Inquiries into recent natural disasters in Australia
Inquests and inquiry into the
Between 8 and 18 January 2003, Canberra experienced a
firestorm that resulted in the loss of four lives, injury to 435 people, the
destruction of 487 homes across several suburbs, total property losses valued
between $600 million and $1 billion, and almost 70 per cent of the ACT
(157 170 hectares) being burnt.
In January 2003, a Coronial inquest into the Canberra
bushfires was established.
On 19 December 2006, the ACT Coroner Maria Doogan handed
down her report on the Canberra firestorm. With respect to emergency
communications and warning systems, Ms Doogan made the following
- the Emergency Services Agency adopt a more rigorous risk
management approach to incident management and prediction—with particular
emphasis on the development of improved community information strategies and
- the Emergency Services Agency review the communications systems
used by the four services (the ACT Ambulance Service, the ACT Rural Fire
Service, the ACT State Emergency Service and the ACT Fire Brigade), by the
Australian Federal Police (AFP), by the NSW emergency services and by aircraft
and ensure the systems are compatible;
- measures be taken to ensure that ACT and NSW Rural Fire Service
radio communications systems are integrated, so that ACT and NSW firefighting
units can communicate with each other;
- consultations and negotiations occur between the Emergency
Services Agency and the NSW Rural Fire Service to ensure that fire risk and
safety messages to the community are co-ordinated. Maximum use should be made
of television and radio announcements throughout the ACT and southern NSW,
consistent with NSW timetables for targeted programs in conjunction with the
United Firefighters Union ACT Branch and volunteer fire brigade
representatives. The Energy Services Agency should consider using ACT Fire
Brigade staff and ACT Rural Fire Service volunteers to talk to groups in the
community on request, thus furthering face-to-face community education in
high-risk suburban areas of the ACT;
- the Emergency Services Agency publicise and demonstrate the use
of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal and provide to the community adequate
explanation of the application of the signal. This should occur at least
annually, in conjunction with any pre-summer fire awareness initiatives;
- the Emergency Services Agency develop a clear policy for
disseminating information to the public and the media in times of emergency and
that, as required, that policy incorporate advance door-knocking of homes in
the area affected, as well as regular broadcasts by local radio and television
stations and regular updates on the relevant website;
- the Emergency Services Agency conduct investigations—and liaise
with emergency services agencies in other jurisdictions—in order to ascertain
what technologies exist and are effective for use in disseminating warnings and
associated information to the community of the ACT; and
- a system of public warnings that uses grid references shown on
the maps in the Canberra telephone directory be adopted.
ACT government response
In February 2007, the ACT Government released its response
to the Coroner's report.
With respect to the recommendations made about emergency communications and
early warning systems (above), the government agreed or agreed in principle
with all of these recommendations and advised that many had already been
2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal
On 7 February 2009, Victoria experienced a devastating
bushfire disaster that resulted in the deaths of 173 people.
This day has been called "Black Saturday".
On 16 February 2009, the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal
Commission was established.
The Royal Commission examined 15 of the most damaging fires, including the five
fires at Kilmore East, Murrindindi, Churchill, Beechworth-Mudgegonga and
Bendigo where people lost their lives.
In its final report of July 2010, the Royal Commission
...that the state-level emergency management arrangements
still faltered because of confusion about responsibilities and accountabilities
and some important deficiencies of leadership. True integration was not
achieved: the [Country Fire Authority] and [Department of Sustainability and
Environment] followed operating procedures that were not fully consistent, used
separate technology systems, and in many cases performed duplicate functions.
The report also made the following observations:
Those [Incident Management Teams] that were poorly prepared
or did not have access to fully qualified staff also often had the greatest
difficulty managing information flows, which are crucial to the issuing of
public warnings and informing firefighters of changing conditions and potential
danger...skilled officers need to be supported by robust, consistent and
coordinated information and systems for tracking fire vehicles and mapping
fires. When the State's approach to fighting ferocious fires is so highly
dependent on cross-agency coordination it is unacceptable that effective
coordination of information systems has not been achieved.
Communications systems on 7 February were also hindered by
poor coverage, lack of interoperability between emergency services agencies,
and insufficient investment in new technology. For example, the transmission
speed of the paging system had been reduced in order to expand reception
coverage, and this caused serious delays in other than the most urgent
messaging. There were also communication difficulties between metropolitan and
regional police because of incompatible radio systems. Further, radio 'black
spots' meant that reception was poor or non-existent in some areas, and there
was channel congestion and insufficient channel availability. These problems
were exacerbated when fire damaged or destroyed radio and telecommunications
Ultimately, the Royal Commission made several
recommendations with respect to emergency communications and early warnings:
- the State revise its bushfire safety policy. While adopting the
national Prepare. Act. Survive. framework in Victoria, the policy should
include the following (amongst other criteria):
- enhance the role of warnings – including providing for timely and
informative advice about the predicted passage of a fire and the actions to be
taken by people in areas potentially in its path;
- the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Department of
Sustainability and Environment (DSE) standardise their operating systems and
information and communications technologies with the aim of achieving greater
efficiency and interoperability between agencies; and
- the CFA review and improve its communications strategy as a
matter of priority and develop a program for identifying and responding to
black spots in radio coverage.
Victorian government response
The Victorian Government has responded to the
recommendations made in the Royal Commission's interim report of August 2009.
The government has not yet responded to the recommendations in the final
In the response to the interim report, the Victorian
Government was supportive of recommendations that suggested improvements to
bushfire communications and warnings, including the following recommendations
- the State ensure that bushfire warnings issued in Victoria are
founded on the principle of maximising the potential to save lives; embody the
principles encapsulated in the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) report
titled National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management (2004);
- the State ensure the content of bushfire warnings issued in
Victoria reflects the principles set out in the Commonwealth policy paper Emergency
Warnings – Choosing Yours Words (2008);
- the State ensure bushfire warnings in Victoria are confined to two
categories or stages: "bushfire information" and "bushfire
- the State ensure that the Standard Emergency Warning Signal
(SEWS) be used in Victoria to precede each bushfire warning or group of
warnings that are dangerous or extremely dangerous;
- the State invite commercial operators to enter into a Memorandum
of Understanding (MOU) on the dissemination of bushfire warning messages and
the use of the SEWS by those operators;
- the Australian Government, COAG and the State determine whether
it is technically possible to implement the second phase of Emergency Alert
(that is, the delivery of warning messages to mobile phones based on physical
location of a handset at the time of the emergency) with a view to
implementation for the 2009–10 bushfire season;
- the State ensure that a single, multi-agency portal for bushfire
information be designed to allow incident control centres to directly post
information and warnings;
the State ensure the Victorian Bushfire Information Line is
funded to enable it to provide greater surge capacity during extreme events and
to improve the efficiency of its internal information function;
- the State and its agencies implement an advertising and awareness
campaign on the changes to policy and practices as set out in the Royal Commission's
report, such as the SEWS, Emergency Alert, use of sirens by local communities,
refuges and relocation;
- the State amend the State Emergency Response Plan so the
control agency for a fire is responsible for issuing and communicating
warnings; and to remove from emergency response coordinators the responsibility
of ensuring the control agency gives consideration to alerting the public to
dangers and potential dangers arising from an emergency;
the Office of the Emergency Services Commissioner formally advise
the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) and Telstra Triple
Zero of forecast severe fire risk days and particularly days where there is a
risk of extremely dangerous bushfires;
- the State ensure ESTA is funded to provide greater surge capacity
during extreme events, including establishing additional work stations for fire
calls at ESTA centres; and
- the State further promote, through COAG, more effective emergency
call service arrangements throughout Australia.
Queensland Floods Commission of
During December 2010 and January 2011, Queensland
experienced an unprecedented flooding disaster which impacted 70 per cent of
On 17 January 2011, the Premier of Queensland, the Hon Anna
Bligh MP established the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry.
The terms of reference for the inquiry included:
...to make full and careful inquiry in an open and
independent manner with respect to the following matters:-
(a) the preparation and planning by
federal, state and local governments; emergency services and the community for
the 2010/2011 floods in Queensland,
(c) all aspects of the response to the
2010/2011 flood events, particularly measures taken to inform the community and
measures to protect life and private and public property, including
- immediate management, response and
- resourcing, overall coordination
and deployment of personnel and equipment
- adequacy of equipment and
communications systems; and
- the adequacy of the community’s
(d) the measures to manage the supply
of essential services such as power, water and communications during the
2010/2011 flood events,
(e) adequacy of forecasts and early
warning systems particularly as they related to the flooding events in
Toowoomba, and the Lockyer and Brisbane Valleys...
The Floods Commission released an interim report on 1 August
2011 'on matters associated with flood preparedness to enable early
recommendations to be implemented before next summer’s wet season'.
Recommendations in the interim report relevant to the
current inquiry included:
- before the next wet season, local governments susceptible to
flooding should conduct community education programs which provide local
information about (at least) the following topics:
- the types of warnings that are used in the area, what they mean
and what to do in the event of a warning;
- where and how to obtain information before, during and after a
- what is likely to happen during a disaster (for example, power
outages and road closures); and
- evacuation measures available for groups who require particular
assistance (for example, the elderly, ill and people with a disability).
- in issuing warnings for a district or region, local and state
authorities should use a range of different warning mechanisms effective for
the particular district or region, including methods which do not rely on
- councils should prepare SMS alert templates covering a range of
different flood scenarios before the wet season.
- SMS alerts should direct recipients to websites or contact
numbers providing more detailed information about flood locations and
predictions, the location of evacuation centres and evacuation routes.
- councils and Emergency Management Queensland should work together
to ensure the approval process does not cause delays in delivering SMS alerts.
- wherever possible, Emergency Management Queensland should consult
with local disaster management groups before sending emergency alerts to
residents. Emergency Management Queensland should inform the local disaster
management group, as soon as it can, about any message already sent to
residents in that local disaster management group’s area.
- individuals and businesses should be encouraged to acquire
battery operated radios for use in emergencies.
- councils should ensure that residents are aware of the frequency
of the radio station or stations in their local area that will disseminate
flood warnings and other information during disasters.
- councils that have not already done so should consider how social
media may be used effectively to provide accurate information about flood
levels and local conditions to residents during a flood event.
- councils, with the assistance of the Bureau of Meteorology,
should consider the susceptibility of their regions to flash flooding, and
whether it is feasible and necessary to acquire and operate an automated local evaluation
in real time system (ALERT system) for particular waterways.
- dam operators should plan to contact people identified by their
emergency action plans about dam outflow in sufficient time for them to be able
to respond to the information.
- dam operators should ensure each emergency action plan includes a
clear statement as to the frequency of, and circumstances in which, warnings
will be issued to people listed in the emergency action plan.
- dam operators should assess the effectiveness of using SMS and/or
email as a bulk instantaneous communication to all people on the notification
list while individually contacting those whom it is essential to inform immediately.
the operator of each dam should, upon request, provide to any
person on the notification list in the emergency action plan an explanation of
the arrangements as to the type and frequency of communications required by
- operators of dams should publicise, in a newspaper circulating in
the local area and by posting a notice on its website every year before the wet
season, the opportunity for local residents immediately downstream of a dam to
be included on the existing notification list, and:
- consider whether an applicant for notification is so close to the
dam that the warning time before water from the dam affects them is less than
that available through the emergency management system;
- consider whether they can be effectively notified by SMS or email;
- if it is necessary to contact the applicant personally, agree
with him or her a mode for that communication.
- in rural and remote areas where telecommunications are not
effective, measures that do not rely on internet and mobile telephone services
should be implemented to inform the travelling public of road conditions ahead,
- signs with detailed information;
- providing tourist information centres and tourist radio stations
with information on road conditions.
- the Bureau of Meteorology should endeavour to make clear the
areas actually covered by its warnings, and specify what may be expected in
particular areas, so that the relevance and significance of any warning is obvious
to residents of the area at risk.
- councils should continue to take responsibility for issuing flash
flooding warnings. However, where the Bureau of Meteorology becomes aware of
weather conditions likely to cause flash flooding that is likely to endanger
life or property in a particular council’s region, it should, performing its
functions in the public interest, directly communicate that information to the
- councils should advise the Bureau of Meteorology of any
information they possess about flash flooding (or the immediate prospect of it)
likely to endanger life or property in their region, and of any warnings they issue
about such flash flooding. The Bureau of Meteorology should consider in each
case whether any such warning should be re-published (whether as a warning
emanating from the Bureau itself or as attributed to the relevant council) on
the Bureau’s website, or whether it should provide a link to any council
warning or other information regarding flash flooding provided by councils or
disaster management agencies.
- where the Bureau of Meteorology has information which leads it to
anticipate flash flooding likely to endanger life or property in a specific
area, it should publish a warning to that effect on its website.
- the Bureau of Meteorology should do its best to develop working
relationships with all councils, particularly for the purpose of exchanging
information in severe weather and flood events.
the Bureau of Meteorology should expand its volunteer rainfall
and river height networks to incorporate residents of the Lockyer Valley, particularly
property owners living on watercourses who can provide manually obtained
readings of water heights where no automatic gauge is available, or can confirm
automatic gauge readings where there is concern about their accuracy.
- the Bureau of Meteorology should consider identifying amateur
weather-watch groups it considers credible and likely to have useful local
knowledge, and establish means (similar to those available to the storm spotters)
by which they can expeditiously communicate with the Bureau.
- the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service should purchase waterproof
radio equipment that:
- is appropriate for swift water and normal fire fighting
- will attach securely to firefighters in a way that does not
hamper their operations.
the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service should work towards
providing hands-free means of communications to swift water technicians for
the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service should ensure that rescue
technicians on deployment are provided with individual radios, rather than
sharing a communications pack.
- during floods, councils should as quickly as possible provide
people in the relevant areas with advice as to the location of and routes to
- that advice should be given using as many mechanisms as
appropriate, including text message, radio and door knocking.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has stated all recommendations
relating to the Queensland state government will be implemented
and in the formal response to the interim report, the Queensland Government
The Queensland Government has accepted the Interim Report as
a blueprint for implementation and advocates a collaborative approach in
preparing for the 2011-12 wet season and beyond. The Interim Report made 175 recommendations,
and detailed analysis has identified 104 recommendations for which the
Queensland Government has implementation responsibility. While many other
recommendations are directed towards local governments and the Commonwealth
Government, these activities require a joint effort and the Queensland
Government will provide support and assistance where necessary.
The final report of the Queensland Floods Commission of
Inquiry will be handed down by 24 February 2012.
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