Radio contact could assist CFA — pilot

A LOCAL flying instructor believes he has an idea that could be a life saver, or at least save tens of thousands of dollars in public and private assets during the fire season.

Tony Peters has told the Gippsland Times a relatively inexpensive hand-held VHF transceiver would enable light aircraft pilots to communicate directly with CFA crews on the ground.

Mr Peters said he had need of such a device in an incident on Saturday while conducting a training flight between West Sale Airport and Seaspray when he helped direct CFA volunteers to a fire he had spotted about two miles south-west of Longford and one mile west of the South Gippsland Highway.

However his suggestion has been rejected by the CFA for a number of reasons, particularly the regulations governing the use of the VHF radio frequencies.

On Saturday Mr Peters and his student pilot saw a thin plume of smoke rising from a patch of native vegetation surrounded by pine plantations.

He used his aircraft’s VHF radio to notify Base Fire at RAAF Base East Sale, requesting they phone 000 to alert the CFA of the fire.

Then he and his pilot orbited the fire for about five minutes before deciding to observe if the closest brigade, Longford, was turning out.

They saw a white utility and fire tanker leave Longford and head in the general direction of the fire.

Mr Peters believes the CFA crew was not able to easily discern the wispy plume of smoke from ground level, because of the smoky haze that remained from other fires sparked earlier in the week, so circled above the fire for about five minutes, frustrated when the utility came within about 40 metres of the fire site without being able to locate it through the undergrowth.

Another VHF radio message to Base Fire was then relayed to 000 to let the crews on the ground know they were close to the seat of the fire.

“If they had a VHF radio in the local CFA unit’s truck then there could have been communication between the aircraft and the truck,” Mr Peters said.

“As it was there was about 20 minutes wasted before reaching the seat of the fire.”

He suggested there would be a number of private aircraft flying above the district at any time which may spot smoke and be able to assist in directing fire crews to locations.

“I’m sure the volunteers would prefer to get onto a fire while it is still only small than wait for it to come at them from the forest,” Mr Peters said.

He approached the local CFA headquarters on Monday morning with his idea, but was told it did not meet the required protocols.

Mr Peters suggested civil aircraft would follow the protocol of notifying 000 through Base Fire before using the local VHF frequency to have direct two-way contact with crews on the ground.

“I think it’s an idea that is worth discussing publicly,” he said.

However a spokesperson for the CFA told the Gippsland Times there were good reasons CFA crews would not be issued with VHF transceivers.

The spokesperson said VHF radio frequencies were reserved for aircraft use only, and while handheld transceivers were available, users needed to be licensed pilots or aircraft radio operators.

“They are not something that will be in our trucks,” she said.

She suggested pilots spotting fires use their VHF radio to call the local airspace controller who would give them the CFA aircraft frequency for their area and enable direct communication with the CFA air wing, which she said was on call 24 hours a day and able to communicate directly with CFA ground crews.

“CFA aircraft can talk directly with our trucks,” she said, “but we really don’t want private operators adding (confusion) to the myriad messages being sent.”

However Mr Peters said the air control for Gippsland was Melbourne Central which was primarily concerned with maintaining separation safety for airlines and, he suggested, not able to divert from that primary role to focus on relaying messages from light aircraft.

“The problem with the CFA fire aircraft is they are on the ground at Latrobe Valley airport and by the time they get airborne and to the fire it would have taken too long when we are already overhead,” he said.