A CFA volunteer with more than 30 years' experience says the south-west needs more reliable infrastructure to ensure communications between first responders remains online during emergency incidents.
Naringal CFA incident responder Charles Dillon says nothing has changed since the devastating 2018 St Patrick's Day bushfires tore through the region, destroying more than 50 homes and thousands of livestock.
He is calling for a generator to be installed at Mount Warrnambool network tower to recharge communication batteries after they were drained on the night of March 17 when connectivity was cut between first responders and the fire ground.
During the 2018 St Patrick's Day bushfires Mr Dillon recalls being in a vehicle doing 40 kilometres an hour when the fire overtook him.
The winds were strong, and the fire had already encompassed hundreds of acres near Terang and was quickly heading towards Scotts Creek.
In the dark, feeling overwhelmed, Mr Dillon made a desperate call for reinforcements.
"I'm out there feeding up information to Vicfire and I remember jumping on the radio and saying 'make tankers 50' (a callout meaning this was a high-scale emergency)," he said.
"We were just going to need the backup - the fire was so big, our resources simply weren't going to cope with it."
Six hours later all communications failed.
Backup batteries at the nearby Mount Warrnambool tower ran out. Together with electrical infrastructure failings, 150 communication blackspots emerged throughout south-west Victoria.
Back at Naringal CFA station, volunteers realised channel 326 - Mount Warrnambool to the fire ground - was out.
"I remember saying to my mate in the ute, because our phones and radios all died, that 'it looked like Mount Warrnambool was down, but surely they'll have a generator kicking in soon'," Mr Dillon said.
That never happened.
"It took them a good 24 hours before they started getting generators out there to get batteries up to charge them - I think that's just inexcusable," he said.
"It's a safety thing - when we lost that, we lost communication with Vicfire and we lost mobile phones. We couldn't plot where the fire would go and give incident reports or tell them where tankers should go."
Following the disastrous night, incident controllers and commanders were called to Warrnambool for a debrief. Together, leaders discussed what went well and what didn't.
"I remember standing up and saying there was no excuse," Mr Dillon said.
"Mount Warrnambool went down and we lost major communications. Everyone agreed, 'yeah that was disgraceful', and we did a report and that was passed on.
"They were informed on all of what happened, and still to my knowledge nothing really much has changed. We just seemed not to have learned, because the funding's just not there."
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On behalf of the Hopkins Curdies CFA Group - comprising ten local fire brigades - Mr Dillon drafted a letter in support of calls by Telstra's Steve Tinker for better connectivity.
In June this year Member for Wannon Dan Tehan announced plans for the installation of two mobile towers in Scotts Creek and Ecklin South.
Corangamite Shire mayor Ruth Gstrein acknowledged the significance of the towers, which council had been "lobbying for quite a long time now."
"Poor connectivity became very evident during the St Patrick's Day bushfires around the Scotts Creek area - they just don't have good mobile phone reception and since then we've been campaigning to get improved reception," she said.
Though Mr Dillon believes council and Telstra's "heart is in the right place", he says "there's still a long way to go".
"Now they're installing those towers and it's great and all that, but you'd think there'd be a generator up there," he said.
Since the St Patrick's Day bushfires, district five assistant chief fire officer Richard Bourke confirmed that while the capacity and battery life at Mount Warrnambool had increased, a generator had not been installed.
"You only need a domestic type of generator," Mr Dillon said.
"It doesn't need to be anything fancy - just have some batteries to keep everything running."
Mr Dillon believes the need for a generator is not only important to keep up to date with CFA's advancing technology, but also during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My argument is that with the way we work and the way CFA's going at the fire service, we're moving more and more into advanced technology and firefighting relies on up-to-date digital mapping," he said.
"So fast mobile and digital radio comms and things like video conferencing are really, really critical and hence as a group we recognise the importance of Telstra as a partner with us to have that technology installed and working properly.
"Things like mapping is going digital. We need fast, reliable data to make that all work ... it's not just the tower - it's about having a system that's able to handle all of the load."
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