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MH370 CRASH: Task of informing families looms largest

Publication Date : 02-04-2014


Dumas House sits on a hill, and from its upper floors it commands sweeping views of Perth and surrounding parklands.

Calling it a house is a bit misleading. It is not a residence but a 14-storey steel and glass office block built in the 1960s. It houses the Western Australian Premier's office and a number of state government departments.

It is also home to the newly formed Joint Agency Coordination Center which was set up to manage the information flow in the search for flight MH370. Above all, it will try to keep the families of the 239 passengers and crew informed.

It's an ambitious task, given the fact that people of some 14 nationalities were on the flight and very little has changed in the search.

Objects have been seen, but so far it has turned out to be only junk from fishing boats.

But the search goes on.

Since Monday, civil servants from Canberra have been arriving at Dumas House to take up their posts in what could be a very long stay. Initially they'll be here for a couple of weeks before being rotated out, replaced by others in a process expected to last two to three months, according to one civil servant who asked not to be named.

Already the JACC is settling in for the long term.

First up on its list are relatively simple things like establishing a database of journalists and news organisations covering the story. Then there will be coordinating to do with the 14 embassies and high commissions whose nationals were on board the ill-fated flight, and then keeping the dozens of state and federal departments involved in the search informed.

But no one doubts that the greater task is keeping families informed about the search. So many times during this agonising episode, hopes have been raised only to be dashed. Debris that turns out to be meaningless junk is only the latest example.

For the man chosen to head the centre, retired former defence chief Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the task ahead is enormous.

The soft-spoken former Australian military chief showed compassion just before his first press conference when he received a call from the Pearce Royal Australian Air Force base north of Perth, the base from which the air search is being conducted.

The wife of Australian passenger Paul Weeks arrived at the RAAF base wanting to know where her husband was. Danica Weeks was escorted onto the base to be briefed by Group Captain Heap, who is coordinating the air operation.

Houston took a call from Heap, who said Mrs Weeks had arrived at the base. She said families were not being told enough, Heap reported.

"I told him to give her my phone number," Houston told journalists, "and also to give her assistance to get her down to us so we can fully brief her on what we are up to and what's happening."

He added: "I would ask families who need information to contact the Joint Agency Coordination Center. I think it should be noted that we have only been set up for 24 hours. It's absolutely vital that if families have a concern for information about these terrible, tragic circumstances, they get in touch with our agency."

As we left the briefing a colleague asked me if I had the number for the JACC.

"They sent out only one press release, but there were no numbers on it," he said.


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