Elderly, sick isolated by Warrnambool Telstra meltdown, inquiry hears

VULNERABLE members of the community felt scared and isolated without access to their loved ones or carers, an inquiry into November’s Telstra outage heard last night. 

About 20 people gathered at the Lighthouse Theatre for the second federal hearing into the crippling outage sparked by the Telstra exchange fire, with members from health and welfare services detailing how they struggled to support sick and elderly residents. 

Warrnambool City Council chief executive officer Bruce Anson told the hearing the council, carers and ambulance officers were given the mammoth task of contacting clients of MedicAlert during the phone meltdown.

“It took our staff and the hospital and ambulance staff a considerable amount of effort just to find out where those people were,” Mr Anson said.  “We didn’t know where to get the list of who the MedicAlert people were and we didn’t know who was home or on holiday.

“I’m not sure that you can ever solve the problem but it caused us angst in how we respond.” 

He said there were between 3000 and 4000 people reliant on MedicAlert in the region. 

One audience member made an emotional plea for lessons to taken in how the marginalised members of society are considered in the crisis. 

Alex McBurnie, who suffers from a chronic disease, told the hearing that she went several weeks without hearing from her carers or case manager. “I found it really hard, I felt like my care package just dropped,” Ms McBurnie said. 

She said other residents and clients on Lyndoch care packages were initially told of the outage but were then subjected to a two-week silence. 

“When my email came back I found out my case manager had been emailing me which I thought was ridiculous,” she said. “Our condition could have deteriorated, anything could have happened.”

Other residents and housebound clients faced breakdowns and anxiety from being cut off, she said. 

Those without access to mobile phones or internet struggled in the second week when landlines were still down. “No one could phone us and there was no knock on the door to tell us what was happening — things like that were not OK.” 

“We’re on the margins of society anyway. 

“Please don’t forget us.” 

Lyndoch director of community services David Keilar said there was a struggle to maintain appointments. 

“We have a day centre and rehab programs and we transport those people via taxi and transport them home after each session and we had no way of finding out about cancellations,” Mr Keilar said. 

There were also major concerns about fire in the 200-bed aged-care facility. 

South West Healthcare mental services director Catherine Byrne said the hospital had switched to the Optus network six weeks before the exchange fire but was still affected by outside forces. 

“It was the things we didn’t know that we were trying to anticipate from an emergency point of view that was very concerning and confusing,” she said. 

“We were worried about food and fuel security.” 

Public submissions into the exchange fire will remain open until January 25. They can be made to www.dbcde.gov.au/warrnambool_inquiry/submissions

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