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The hills and valleys of comms
Burrowye Fire Brigade is 76 years old and Bernadette Cheshire has been the communications officer for 40 years.
By Leith Hillard
“In the early days we had two old marine radios which were like CBs,” said Bernadette. “During the 1985 Thologolong fire which changed direction five minutes before it got to us, Noel and I were given CFA radios.
“After that, CFA put a base station in the house and gave Noel a portable. Everyone in the valley bought CB radios for their farms but they also get used when the phones go down to talk to neighbours up and down the valley. We have a UHF in each of our vehicles as well as four portables and I still have the CFA base station and pager as well as the UHF base station.”
With a population of about 10 families in an undulating-to-hilly valley on a back road between Walwa and Albury, communication black spots present a challenge.
“Mobile coverage – zip! You might get service six kilometres up the road,” continued Bernadette, “but what you don’t have you don’t miss. Before VicFire, when Noel was captain, we mapped where he could go to get radio contact.
“I know by the voice on the other end which radio to answer. I know most of the members’ telephone numbers off the top of my head.
“Most farms have paddock names. We have at least 15 with names like Ram Hill, Bull Paddock, Sunnyside, the Old Post Office and Irrigation Paddock.
“When an incident is called in, I do a location estimate based on the information and description given.”
The couple, with son Wayne, have 95 years of combined service to CFA.
Based in Wangaratta, Communications Technical Services Officer Warren Brown recently installed a new CFA radio and aerial at Burrowye which has coverage off a linked repeater from Jingellic via Mt Mittamatite and into Corryong, the group headquarters.
He’s one of 13 field techs who also operate as comms subject matter experts in ICCs. Warren’s patch is usually districts 22, 23 and 24 but, if a comms emergency arises anywhere in the state when he’s the duty officer one week in every eight, “I go for a drive.
“It’s all about a brigade’s ability to respond to an incident, so first thing we do is work with them over the phone for a solution. This may be as simple as using a portable radio to talk to VicFire but other times we’ll have to attend to rectify the problem immediately. We do our best to treat all brigades equally no matter where they are in the state.”
Warren’s regular workload over an annual 40,000 kilometres travelled includes dealing with electronic fails from fair wear and tear and installation of comms equipment in new and renovated fire stations.
Regular preventive maintenance includes visiting CFA’s 120 incident management repeaters on windswept hills. A site like Mt Big Ben near Yackandandah has comms co-located for CFA, DELWP, SES and St John and NSW ambulance services, each with their own rack holding a radio and a duplexer which combines a receiver and transmitter into the antenna. For the sites with no mains power, the normal battery system is replaced with solar panels which can operate without sunshine for three weeks.
“We use telemetry to remotely monitor the battery, temperature and other issues in the racks,” said Warren.
Members won’t be surprised by his communication tips: “listen before speaking; think before speaking. When you’re on a radio channel, pause, wait for the beeps and then go ahead.”