Curious Canberra

Why are Canberra’s fire appliances yellow?

Emergency vehicles are called on in all conditions night and day, to respond as quickly as possible to incidents. Safety and speed make the visibility of these vehicles vital. Vehicle colour, eye-catching liveries and flashing lights (also called “beacons”) work in conjunction with sound devices like sirens, to make people aware of an emergency vehicle.

The ACT Fire Brigade’s appliances once featured a vibrant ‘fire engine red’ colour scheme. Though red was traditional, and is still widely used by fire services in Australia and overseas, by 1984 the Brigade believed a ‘lime-yellow’ colour would offer better visibility. Some Australian brigades and the ACT ambulances of the era used a yellow colour scheme, and the ACT Brigade had already trialed a lime yellow stripe on one pumper. The first all lime-yellow truck entered service in 1985 to trial the new colour and reflective paint, and from the following year the scheme was used for all new appliances. Variations of the lime-yellow scheme remain in use, though a recently introduced livery coinciding with the Brigade’s new branding as ACT Fire and Rescue, once again sees red feature prominently.


Why are the two matching office blocks on ANZAC Parade empty?

Anzac Park East and West date back to the 1960s. Aside from providing office space for government agencies, they were intended to serve as a ceremonial gateway to ANZAC Parade, and architectural feature of the Parliamentary Triangle. ANZAC Park East was built for the Bureau of Mineral Resources (now Geoscience Australia). ANZAC Park West commenced soon after for symmetry, but without a specific tenant in mind. The Department of Supply was eventually moved from Melbourne to inhabit the building.

Once a building in search of a purpose, significant refurbishment and extensions since 2006 have enabled ANZAC Park West to continue providing government office space, currently for the Department of Defence.

Without renovations though, a half century old building like Anzac Park East carries significant maintenance costs, while offering a lower standard of office environment and facilities for potential tenants. It has stood empty since the Bureau of Mineral Resources (which had become the Australian Geological Survey Organisation in 1992), moved to new premises in Symonston in 1997. The Department of Finance which owns the building, continues to maintain the building to a limited extent. Canberra’s very high office vacancy rates, the second highest in the country, suggests a bleak outlook for the prospect of workers once again toiling in ANZAC Park East.

Similarly aging buildings like the Alexander and Albemarle Buildings in Woden, left empty when the Department of Health moved into new accommodation, are being demolished. The architectural importance though of ANZAC Park East makes such a fate very unlikely. Other former Commonwealth office buildings, including Juliana House in Woden and part of the Cameron offices in Belconnen have been adapted to serve new uses, as a hotel and student accommodation respectively. Adaptive reuse of ANZAC Park East has already been flagged as a possibility by the Commonwealth. For now though it sits idle awaiting a saviour.


Are there any secret tunnels in Canberra?

If I were to name any, they wouldn’t be secret anymore. There are no shortage of rumoured tunnels, typically said to be attached to government or diplomatic buildings. But confirming their existence, at least without earning an ASIO file, is a tall order. There are some tunnels though that while not ‘secret’, many Canberrans wouldn’t know about. Some of these are just utilities tunnels, others though have a more interesting purpose…

A tunnel runs under Sir Thomas Blamey Square, enabling pedestrian travel between Buildings G and F (the older buildings on either side of the square).

In 1952 the Department of Works planned to a construct a 200ft drainage tunnel that would double as an atomic shelter and escape tunnel for administrative buildings near Parliament House. Government policy since at least 1950 had been for new Commonwealth buildings to be strengthened against nuclear attack. Such protection was incorporated into the construction of the John Gorton Building, which in the 1970s had a further electronic communications bunker constructed. The specifications issued for the tunnel required that it be reinforced to protect against a nuclear weapon. Whether it was completed and its current condition if it was, are unclear. The Department of Finance was not able to confirm any details.

It’s too small for a person, but for documents a pneumatic tube ran underground from East Block to Old Parliament House. Another tube, dating back to 1927 travelled even further to the Government Printing Office 3km away. Think of it as the broadband of that era, and with copies of Hansard shooting through it at 50km/hr, potentially still faster than your internet today. The ends of these tiny tunnels remain visible in both Old Parliament House and East Block (now the National Archives).

A little outside the city, the tunnel through which the original cast iron water main travelled from Cotter Dam to Cotter Pumping Station was once a popular attraction.

Perhaps just as interesting as the tunnels that exist, and those of popular myth that some say may exist, are the tunnels that don’t exist. Despite controversy and loud opposition from some quarters, the Parkes Way tunnel has become an essential transport link. Original planning though proposed that it would be the first of three tunnels, the latter two travelling under what is now New Acton, and under the ANU campus. The vehicle free vision for the campus and surrounding surface areas was ahead of its time and the plans never eventuated.


These questions were originally submitted to ABC Canberra’s new initiative, Curious Canberra. The initiative offers people the opportunity to suggest and vote for questions about their local region, the most popular of which will be researched by ABC reporters and answered. Canberra history is so fascinating, and the answers so easy to find, that I think they all deserve an answer.