Pedrogao Fire’s “Communication System Failures”
Updated: May 2, 2022
Constança Urbano de Sousa, the Minister of Internal Administration, at the time of the catastrophic 2017 fires (Photo by Manuel De Almeida/Lusa)
A former Minister of Internal Administration -- who resigned three days after Portugal’s second-deadliest fire in October 2017 -- acknowledged that there were communication system failures in the country’s deadliest fire of Pedrogao Grande in June 2017.
The National Authority for Emergency and Civil Protection (ANEPC) SMS (Short Message Service) alert system did not exist at the time of the Pedrogao Grande fire, clarified Constança Urbano de Sousa Diario de Noticias (April 19) at a trial to determine possible criminal responsibility for the deaths of 63 and the injuries of 44 in the June 2017 disaster.
However, in response to the questions of the presiding judge, Maria Clara Santos, Constança Urbano de Sousa said that there were communication failures, “namely the SIRESP network”, the Integrated System of Emergency and Security Networks in Portugal.
When asked whether Augusto Arnaut, commander of the local volunteer fire brigade, could have done more with the available resources, the former minister, who described the fire as one of “enormous exceptionality”, said that he could not, as have fire experts and firefighters who have testified previously in his defense:
“In my sincere opinion, Commander Arnaut – even if he had triple, quadruple resources – would not have that possibility.”
Arnaut is one of 11 defendants who face charges of negligent homicide and grievous bodily harm, according to Diario de Noticias (May 24, 2021). He is accused of preventing the safeguarding villages and populations, having omitted information that could have led to a cut in the road where 47 people died.
The other defendants are two former municipality presidents, one current municipality president and two council employees, who are accused of failing to clear the land along the roads. Two EDP (Energias de Portugal) electricity firm employees are accused of not cleaning the strips along a medium-voltage line, which had an electrical discharge of unknown cause that set off the fire. Also, three members of roads authority Ascendi Pinhal Interior are accused of lack of road maintenance, according to Observador (May 24, 2021).
Before the trial began on May 24, 2021, many questioned SIRESP’s effectiveness as well as its contracts.
Created in 2006, the SIRESP network is the exclusive communications network of the Portuguese State for the command, control and coordination of communications in all emergency and security situations. It responds to the needs of more than 40,000 users and annually supports more than 35 million calls, according to its website.
One month after the Pedrogao Grande fire, two satellite antennas missing from two of SIRESP’s four mobile units were purchased for 70,000 euros. The vehicles had been waiting for the satellite connection since 2015, reported Observador (July 5, 2017), which continued:
“On the night of the great fire, only one of the four vehicles was operational, with satellite connection, and failures were admitted by the Executive in the first hours of the fire. Another of the vehicles had been damaged since the Pope’s visit on May 13, and the other two were without the necessary antenna for satellite communications. Next week will be the first time they will all be active.”
On March 27 of this year, Publico reported:
“After the fires of (June and October) 2017, when the failures in the system were publicized, several changes were made to SIRESP, the network being equipped with 451 more satellite antennas.”
It is not clear how many satellite antennas existed before.
Three hundred of the 451 satellite antennas were to be installed between March and May 2018 in areas of greater fire risk in 189 municipalities in the Algarve, North and Central areas, according to Visao (January 31, 2018). The new antennas were intended to create alternate communication paths, which would be activated in case the SIRESP network, sharing the same circuits as Altice’s networks, was affected by outages.
Shadow zones, or areas of network failure, were one of the criticisms of the system. In cities anywhere, tall buildings tend to cause them, where they are a concern for 5G (the fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks), and in rural areas, mountainous terrain, the site of Portugal’s wildfires.
According to Renascença five years ago, Vida do Bombeiro (The Firefighter’s Life), asked those interviewed whether the shadow zones were ever communicated to the Portuguese National Authority for Emergency and Civil Protection (A Autoridade Nacional de Emergencia e Proteçao Civil: ANEPC):
“Most of those responsible for the departments say no. The exception was a situation in Ferreira do Zezere, said the Second Fire Commander, Mario Ferreira: ‘I know that one was identified already and communicated to Civil Protection during an exercise a few years ago. A report was made about it. Also, in other situations, other zones already have been detected and been reported.’”
Some departments employed strategies to minimize the gaps. The commander of the Portalegre Fire Department explained:
“When SIRESP began, there was an indication that there is a functionality that allows it to act as a repeater in strategic locations to increase the radio coverage area,” he said to Renascença.
Firefighters communicate through high-frequency ROB and digital-platform SIRESP.
ROB (Rede Operacional do Bombeiros - Operational Network of Firefighters) is another communications service for firefighters.
Unlike SIRESP, which is based on a digital platform and has farther reach, ROB operates in the high-frequency band like shortwave radio and serves a smaller area, according to Renascença. ROB equipment is cheaper and also more accessible. Firefighters tend to use both but in different situations: SIRESP to communicate among departments in a far-reaching fire and ROB to request, for example, a hose or nozzle from a neighboring department.
A research project
There is a 175,000-euro research project underway whose main objective is to make emergency communications (SIRESP) more resilient, “mitigating the effects of fire on radio and transmission coverage, that is, the connections from base stations to switches of the SIRESP network” through alternate connections in radio beams, said Rafael Caldeirinha, who is responsible for the project, to Lusa news agency, according to Observador (October 15, 2021).
RESCuE-TOOL (Radio coverage for emergency communication systems in critical environments of forest fires) “will culminate in the development and implementation of a decision-support simulation tool to improve the quality, performance and resilience of radio emergency communication systems during a wildfire event, with the main direct beneficiaries being Civil Protection, firefighters and all the operational personnel in the theatre of operations, said Caldeirinha.
The work began on March 1, 2019, and has a duration of three years, with an extension of at least one year. It is led by the Instituto de Telecommunicaçoes and has a team of four researchers from the Polytechnic of Leiria and three from the Lisbon branch of the Instituto Superior Tecnico. The entire cost is funded by the Fundaçao para a Ciencia e a Technologia (Foundation for Science and Technology), which is a national government agency that supports science, technology and innovation.
Three measurement campaigns of the burning of forest fuel – one in a controlled environment and the other two in fires -- have been carried out.
“Based on information obtained through computer simulations and the various field tests already carried out, the flames caused by the burning of forest fuel can introduce a significant additional weakening, which can lead to the blocking of communications due to failure of radio coverage,” said Caldeirinha.
“The gases released during fires stay in the atmosphere, and temperatures reach between 1000 and 1500 degrees, so a column of burned waster forms and creates a barrier to the propagation of electromagnetic waves.
“The radio signal can decay in the order of 100 times compared to the situation without fire, which can make SIRESP’s communications unfeasible. Effectively, the generation of shaded areas is directly related to the forest fuel and conditioned by atmospheric conditions and the terrain’s orography (physical geography that deals with mountains).”
The team wants to ensure “in real-time, the identification of possible formations of shadow areas of radio coverage in the presence of a fire front, so that the necessary means can be mobilized” for the reestablishment of communications with “stations’ mobile base, with satellite communication” or “indication to operatives in the theater of the need to reorganize communications”.
In a recent managerial shakeup, the company that manages SIRESP has a new president, a replacement justified by the Government as a “step to ensure the transparency” of the international public tender for the renewal of the communications network operation and maintenance contract,” reported Publico (March 27).
According to the Ministry of Internal Administration (MAI), Army Brigadier Paulo Viegas Nunes, a communications specialist, is the new president of SIRESP S.A., after being elected at a general meeting on March 25. Paulo Viegas Nunes will replace Sandra Neves, who before joining the company was a former staff member of Altice, the main supplier of the system, reported Publico (March 27).
“In a reply sent to Lusa (news agency), the MAI (Ministry of Internal Administration) accuses Sandra Neves of ‘insistently’ postponing the process of launching an international public tender for the renewal of the contract for the operation and maintenance of the SIRESP communications network.”
The Ministry of Internal Administration explained that the company’s board of directors, whose term expired on December 21, and “in particular the president who has just left office, had an express mandate to prepare the urgent launch of a public tender with a view to contracting the operation and maintenance of the SIRESP network”.
“The last contract had been concluded by direct agreement, for reasons of urgency. The Court of Auditors, when granting the permit, warned of the need to launch a public procurement procedure, in good time, to prevent the repetition of the urgent conditions that led to the realization of the direct agreement,” according to the ministry and reported in Publico.
According to the ministry, SIRESP is a public limited company. Therefore, its accounts had to be approved by March 31 and did happen on March 25.
“The general meeting that approves the accounts has to decide on the maintenance or renewal of the members of the governing bodies whose term of office has ended, also happened.”
Minister Francisca Van Dunem, who had replaced Eduardo Cabrita after his resignation, asked the Public Ministry for an investigation into the possible occurrence of criminal offenses associated with the hiring of a company that indicated a former Motorola framework to act as a consultant to the General Secretariat of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (SGMAI).
Minister Van Dunem also determined that the company should appoint another consultant with the appropriate technical skills. She mentioned that the former president of SIRESP was a staff member of Altice, which also was interested in the business, along with Motorola, and in operating these two companies in consortium in the provision of services to SIRESP.
The contract, which was renewed on July 1, 2021, has a duration of 18 months, during which the transitional model for managing the emergency communications system is in effect.
There is a deadline of December 31 to define the creation of an entity to ensure the technological network of the Ministry of Internal Administration, which includes the National Internal Security Network, the 112 emergency telephone number, the SIRESP network and the databases of internal administration services and bodies.
This new entity, which has not yet been created, also would be responsible for preparing the international public tender for the new contract, reported Publico.
The State bought the shares of private operators, Altice and Motorola, in SIRESP for 7 million euros, keeping 100 percent in a transfer that took place in December 2019, according to Publico. Since then, the State has had a contract with private operators to provide the service.