, yesterday's news. Depression, psychological disorders will abound. As will the guilt of the survivor. Blame and counter-blame will ensue.
It is critical that remedial programs be started now -- but not with an aim to ingratiate State and Federal Governments -- but with a common aim to help us all move forward as a Team -- as a people -- as a nation family.
It is essential that everyone is pinned down and understands this is a long, long, long term issue -- and that all the support systems now being put in place will be there for that long haul.
I want to help and to be part of that long haul.
I remain increasingly concerned at the direction the current inquiry is taking. It is inadvertently becoming a forum for payback and not-so hidden-agendas.