Skip to main content

Chapter 6: National emergency response capability


6.1 The increasing complexity of disaster risks presents new challenges that have the potential to overwhelm the capabilities of our fire and emergency services. Fire and emergency services will need to undertake long-term strategic capability development, and consider what needs to be developed or enhanced to meet future requirements. However, this should not be done in isolation.

6.2 Complex, concurrent and compounding natural disaster events, like those experienced over the 2019‑2020 summer season, showcase the growing need to consider capabilities nationally. A more consistent and connected approach to capability planning across jurisdictions is needed to enable resource sharing and to ensure that Australia has sufficient capabilities to prepare, respond to and recover from natural disasters, now and in the future. We consider that states and territories should regularly assess the capacity and capability requirements for fire and emergency services in light of both current and future natural disaster risk.

6.3 Natural disasters do not respect borders and the increasing frequency of natural disasters will, in turn, increasingly require cooperation and collaboration between agencies and jurisdictions. National resource sharing arrangements were tested during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. National resource sharing arrangements need to be strengthened to support resource sharing in times of crisis. We consider the development of a national register of resources would support situational awareness, and resource sharing, and inform national capability development.

6.4 For national resource sharing to occur efficiently and effectively, the people, equipment and systems used across the country need to be interoperable. Fire and emergency services have worked to improve interoperability over time. However, further challenges remain, especially in relation to interoperable communications and consistent and portable training for emergency responders. We consider that states and territories should update and implement plans to achieve interoperable communication for emergency services. We also recommend expediting efforts to create Public Safety Mobile Broadband to improve communications capabilities for emergency responders.

6.5 Sustaining an effective volunteer workforce is vital to ensuring future capabilities of fire and emergency services to respond to natural disasters. Volunteers make up the majority of the fire and emergency services workforce in Australia. Volunteers need to be supported and enabled to participate in a way that respects the values of volunteerism, and considers the competing demands on their time. Increasing employment protections for fire and emergency services volunteers represents a way to support volunteer participation into the future.

Planning for future demands on capability

6.6 The fire and emergency services of the states and territories play important and varied roles before, during and after natural disasters. Fire and emergency services form a key part of Australia’s natural disaster response capability [480]—that is, our ability to take action in anticipation of, during, and immediately after a natural disaster to ensure that its effects are minimised, and that people affected are given immediate relief and support. [481]

6.7 The increasing complexity of disaster risks presents new challenges that could overwhelm the capabilities of our emergency services. [482] Australia’s weather and climate agencies have told us that changes to the climate are projected to increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, potentially resulting in complex, concurrent and compounding events (see Chapter 2: Natural disaster risk). [483]

6.8 The 2019‑2020 bushfires provided a glimpse of the way that these scenarios, which were previously ‘unprecedented’, could come to pass. [484]

6.9 The duration and severity of the 2019‑2020 bushfire season tested the capabilities and capacity of emergency services across Australia. Large scale concurrent fires in multiple jurisdictions meant that Australia drew on resources from each state and territory, the Australian Government and international support to respond. Local fire and emergency services resources were stretched in NSW, Victoria and SA. [485]

6.10 We heard suggestions that there was a shortage of particular personnel with the qualifications, skills and experience needed to respond to the fires. [486] The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) identified that the National Resource Sharing Centre (NRSC) was unable fulfil some resource requests due to a ‘lack of appropriate trained and qualified personnel available’. [487] The skills gaps identified in concurrent inquiries by fire agencies include fire behaviour analysts, aerial firefighting specialists, divisional commanders and level 3 incident controllers. [488] Concurrent state inquiries in Queensland, NSW and SA identified the need for improved workforce planning such as additional training for leadership development and incident management roles. [489]

6.11 Resource sharing of personnel occurred on a scale not seen before. Over 9,000 interstate and international personnel were deployed through bilateral and national arrangements to provide additional support where it was needed most. [490] Resource sharing highlighted the importance of interoperability as people, equipment and systems were required to work together.

Table 2: Number of personnel deployed through NRSC and MOUs during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season [491]

Number of personnel deployed through NRSC and MOUs during the 2019-2020 bushfire season1
* ACT and Tasmania did not specify to which jurisdictions they deployed personnel.

6.12 In addition, the 2019‑2020 summer season placed significant demands on the emergency responder workforce. As the Victorian Inquiry into the 2019-20 Victorian Fire Season found, the strain on the capacity and capabilities of fire and emergency services had ‘implications for the management of fatigue and the occupational health and safety of personnel’. [492] We also heard about the need to improve how our emergency responders, both career and volunteer, are trained and supported.

There’s a need for a step change in how we deal [with the enemy] - the enemy being climate change and how that’s affecting natural disasters and fires - and we need a step change in how we coordinate the insufficient resources we have to deal with this threat. [493]

6.13 The increasing frequency, intensity and complexity of natural disasters demands assessment of the nation’s capability to work together to respond. The capabilities of fire and emergency services should not be developed in isolation. Capabilities should be developed in a complementary way that allows resources to be shared as needed and provides an understanding of our national collective capabilities.

6.14 We focus here on the capabilities of fire and emergency services, encompassing fire services agencies (urban, rural and parks), and state emergency services (SES). Many of the lessons learned can be applied across the emergency services sector, and more broadly, other bodies which play a role in responding to natural disasters, such as local governments.

Firefighters conducting a roadside back burn

Figure 20: Firefighters conducting a roadside back burn [494]

Existing fire and emergency services capability

6.15 Each state and territory is responsible for its own capability to respond to natural disasters. Capability is not just people and resources but also the systems and arrangements that support them. The core elements of emergency response capability are: [495]

  • people
  • equipment and assets
  • incident management systems, and
  • governance arrangements.

6.16 Fire and emergency services workforces are comprised of career and volunteer personnel. In the context of bushfires, emergency responders also include public land managers (eg national parks and state forest agencies) as well as some private personnel such as forestry industry brigades, and community farm fire units. Emergency responders do not work in isolation. Each brings their own skills and knowledge, and must work together in a response.

6.17 Resources include the equipment and assets used by emergency responders to respond to natural disasters. For example, firefighting vehicles, aerial assets, heavy machinery, chainsaws, communications equipment, and personal protective equipment. Equipment and assets must be safe and suitable for the task.

6.18 An incident management system provides a set of processes and procedures that can be applied when responding to natural disasters. The Australasian Interservice Incident Management System (AIIMS) is the nationally agreed incident management system for fire and emergency services. All Australian fire and state emergency services adopted AIIMS in 2004. [496] We heard from emergency responders and agencies about the benefits of AIIMS in coordinating response activities and facilitating interoperability. [497]

6.19 Governance, in this context, refers to the set of controls, authorities, systems and processes by which emergency services derive their powers and are held to account for their decision-making in relation to natural disaster response. [498] This includes legislation, emergency management plans, resource sharing arrangements and policies. States and territories have each developed their own governance arrangements.

Capability development for the future

6.20 Capability development can be considered in two ways; short-term operational capability development and strategic long-term capability development. Short-term operational capability considers what is needed to be prepared for the next natural disaster. Long-term strategic capability development considers what needs to be developed or enhanced to meet future requirements 10 or 20 years from now, including future workforce modelling, advances in technology, and climate risks. [499]

6.21 Fire and emergency services assess and develop their own capacity and capabilities, using contextualised requirements and risk assessments. [500] We heard concern that existing fire and emergency service capability plans tend to be based on short-term operational needs, [501] ahead of the next season, [502] with a limited focus on long-term capability planning. [503]

6.22 NSW is currently undertaking a project to understand and estimate state-level capacity requirements for severe to catastrophic disasters. [504] Some states and territories use data modelling and forecasting or are working on planning tools to forecast resource needs. [505] In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have been working with CSIRO to develop a planning tool to forecast firefighting resources requirements for 2020 and 2050 for all fire regions in Australia based on the Forest Fire Index and two climate change scenarios. [506]

6.23 Fire and emergency services have at times been slow to update, and integrate new equipment and technologies. [507] We heard this is due to the financial costs and long lead time required for agency wide updates. [508] We recognise that investing in certain capabilities can be expensive, therefore capability planning based on long‑term needs is important.

6.24 There is growing recognition that capacity and capability must be developed in light of changing demographics, land-use and climate risks. [509] For example, the 2019‑2020 NSW Bushfire Inquiry recognised the need to consider the impact of changing fire seasons on resource sharing when determining its future capability needs. [510]

6.25 Jurisdictional approaches to capacity and capability development have served fire and emergency services well in the past. However, climate and demographic changes are likely to increase the demand on fire and emergency services. The ability of individual jurisdictions to meet this demand at peak times is likely to become increasingly difficult, prompting a need for increased resource sharing. [511] There is a need to consider capabilities nationally, and for a more consistent and connected approach to capability planning across jurisdictions.

6.26 There have been efforts to create ‘a single consolidated picture of the capabilities that enable Australia’ to respond to disasters. [512] Emergency Management Australia (EMA) and AFAC, in collaboration with fire and emergency service, developed the National Statement of Capability for Fire and Emergency Services. [513]

6.27 The National Statement of Capability for Fire and Emergency Services acts as an inventory of resource types available in each jurisdiction to indicate the jurisdiction’s ability to contribute resources to national deployments. [514] It was also intended to begin to assess the limitations of available capabilities in the face of increasing frequency and intensity of disasters. [515] While it is important to be cognisant of resources available, capability should be driven by an understanding of current and future needs. The National Statement of Capability for Fire and Emergency Services was current at December 2016. A third revision of the statement commenced in 2019 but was placed on hold as a result of the summer bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic. [516]

6.28 The Australian Government should have an important role in facilitating national cooperative efforts in building capabilities and strategic long term planning.

6.29 A national strategy for the comprehensive management of disaster risk would help make available expert advice to fire and emergency services to develop the long-term capability needed to respond to the growing disaster risk, particularly in relation to resource sharing and interoperability. This could be a role for standing disaster resilience functions within the Australian Government (see Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements).

Recommendation 6.1 Assessment of the capacity and capability of fire and emergency services in light of current and future natural disaster risk

State and territory governments should have a structured process to regularly assess the capacity and capability requirements of fire and emergency services, in light of both current and future natural disaster risk.

Resource sharing

If the Orroral Valley fire had have continued…we would have got to the point of having to request international firefighters because we know - we know nationally we had almost exhausted access to available Australian firefighters. [517]

6.30 Australia’s fire and emergency services rely on resource sharing, both domestic and international, to cope with surges in requirements during large scale and severe natural disasters. To date, the sharing of resources has benefited from relatively predictable natural disasters seasons for hazards, including tropical cyclones and bushfires. For example, Australia has historically experienced fire seasons that start and finish earlier in the north of the country than in the south, and cyclone and bushfire seasons that are distinct in the west, [518] allowing resource sharing between states. [519]

6.31 Lengthening and overlapping natural disaster seasons are testing these arrangements, limiting the ability of emergency services to help each other while maintaining local capacity. [520] Similarly, overlapping seasons have been recently observed between the northern and southern hemisphere. This limits Australia’s ability to rely on international resource sharing to meet domestic requirements. [521] The ability to have a clear understanding of nationally available resources during a response will become more important.

Arrangements for resource sharing

6.32 Two primary mechanisms are presently used for resource sharing between fire and emergency services agencies in Australia. The first is through bilateral agreements and cross-border arrangements between state and territory fire and emergency service agencies. The second is through the Commissioners and Chief Officers Strategic Committee (CCOSC), the NRSC and the Arrangements for Interstate Assistance (AIA). These bodies and arrangements have evolved in relation to bushfires, and their operational role has been largely in, but is not limited to, bushfire events. [522]

6.33 CCOSC supports national coordination of operational matters during significant events. [523] CCOSC is a forum for information sharing between jurisdictions, providing situational awareness and facilitating resource sharing. [524] CCOSC, through its members, provides direction to the NRSC in relation to its function in facilitating the interstate and international resource sharing, ‘apart from cross-border operations’. [525]

6.34 The NRSC, managed by AFAC, supports national capability in a response by:

  • maintaining and implementing the AIA. [526] The AIA is the primary arrangement for large-scale resource sharing between fire and emergency services during significant natural disaster events [527]
  • coordinating the deployment of international resources, in conjunction with the Australian Government, [528] and
  • contributing to operational situational awareness through briefings.

6.35 The role of CCOSC and the NRSC is further discussed in Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements.

Resource sharing during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season

6.36 The NRSC played an important and valuable role during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. Queensland, NSW, Victoria and SA requested assistance under the AIA, resulting in the NRSC coordinating the deployment of over 7,305 interstate and international personnel. [529]

6.37 The NRSC acted as an ‘operational enabler’. [530] In addition to facilitating resource sharing, the NRSC provided a national picture of the deployment of resources and resourcing needs based on information provided to it by states and territories. [531] The NRSC provided weekly situation reporting to heads of fire and emergency services and EMA. NRSC situation reports provided a snapshot of resource sharing at that point in time and indicated the commitment levels in each state and territory. [532]

6.38 The NRSC resource sharing arrangements are well-established and are generally considered successful and effective by fire and emergency services, and EMA. [533] However, the NRSC was tested during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. We heard that, at times, resource requests were unable to be filled, [534] and some fire agencies considered that resource sharing processes were not sufficiently responsive or agile. [535] AFAC accepts that there are improvements that can be made to the NRSC and, with CCOSC, has been actively considering those improvements. [536]

6.39 A number of states suggested that the NRSC’s provision of national situational awareness could be improved. [537] The information available to the NRSC was reliant on the information provided by each state and territory as to their assessment of their available resources. [538] The NRSC did not have the capability to report a forecast of resources against the committed capacity of the jurisdictions. [539] Commissioner Whelan, ACT Emergency Services Agency, told us that, while the NRSC captured information based on what the states and territories advised was available, with the increasing likelihood of concurrent national disaster activity, it is ‘imperative that we actually have a national outlook to best understand what resources are or are not available’. [540]

6.40 There are opportunities to strengthen national resource sharing arrangements to ensure that Australia can best cope with disasters into the future. Resource sharing arrangements should provide a clear national picture of available resources. They should facilitate timely resource sharing in times of crisis, enabling sufficient and appropriate resources to be directed when and where they are needed most.

6.41 There is also a need for resource sharing to be within an authorising environment that is informed by broader risks and national resources (including Commonwealth resources), to ensure national situational awareness is provided to fire and emergency services in a response. Accountability and transparency for national coordination of resource sharing is discussed in Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements.

Firefighting trucks during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season

Figure 21: Firefighting trucks during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season [541]

A national register of personnel and equipment

6.42 A national register for resources, both personnel and equipment, would assist decision making during natural disasters. It would improve resource sharing by ensuring available resources are easily identified, and can be efficiently and strategically deployed in a response. [542] It could also be used to create a national picture of capability and national situational awareness.

6.43 The CSIRO’s Climate and Disaster Resilience Report advises that effective resource management starts with registration of resources:

Resource management starts with registration of vehicles, aircraft, equipment and personnel available (including details on skills and qualifications of deployed personnel), which can then be used for planning, tasking, tracking, and coordination of emergency response at national, state and incident levels. [543]

6.44 For a national register to be effective, there must be some consistency of descriptions used to register personnel, equipment and aircraft between jurisdictions. We heard that different descriptors for resources across states and territories exist and cause confusion when requesting resources. [544] Standardised descriptions for resources would provide greater clarity for all jurisdictions, improving resource sharing. [545]

Existing registers in state and territories

6.45 Registers of career and volunteer emergency responders exist within each jurisdiction. [546] In some cases there are multiple registers for each fire and emergency service agency. [547] Registers typically capture personal information, training and qualifications. [548] These registers can be used when organising deployments to confirm if a person is suitable and qualified. [549] Some jurisdictions maintain separate deployment registers to identify personnel interested in being deployed intrastate, interstate, or internationally. [550] We heard that challenges remain in capturing volunteer availability. [551]

6.46 Jurisdictions use different systems to track their equipment and personnel. [552] Fire and emergency services recognise the need to improve how they monitor and manage resources. We heard from former Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), now Deputy Secretary, Department of Premier and Cabinet and head of Resilience NSW that:

…one of the big lessons we had out of this season, was our resource tracking systems are rudimentary and they need to be more sophisticated and more mature into the future. [553]

Better management of emergency responders

6.47 Fatigue management was a concern over the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. Some firefighters reported experiencing fatigue, at times feeling both physically and mentally exhausted. [554] We heard from firefighters who worked long shifts extending to 16 hours at a time, sometimes longer. [555] We also heard from other firefighters who were available but were not utilised or deployed, despite their willingness. [556]

6.48 We heard about the need to ensure that processes for deployments are suitable to both paid and volunteer personnel. For example, volunteers need enough notice ahead of a deployment to arrange leave with their employer. [557] We heard from volunteers that processes that did not adequately consider volunteer needs resulted in the inability to mobilise the ‘full depth of volunteer capacity’. [558]

6.49 The 2019‑2020 season highlighted the need for improved systems for managing and rostering the thousands of emergency responders working at any given time in a response. As seasons get longer and more complex, tracking and monitoring of deployed personnel through a register would provide a better understanding of overall capacity and improve fatigue management. Jurisdictional registers should be developed in a way that can be aggregated to provide a national picture of resources to facilitate resource sharing and enable national operational capacity.

NRSC Deployment Registry and ARENA

6.50 AFAC has proposed the development of a National Deployment Registry through the NRSC. [559] The proposal includes a registry of personnel and a single national IT system to manage interstate personnel deployments. The IT system would support the NRSC to fill resource requests, share information, track resources and create situation reports. AFAC previously launched a Deployment Registry to support outbound international deployment. [560]

6.51 The proposal for a National Deployment Registry for the NRSC was endorsed by CCOSC in July 2020 subject to further development in consultation with AFAC members. [561] However, no funding was committed and the proposal is still in an early stage. [562]

6.52 We heard that it is AFAC’s aim for the National Deployment Registry to provide near to real-time data of available fire and emergency services resources for the purposes of resource sharing through the NRSC. [563] AFAC acknowledged that this will require considerable development of the software tool, and will not be possible in the first iteration of the Registry. [564]

6.53 The National Deployment Registry proposal, if it is accepted and developed, would provide benefits. However, it will not have a complete picture of national resources, as the NRSC does not capture all domestic resource sharing. The NRSC does not facilitate bilateral resource sharing outside of the AIA, and is accordingly unable to provide situational awareness for all deployment activity. [565]

6.54 The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), a business unit of AFAC, maintains ARENA - a management support system for aerial firefighting resources. [566] ARENA provides a registry of aircraft, operators and crew, visibility of available ‘Call When Needed’ aircraft, real-time tracking of aircraft locations and dispatch functionality. [567] All states and territories use the registry functions of ARENA, including for some aircraft that are not procured through NAFC (Chapter 8: National aerial firefighting capabilities and arrangements). However, not all aircraft are recorded in ARENA and not all states and territories currently use the aircraft dispatch functions. [568] AFAC told us that the utilisation of a common national system, such as ARENA, for dispatch and monitoring would enhance the effective sharing of resources, providing national, real-time visibility of resource availability and commitment. [569]

A national register

6.55 A national register would build on AFAC’s National Deployment Registry proposal and the existing functionality provided by ARENA and collate a national understanding of available personnel, equipment and aerial assets. This would support national situational awareness during a response and could inform national capability development. Further, a national register would facilitate interstate resource sharing. A national register should eventually be able to facilitate the tracking of all resource deployments, to assist visibility of deployments and situational awareness for operational decision making.

6.56 The development of a national register with such capabilities is not a short term project. State and territory fire and emergency services should consider the development of a national register as a part of their long-term capability planning. Any national register should consider how existing registers and tracking tools can best be used, to maximise interoperability and leverage existing investment. [570] Existing state and territory registers already capture much of the necessary information to create a national register, although interoperability is limited. [571] In the short term, states and territory should work to harmonise registers, for example through consistent descriptions of resources and interoperable IT platforms, with the long term goal of creating state and territory systems that can be aggregated into a comprehensive national registry of personnel and equipment.

6.57 A national register should facilitate and support the interstate sharing of state and territory fire and emergency services resources, including personnel, equipment and aerial assets, and the sharing and deployment of international fire and emergency services resources in Australia. The national register should support tracking of personnel, equipment and aerial assets deployments interstate and internationally.

Recommendation 6.2 A national register of fire and emergency services personnel and equipment

Australian, state and territory governments should establish a national register of fire and emergency services personnel, equipment and aerial assets.

National interoperability

6.58 The term interoperability is commonly used by fire and emergency services to refer to the ability for agencies (the individuals and/or agencies as a whole) and equipment to interact and integrate with each other.

6.59 For resource sharing to occur efficiently and effectively, the people, equipment and systems used across the nation need to be interoperable. Interoperability of equipment, systems and personnel is necessary for efficient coordination of response across borders and effective deployments interstate.

6.60 Achieving national interoperability would mean that each jurisdiction understands and trusts the capability of other jurisdictions, and can communicate and integrate with others’ systems, equipment and personnel in a response, without the need for significant workarounds or just-in-time training.

6.61 Fire and emergency services have worked to improve interoperability over time, including through the use of AIIMS by all state and territory fire and emergency services agencies. [572]

6.62 Nevertheless, ongoing challenges remain. We heard about key challenges and opportunities for increased interoperability, particularly with respect to:

  • communication equipment
  • time taken to replace firefighting equipment, and
  • training and qualifications for emergency response personnel.

Incident Management Team Hawksbury Gospers Mountain Fire December 2019

Figure 22: Incident Management Team Hawksbury Gospers Mountain Fire December 2019 [573]

Responding to natural disasters at the border

6.63 Natural disasters do not respect borders. Where a natural disaster is at, or crosses, a state or territory border, the operational response to that natural disaster requires coordination of response between control agencies. This requires coordinated planning, effective communication, sharing of situational awareness information and coordination of control.

6.64 We heard from Queensland, NSW, the ACT and Victoria, in particular, as to arrangements that facilitate cross-border response. Those arrangements vary, and include memoranda of understanding between border brigades and between agencies. [574]

6.65 We heard that there were difficulties in some instances with information sharing when managing border-border fires, during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. [575] We heard that limited or delayed information sharing impacted the ability to coordinate timely response activities. [576] Information sharing was complicated by agencies using different data and communication systems. [577]

6.66 Differences at the border can also include terminology, procedures, protocol and legislation, impacting the way each jurisdiction is able to respond. These differences can pose significant challenges to coordination of response efforts at the border. [578] Bordering jurisdictions mitigate or minimise the impact of these communication and information sharing challenges by agreeing border plans, conducting joint training and exercising. [579]

6.67 We heard that fire and emergency services use Liaison Officers in cross border incidents. Traditionally, Liaison Officers, a role defined in AIIMS, coordinate resource sharing and facilitate information sharing between agencies. The Liaison Officer role has been expanded to assist cross border incidents. In one example during the 2019‑2020 bushfires, Liaison Officers were embedded in bordering jurisdictions’ incident management teams (IMT) to ‘facilitate consistent and complementary strategies and tactics.’ [580]

6.68 The Victorian Inquiry into the 2019‑2020 bushfires season found:

Liaison Officers were in place in border region IMTs and were deemed to have worked well, although stakeholders also discussed the lack of trigger conditions and prompts needed to get them into place in a planned way. [581]

6.69 We heard there may be value in other jurisdictions utilising the cross-border liaison officer model to support coordination and communication in future cross border incidents. [582] This could be supported by the development of an agreed standard for cross border Liaison Officers, including when they should be used (eg level 2 or 3 incidents), as well as responsibilities and skills set required to fulfil the role. [583]

6.70 It is important for cross-border arrangements and protocols to be regularly reviewed, implemented and updated, and to consider best practice.

6.71 We note Recommendation 13 of the NSW Inquiry into the 2019‑2020 bushfires:

That, to ensure updated resource-sharing arrangements are in place, the NSW and Victorian Governments progress and finalise a multi-agency Memorandum of Understanding before the 2020-21 fire season commences. [584]

Interoperability of private firefighters and primary producers

6.72 Private firefighters and primary producers offer additional capacity and capability that can be operationalised by fire and emergency services to meet peak demands. Private firefighters and primary producers can provide valuable expertise and local knowledge. Private forestry industry brigades and farm fire units made a significant contribution during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [585] However, we heard that coordination between these groups and fire and emergency services was often not ideal and was hindered by limited communication. [586]

6.73 Fire and emergency services should ensure they utilise private emergency responders effectively and safely to respond to natural disasters. For example, in SA, Victoria and Queensland, private plantation firefighters may form ‘industry brigades’, which are identified as Country Fire Service (CFS), CFA or rural fire brigades respectively, and operate under that structure with the associated liability protections. [587] NSW does not have ‘industry brigades’, but Forestry Corporation NSW contracts private firefighters to supplement resources during the fire season. We heard that the approach in NSW leaves private firefighters without the necessary liability protections to effectively and safely assist in a response. [588]

6.74 Fire and emergency services should ensure that private firefighters they directly engage or contract in a response have the same protections as paid and volunteer emergency responders.

6.75 States and territories also have variable means of cooperation with primary producers and landowners. Queensland, for example has less formalised ‘primary producer brigades’ [589] and NSW has commenced a ‘Farm Fire Unit Integration project’. [590] The ACT, by contrast, generally does not engage private firefighters and has ceased the provision of ‘slip on’ units to landowners for fire suppression. [591]

6.76 Primary producers and land owners could be supported by receiving training (where appropriate), and ensuring clear communication through interoperable equipment. Both the NSW and SA 2019‑2020 bushfire inquiries identified better integration of Farm Fire units as important in managing and responding to future bushfires. [592]

Communication interoperability

6.77 In responding to disasters, timely and reliable communication is important. Communication is essential to provide situational awareness, to inform decision making and ensure the safety of emergency responders.

Communication equipment on the ground

6.78 Interoperable communications equipment is vital for cooperation between fire and emergency services. A lack of interoperability of communications equipment can make information sharing in the field challenging or impossible. [593] This is especially the case where people from different jurisdictions are working together to respond to a natural disaster. [594] Effective communication among emergency responders on the ground relies on the equipment (eg radio type), the radio channels and the radio network (eg government radio network) they use being compatible.

So we are unable to communicate with a number of agencies. They all run … separate radios. The recent fire season saw one of our vehicles with five different radio systems in it: a DELWP one, an RFS, a CFA, a Forest Corp, and a UHF hand piece, all in one vehicle. [595]

6.79 There is no single standard for radio equipment or unified radio network for emergency services nationally. [596] Historically, each agency has operated on its own radio network. [597] This has resulted in a lack of technical interoperability between agencies and between jurisdictions. For example, two different agencies attending the same response may not be able to communicate via their radios. Different radios are not just used by fire and emergency services but also by Australian Government organisations that may be involved in a response, such as the Australian Defence Force. [598]

6.80 Achieving interoperable radio communications has been an ongoing challenge for fire and emergency services, with numerous inquiries and post‑event reviews into natural disasters making recommendations for greater communications interoperability. [599]

6.81 Legacy communication networks appear to be able to be adjusted to improve interoperability, albeit with challenges. [600] For example, efforts have been made to improve interoperability between Queensland RFS and NSW RFS at the border, integrating and linking the two communication networks. [601]

Different suppliers of radio, different systems, different frequencies and different protocols all add to the inability to communicate effectively on the fire ground. [602]

6.82 At least one jurisdiction introduced an entirely new communication system to improve interoperability. The ACT RFS introduced the same communications systems as NSW RFS to enable interoperability. [603] ACT RFS radio can now access NSW RFS operational radio channels. [604]

6.83 Despite some progress, we heard from emergency responders about the challenges they experienced with radio communications over the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. We heard that, within jurisdictions, multiple radio networks are still used by agencies, making effective communication difficult. [605] Further we heard that challenges communicating at the border remain, with one firefighter explaining that ‘bar from getting out and waving at them, there’s not much you can really do’. [606]

6.84 We heard that workarounds are used when personnel are deployed interstate to overcome the lack of common radio equipment and systems. It is typical for interstate personnel to be deployed in a ‘strike team’ of multiple personnel with their own communication equipment, allowing them to communicate among themselves. [607] The leader of the strike team is then responsible for coordinating and communicating with the incident controller for tasking, fire ground intelligence and safety alerts. Some emergency responders told us that this workaround was successful during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, allowing deployed personnel to integrate into response activities. [608] However, we also heard of deployed personnel being left without the ability to communicate with others on the fire ground, impacting the timeliness of communication and the safety of crew. [609] One volunteer told us:

The CFA crews could not interact with any of the New South Wales counterparts during their deployments with their own appliances. This, on its own, was extremely dangerous. Previously communication vans were deployed with task forces. This did not occur this past season. If CFA crews were using RFS appliances, there was still extreme difficulty communicating during deployments. [610]

Communication with aircraft

6.85 Communications between aircraft and ground crews are important to ensure a coordinated tactical response and to ensure the safety of crews in the air and on the ground. Aircraft can provide ground crews with important situational awareness of their surroundings and advise of escape routes where necessary. NAFC contracts require that aircraft be equipped to communicate with the relevant fire agencies operating on the ground during operations. [611]

6.86 Because each state or territory operates a different tactical radio communications system for ground operations, there are implications for communication with aircraft. [612]

6.87 Tactical radio communications systems are separate from, and incompatible with, the aeronautical radio systems that are normally used in aircraft. This means that firefighting aircraft need to be equipped with at least two radio systems: one to communicate with ground crews and the other to communicate with air traffic control and other aircraft. This makes communications difficult and has safety implications for pilots.

6.88 There are technical and practical limitations to equipping aircraft with multiple tactical radio systems. In most instances, at least two tactical radio units are required per jurisdiction. Different radio antennas are also required for different jurisdictions, and most aircraft have limited space for mounting antennas. The acquisition and support of tactical radios is also costly.

6.89 We heard that incompatible communication impacts the coordination and use of aerial firefighting assets. Additional problems arise in border areas where two separate ground communications systems might be required in addition to aeronautical radio. For example, during 2019, when there were bushfires in northern NSW and southern Queensland, Queensland authorities requested assistance from a nearby, NSW-based helicopter in gathering situational awareness on a fire on the Queensland side of the border. As the helicopter had no means of direct communication with the Queensland personnel on the ground it was necessary to land the aircraft and arrange a meeting in-person to convey the necessary information to the ground personnel. [613]

6.90 When an aircraft moves to another jurisdiction, work is required to change radios such as by reprogramming, changing the radio unit or installing new radios. This impacts aerial resource sharing, requiring additional time and costs to allow aircraft to work interstate.

Addressing communications interoperability

6.91 Australian, state and territory governments have long recognised the need to improve the national interoperability of communications equipment and networks used by emergency services. [614]

6.92 Numerous previous inquiries into natural disaster events have recommended the need for interoperable communications. [615] For example, in 2004, The National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management supported the development of a national strategic plan to enable interoperability of emergency service radio communication across Australia, work that at the time, was already underway by a National Coordination Committee for Government Radio Communications. The National Framework to Improve Government Radio Communications Interoperability 2010-2020 was agreed by Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in 2009. [616] The framework states:

The National Framework suggests an indicative ten-year timeframe to allow jurisdictions sufficient time to align technical requirements with their procurement cycles and thus significantly mitigate any cost of change. Most jurisdictions are already either implementing or planning their next technology refresh and all jurisdictions will most likely do so in the Frameworks timeframe. [617]

6.93 A decade on, despite the recognition of the importance of interoperable communications by governments and fire and emergency services, progress has been very limited. One might have hoped by now that the framework would be fully implemented.

6.94 To our inquiry, the Australian Government and all states and territories offered support or support in principle for governments working towards ensuring that emergency communications are interoperable across jurisdictions. However, SA, Victoria and Queensland noted the significant costs required to achieve interoperability. [618] Further WA noted that:

[i]ntegration of communication systems between jurisdictions (which is high cost) may be appropriate for those jurisdictions where there is a high degree of cross-border activity. This is not the case for WA. The lower-cost approach WA successfully uses involves having locally-based equipment (configured to local radio networks) available to personnel deploying into WA from other jurisdictions for emergencies or major planned events. [619]

6.95 The NT told us that the interoperability of equipment and cross border firefighting ‘have minimal bearing on the NT, which rarely experiences natural disasters that require a cross border emergency response’. [620] It stated that the more ‘pressing priority in the NT was intrastate interoperability.’

6.96 Further, SA also noted ‘that communications planning between agencies developing (or that have developed) interoperability is crucial to successful outcomes’. [621]

6.97 We encourage governments to prioritise arrangements to deliver more interoperable communications equipment and improve interoperability of communications. We acknowledge that achieving interoperability will take significant investment and that it cannot occur overnight. However, this does not mean that years should pass with little progress. Rather, it demands that steps be taken now to agree and plan how communications interoperability will be achieved.

6.98 Achieving interoperable communication between all fire and emergency services should be addressed in long-term capability planning, and will require ongoing collaboration, coordination and action between states and territories.

Recommendation 6.3 Interoperable communications for fire and emergency services across jurisdictions

State and territory governments should update and implement the National Framework to Improve Government Radio Communications Interoperability, or otherwise agree a new strategy, to achieve interoperable communications across jurisdictions.

Public Safety Mobile Broadband

6.99 A Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB) capability is a dedicated mobile broadband service for emergency services to use. PSMB capability would enable first responders to make better use of internet-based technologies and applications to access video, images, location tracking and other data. [622] A PSMB capability would provide support to emergency responders broadly, not just in natural disasters.

6.100 The existing land and mobile ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio communication used by fire and emergency services are largely reliable in critical response situations (albeit not interoperable with other services), but cannot support heavy data traffic and web-based applications. [623] Fire and emergency services are increasingly relying on more complex and diverse information technologies that cannot be shared via existing UHF radio systems; for example, Automatic Vehicle Location services, databases and maps. [624]

6.101 We heard frustration from emergency responders and governments about the time taken to deliver PSMB. [625]

6.102 Over the past decade, progress towards a PSMB capability has been slow, even taking into account the project complexity, with multiple extended delays since the initiative was established. The Australian, state and territory governments first agreed the need for a PSMB capability as one means to improve Australian natural disaster arrangements in 2009. [626] The implementation deadlines of the PSMB capability continue to shift. The timeframe set out in the 2018 Roadmap shows implementation commencing in 2020-2021. [627] We were told that this timeline is no longer on track and it is unclear when the capability will be delivered. [628]

6.103 The Australian, state and territory governments disagree about which of them is best placed to lead and fund the PSMB capability. Some states and territories suggest the Australian Government should ‘provide leadership’ [629] and invest further to deliver the PSMB. [630] It was suggested that an absence of dedicated funding across states and territories is the key barrier to progressing delivery of the PSMB capability. [631] Others, including some state and territory governments, suggest the Australian government’s delay in allocating the necessary spectrum needed to deliver the PSMB has acted as a roadblock to implementation. [632] An offer of spectrum was made by the Australian Government at a reduced market price to states and territory government on 28 November 2018, and negotiations are ongoing. [633] While the NSW Inquiry into the 2019‑2020 Bushfires recommended that the Australian Government allocate spectrum for PSMB at no cost to states and territories, it does not appear to us that their Inquiry had the benefit of the extent of evidence we have received. [634]

6.104 PSMB will not resolve all communication issues faced by emergency responders. It will not resolve incompatibility of existing state communication systems and it will not work in mobile black spots as it relies on commercial mobile networks. [635] Nevertheless, PSMB provides a significant advancement that would enhance network and data access in the field. [636] It will also be important for PSMB implementation to be supported by appropriate end-use devices, policy, procedures and training. [637]

6.105 A national PSMB capability would confer significant benefits to emergency responders in the states and territories, and should be prioritised. The cost of the PSMB should be shared by governments reflecting the collective responsibility and shared benefits of a national capability for emergency responders.

6.106 As the PSMB develops, there should be a national coordinating body to oversee PSMB development and maintenance. This body would ensure ongoing efficiency of the PSMB capability and act as a coordination point to support cooperation between governments. This body should sit within the Australian Government, but have state and territory representation.

6.107 All governments, along with telecommunications carriers, supported or supported in principle the prioritisation of negotiations for a comprehensive and cost-effective delivery of the PSMB.

Recommendation 6.4 Delivery of a Public Safety Mobile Broadband capability

Australian, state and territory governments should expedite the delivery of a Public Safety Mobile Broadband capability.

National training standards

6.108 Fire and emergency services personnel should be able to work seamlessly together, irrespective of the jurisdiction or agency from which they come. A level of national consistency in training and competency standards is important to facilitate effective sharing of resources between jurisdictions and services, and to provide portability of skills for emergency responders. [638]

6.109 There has been substantial progress in Australia towards national consistency of training and national recognition of qualifications. This includes the Public Safety Training Package (PSTP) [639] and AFAC’s Emergency Management Professionalisation Scheme. Nevertheless, we heard that there is further work that can be done to assist interstate deployments and portability of skills.

Firefighters working together, 2019‑2020 bushfires

Figure 23: Firefighters working together, 2019‑2020 bushfires [640]

Public Safety Training Package

6.110 The Public Safety Training Package (PSTP) establishes national training standards and qualifications for fire and emergency services, and the emergency management sector. [641] The PSTP is maintained under the direction of the Public Safety Industry Reference Committee, which is made up of representatives from the emergency services industry, such as AFAC. [642] Qualifications under the PSTP are nationally recognised as a part of the national vocational education and training (VET) system, with the delivery of these qualifications being regulated by the National VET Regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, or the VET regulators in Victoria and WA. [643]

6.111 All state and territory fire and emergency services use the PSTP as the basis for delivering their fire and emergency services training. [644] However, the PSTP does not provide consistent training across all jurisdictions as each agency incorporates the PSTP into their training in different ways. [645] While many agencies seek to align their training with the qualification under the PSTP, they may not accredit their courses to deliver qualifications. [646] It appears that agencies take this approach to ‘balance the requirements of the role versus the extra volume of learning needed to make a course accredited’. [647]

6.112 We heard concerns from fire and emergency service agencies as to the heavy administrative burden and high costs associated with being a registered training organisation. [648] Only training providers that are registered with the national vocational education and training regulator are able to deliver nationally recognised training towards qualifications. We encourage the Australian Government to work with the states and territories to consider whether this is creating barriers to national training and to address such concerns.

Despite representative bodies drive for change… jurisdictional differences in training competencies, validation, exercising and accreditation against jurisdictional legislation impedes the seamless transition of personnel across roles across the nation. [649]

6.113 We also heard that fire and emergency services have different competency requirements for particular roles. [650] For example requirements to complete ‘plantation firefighter’ training differs between the South Australian CFS and Victorian CFA, [651] creating an apparent need for double accreditation to operate on both sides of the border. [652] Further, there is no consistent competency requirements to meet incident management team roles
(eg planning officer). [653] We heard that variations are often due to agency-specific training requirements (eg specific equipment or safety standards), some of which exceed the standard set by the PSTP. [654]

6.114 We heard from volunteer firefighters that there is limited understanding of how training provided by each agency compares, impacting the portability of training and skills across borders. For example, private forestry firefighters told us that they complete basic firefighting training for each jurisdiction they work in because it is easier to re-train than get training from one jurisdiction recognised in another. [655]

6.115 Fire and emergency services have shown support for the PSTP but do not utilise the package in a consistent way resulting in varying levels of training, skills and difficulty transferring skills across borders.

The Emergency Management Professionalisation Scheme

6.116 AFAC’s Emergency Management Professionalisation Scheme (EMPS) credentials (through registration and certification) fire and emergency services practitioners based on national benchmarks for a number of fire management and incident management roles. [656] While the education component of the EMPS is based on the PSTP, a PSTP qualification does not transfer automatically to registration or certification. Registration requires two years practical experience and endorsement by the home agency. Certification under EMPS provides a higher-level credential, with certified personnel being interviewed by a panel of industry peers, providing assurance of their expertise and experience. The EMPS is intended to address concerns that personnel with an ‘on paper’ qualification lack training, experience or currency to deploy interstate or internationally. [657]

6.117 The EMPS is generally supported by fire and emergency services agencies although some note that the roles certified under EMPS are not comprehensive. [658] Further, AFAC notes that uptake of credentialing has been relatively slow. AFAC attributes this to a number of factors including variable approaches to training pathways, fire and emergency services not delivering nationally recognised training and poor record keeping by fire and emergency services around training. [659]

Terminology, protocols and procedures

6.118 We did not hear that differences in training significantly impeded the ability to deploy personnel interstate during the 2019‑2020 bushfires season. [660] Nevertheless, we heard that there were some difficulties resulting from inconsistencies between jurisdictions.

6.119 We heard that the definition of incident levels varies across jurisdictions, which can have unintended consequences when aligning competencies to incident levels (eg Level 3 Incident Controller). [661] We also heard that some firefighters experienced difficulties with inconsistent terminology and protocols when deployed interstate, significantly impacting their ability to conduct their jobs safely and effectively. For example, a ‘K’ on a tree in NSW means a koala is present; but in Victoria it signifies a ‘killer tree’ that is extremely dangerous and should not be approached. [662]

6.120 There is merit in further harmonising approaches to terminology, protocols and procedures for fire and emergency services in order to facilitate seamless interstate deployments. Nationally consistent training would be supported by common terminology, protocols, procedures, and common standards of competency for particular roles.

Improvements to the national approach to training and competency standards

6.121 Some variation in training is necessary to take account of local environmental conditions, legislative requirements, and emergency management frameworks. However, these differences should not impede the ability of fire and emergency services personnel to work across jurisdictions. As natural disaster risk increases, greater consistency in training standards and common base competency requirements for roles typically used in large scale natural disasters and requiring resource sharing, such as incident management roles, would be beneficial.

6.122 Some fire and emergency services agencies and personnel have shown support for more consistent standards for training and competency nationally. [663] Victoria and the ACT suggested that there was scope for the harmonisation of minimum training standards for firefighters and emergency services personnel to the extent necessary to ensure transferability of qualifications. [664] A standard package of base training could then be supplemented by additional agency-specific training.

6.123 AFAC suggested the development of an agreed ‘passport’, that is, a set of agreed minimum set of skills needed for particular roles commonly requested under resources sharing arrangements. [665] This passport would provide a level of confidence that deployed personnel had common and appropriate skills for their roles.

6.124 However, the drive for consistency should not create new barriers or deterrents for volunteers. [666]

6.125 The emergency management sector is working together in a number of ways to improve national consistency around state and territory training, including the EMPS, Jurisdictional Emergency Management Education Network (JEMEN), [667] the Public Safety Industry Reference Committee and AFAC’s Learning and Development Group. [668] For example, the ‘curriculum mapping’ project undertaken by JEMEN has identified where collaboration and standardisation of emergency management training can be facilitated between jurisdictions. [669] It is appropriate to consider how existing training groups, frameworks and projects could be harnessed to further improve national consistency and agree to common base competency standards.

6.126 We also heard concern about the low number of enrolments in higher level incident management qualifications. [670] We heard that there are low numbers of specialist and incident management roles such as aviation specialists, fire behaviour analysts and level 3 incident controllers. [671]

6.127 Some jurisdictions see benefit in the Australian government playing a greater role to support and raise national training and competency standards. [672] For example, Commissioner Darren Klemm AFSM, Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia, suggested:

The emergency management sector would benefit from Commonwealth support to raise the standard required within the PSTP to ensure a higher level of professionalisation for personnel entering and progressing through respective agencies. [673]

6.128 Until 2015, nationally coordinated and funded training was delivered by the Australian Government through the Australian Emergency Management Institute (AEMI) at Mt Macedon in Victoria. [674] AEMI delivered education, research and training in national emergency management and disaster resilience, including fire and emergency services, local government and some humanitarian aid organisations. [675] We heard strong support from some states and territories for the re-invigoration of the AEMI, or an equivalent national training program. [676]

6.129 In particular, some states and territories identified value in national delivery of higher level emergency management training and advanced level incident management roles (such as Level 2 and Level 3 Incident Management Courses). [677] We heard that the long‑term investment in the Australian Institute of Police Management has been successful in creating improved interoperability in approaches to policing. [678] A similar approach to joint training for fire and emergency services leaders could build relationships, provide understanding of other jurisdictions’ emergency management arrangements and, over time, support harmonisation of positions, protocols and terminology.

6.130 We also heard concerns from local governments that the closure of AEMI impacted the quality of, and opportunities for, emergency management training that was available to them. [679] Following the closure of AEMI, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR) has provided some national online training and professional development events. However, there are functions of AEMI that have not been transferred. [680]

6.131 Improving national consistency of training and competency standards will require collaboration between Australian, state and territory governments.

6.132 Australian, state and territory governments should consider whether national training for incident management roles would assist to increase numbers of trained personnel and support interstate deployments. These governments should also consider the development of an appropriate base standard of training or competency for roles that would obtain automatic national recognition.

6.133 The development of a national register of qualified fire and emergency service personnel was broadly supported in principle by Australian state and territory governments and AFAC. [681] However, AFAC maintained that the NRSC and NAFC capabilities should be retained by AFAC. WA did not support a register on the basis that interstate resource sharing should not be limited to nationally accredited personnel, however, that is not our suggestion. Victoria supported the management of such a register by EMA and Queensland stated:

Queensland recommends that the national register be hosted and funded by a national body with standardised accreditation data that is inclusive of the paid and volunteer workforce. [682]

6.134 The AFAC EMPS provides some accreditation, but it is in its early stages and uptake has been slow. [683] For an accreditation scheme to support resource sharing and inform a national picture of capability, broad participation of fire and emergency services is required. AFAC suggested that the existing EMPS framework should be used to develop a more comprehensive scheme. [684]

6.135 There is merit in the states and territories considering further use and development of the EMPS, and how it could be used to support a national register.

6.136 Over time, as states and territories work towards more consistent training and competency standards outlined above, fire and emergency services may reach a level of national consistency, such that personnel are automatically nationally accredited when a jurisdictional qualification is obtained.

6.137 In the short-term, states and territories should consider the development and implementation of a national accreditation scheme for specialist and incident management team roles. National accreditation would help identify qualified fire and emergency service personnel for resource sharing and provide a national picture of personnel capacity and capability.

National-level exercises

An exercise is a controlled, objective-driven activity used for testing, practising or evaluating processes or capabilities. [685]

6.138 Exercises are an essential component of preparedness and are used to enhance capability and contribute to continuous improvement. [686] Multiagency, national-level exercises can improve interoperability by building relationships between jurisdictions and strengthening understanding of each jurisdiction’s protocols and procedures. [687] These exercises can help evaluate resource sharing arrangements and identify capability gaps on a national scale.

6.139 Exercises can be tailored to test particular capabilities or capacity, and can include desktop, workshops and in-field activities. Exercising is used by all states and territories to test emergency management plans and frameworks. [688] It is typical for exercising to be required as a part of emergency management plans. [689] We heard that exercising is used to test cross border arrangements to ensure that relevant agencies and personnel are familiar with their roles and responsibilities. [690] However, we heard that some states do not regularly conduct joint exercises, [691] and multi-agency exercising is not regularly conducted to test national resource sharing arrangements under the AIA and NRSC. [692]

6.140 AFAC and some fire and emergency services agencies support exercising of national resource sharing arrangements. [693] Exercising could test national resource sharing arrangements with the goal of improving processes for the deployment physical and human resources. Queensland and Victoria suggested a role for the Australian Government in supporting national preparedness and capability development by coordinating interjurisdictional exercises and operational training. [694] Commissioner Darren Klemm, Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia, considered that:

Commonwealth supported and coordinated national training opportunities and exercising across States would provide greater exposure for jurisdictions and improved interoperability between states and territories in advance of a national deployment campaign such as that seen during the 2019/20 bushfire season. [695]

6.141 While WA supported arrangements that improve capacity and capability development including national-level exercises, it stated that ‘[t]he scope and mechanisms for the sharing arrangements however need to be considered and agreed between jurisdictions.’ [696] A number of states and territories referred to the significant resources required to deliver national-level exercises. [697] Both Queensland and Tasmania referred to the possibility of leveraging off the work of the Australia‑New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee’s Exercise Management Capability. [698]

6.142 The CSIRO Climate and Resilience report suggests that national exercising is needed to prepare for climate scenarios:

While various emergency services organisations simulate their response to potential disasters within their jurisdictions (eg NSW SES conducted an exercise simulating a flood event in the Hawkesbury and Nepean floodplain), there is potential to extend such scenario testing and exercising to cross state and territory borders and simulate responses to coincident and consecutive events in terms of warnings, responses, deployment of resources and coordination of recovery efforts, and improve arrangements and plans before they are needed. [699]

6.143 Exercising should be used to ensure that the first time capabilities, systems and coordination are ‘stress-tested’ is not during an incident.

6.144 National exercises should be used to evaluate plans, develop and assess competence of personnel, identify resource needs, gaps, and build relationships. They should not be limited to combat agencies but should engage broader emergency management sector and stakeholders. National exercises should use scenarios that assess response to, and recovery from, coincident and consecutive natural disasters, including severe weather event scenarios developed with the assistance of climate modelling. Among other things, it should use scenarios incorporating:

  • infrastructure and supply-chain vulnerabilities
  • cross border coordination, and
  • resource sharing and prioritisation.

6.145 Where relevant, national exercises should include non-government actors, such as critical infrastructure owners and operators; and media representatives to test understanding of roles and responsibilities and information flow.

6.146 Lessons learnt from national-level exercises should be used to inform capability development and support the continuous improvement of interoperability and national resource sharing arrangements.

Recommendation 6.5 Multi-agency national-level exercises

Australian, state and territory governments should conduct multi-agency, national-level exercises, not limited to cross-border jurisdictions. These exercises should, at a minimum:

  1. assess national capacity, inform capability development and coordination in response to, and recovery from, natural disasters, and
  2. use scenarios that stress current capabilities.

Supporting the volunteer workforce

6.147 Australia has a strong culture of volunteerism with over 200,000 [700] volunteer emergency responders nationally. Volunteers are willing to give their time to protect their communities, generally seeking no more than support and respect. [701] However, volunteers have competing demands that impact their availability and ability to participate in emergency response activities. This needs to be considered in emergency responder workforce planning and recruitment.

RFS volunteers don’t fight fires for free, we volunteer our time to the community. We are not a cheap commodity to be used up and thrown away. Our time comes at a great cost to ourselves, our families and the community. For volunteerism in Australia to thrive, RFS firefighters need to be respected and looked after. [702]

6.148 Volunteer emergency responders make up the majority of the emergency responder workforce in all states and territories. [703] Volunteers are the core responders for rural areas and provide the surge capacity needed to respond to large or concurrent natural disasters. [704]

6.149 During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, Australia’s attention was drawn to the role volunteers play in natural disasters, placing themselves on the frontline of a national crisis. With natural disaster seasons becoming longer and more intense, greater expectations and demands are being placed on volunteers. Appropriate support is required for volunteers, including training to ensure appropriate safety standards and equipment for their health and wellbeing.

6.150 Supporting and sustaining an effective volunteer workforce is vital. [705] The need for volunteers will only grow as Australia faces increasing natural disaster risk. [706] The President of the Council of Australian Volunteer Firefighting Associations told us that Australia needs a ‘vibrant, slowly expanding, volunteer emergency sector’ to match the country’s expanding population. [707]

6.151 Volunteers also need to be engaged and mobilised in a way that recognises the competing demands on their time.

6.152 Fire and emergency services each manage their own volunteer workforce. However, Queensland and Victorian governments suggest that a national approach to encouraging volunteer participation should be developed. [708] Queensland suggests there should be strategic national investment across fire and emergency services in volunteer recruitment. Victoria considers that the development of a national employment policy that provides incentives for volunteers and their employers, as well as increases employment protection for volunteers, would support volunteer participation nationally. [709]

Financial support for volunteers

6.153 Representatives of volunteer firefighting associations told us that the majority of their members do not want direct payment. [710] Volunteer firefighters are motivated by a desire to protect the community they live in and by the sense of fulfilment they gain from contributing to their community in a meaningful way. [711]

6.154 However, we heard that volunteers can face financial challenges as a result of their volunteering, especially in long campaigns, as was the case during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. [712]

6.155 In response to the challenges faced by volunteers in the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, the Australian Government announced a volunteer support payment scheme. The scheme was a one-off payment for volunteer firefighters and SES volunteers in NSW, ACT, Queensland, SA and Tasmania, who were:

  • self-employed or work for small and medium businesses, and
  • called out for more than 10 days of service over the 2019‑2020 season.

6.156 Payments were administered by state and territory governments and provided compensation for lost income of up to $300 per day, up to a total of $6,000 per person. [713] These payments recognised the extraordinary circumstances of the season and the impact on volunteers’ livelihoods.

6.157 Numerous public submissions and several state and territory fire and emergency services welcomed the scheme. Some fire and emergency services suggested that ongoing support would ease the burdens and barriers to ongoing participation by volunteer firefighters. [714] Numerous public submissions support some type of compensation for volunteers, especially during long campaigns [715] and others have stressed the need to make these payments easy to access. [716]

6.158 A large number of volunteers are self-employed, for example as farmers. These individuals make financial sacrifices to leave their business and deploy to the frontline. [717] In long responses, such as was seen during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, financial losses for these volunteers can be significant.

6.159 Volunteer firefighting associations point out that, while not seeking payment, volunteers should not be ‘worse off’ as a result of their volunteering. [718] Volunteer firefighters told our inquiry they can sometime be worse off, for example, as a result of paying for additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and small tools they are not provided by their agency. [719]

6.160 States and territories have acknowledged the need to provide consistent support to all emergency responders. To address inadequate PPE, the NSW Inquiry into the 2019‑2020 bushfires recommended that all operational members should be provided with two sets of personnel protective clothing. [720] Additionally, the NSW RFS has committed to making suitable face masks, goggles and flash hoods available to volunteers.

6.161 Volunteering Australia, a representative body for volunteers more broadly, suggested the need to clarify the government’s volunteer compensation position for future emergencies, [721] explaining that any compensation scheme should be developed in consultation with volunteers. [722] Commissioner Darren Klemm, Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia, told our inquiry that discussion around how volunteer compensation should be structured must engage volunteers and be considered nationally. [723]

Box 6.1 Australia’s majority volunteer fire and emergency services workforce

Australia’s fire and emergency services workforce is predominantly volunteer. The Report on Government Services 2020 shows that in 2018-2019 volunteers made up approximately 90% of the firefighting and emergency services workforce across Australia. [724] This trend was consistent across states. However, volunteers make up less of the workforce in the ACT (78%) and the NT (70%).

Volunteers as percentage of the fire and emergency services workforce 2018-2019

Figure 24: Volunteers as percentage of the fire and emergency services workforce 2018-2019 [725]

The Report on Government Services 2020 shows that the total number of fire and emergency services volunteers has remained over 200,000 for the decade from 2009-2019. Volunteer numbers rose to approximately 250,000 in 2015-2016 and have decreased slightly to 231,000 in 2018-2019.

Number of fire and emergency services volunteers 2009-2019

Figure 25: Number of fire and emergency services volunteers 2009-2019 [726]

6.162 We recognise that direct payment does not align with the values of volunteerism.

6.163 Fire and emergency service volunteers should not suffer significant financial loss as a result of prolonged periods of volunteering during natural disasters.

6.164 State and territory governments should continue their work to support and recognise fire and emergency services volunteers, including self-employed volunteers.

Victorian CFA protecting house from Floodwater 2016

Figure 26: Victorian CFA protecting house from Floodwater 2016 [727]

Employer support

6.165 We heard that the impact of extended periods away from work is not just felt by the volunteers but also by the business for which they work. [728] We heard from volunteer firefighting associations that greater support and recognition of their employers would support volunteer participation. [729] Volunteers suggest that financial assistance for employers to cover the wage of volunteers who are away for extended periods could be beneficial. [730]

6.166 Some fire and emergency services have recognised the need to support and engage with employers of their volunteers as a means of supporting volunteer participation. [731] For example, the SA CFS employer recognition program includes material for volunteers to provide to their employers that outlines relevant ‘legislation, leave arrangement suggestions and other information about the benefits of employing emergency service volunteers.’ [732] The Victorian CFA recognises employers through a number of initiatives including providing Certificates of Appreciation and Volunteer Friendly Employer Stickers. [733]

6.167 States and territories offer payroll tax exemptions on wages paid to an employee while performing their volunteer duties. [734] Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria told us that payroll tax exemptions are poorly promoted and, in their view, are ‘only of minor benefit’ to employers. [735]

6.168 Some fire and emergency services have suggested more support, recognition and incentives should be made available to employers including ‘options to make the release of volunteers easier or less impactful on business’. [736] ACT ESA suggested the ‘establishment of employer support payments to assist employers (especially small businesses) to release volunteers and engage casual staff to backfill roles.’ [737] We have been told about the ADF Employer Support Payment Scheme as a successful employer support model. [738] The payment scheme provides financial assistance to employers of Reservists and self-employed Reservists, when the Reservist is absent from their civilian workplace on eligible periods of Defence service.

6.169 State and territory governments should continue to support, recognise and incentivise employers who release employees to serve as fire and emergency services volunteers.

Employment protections

6.170 Volunteers should not be at risk of losing their jobs as a result of their contribution to natural disaster response. The ACT Emergency Services Agency explained that, due to the prolonged nature of the 2019‑2020 season, they experienced periods where employers of volunteers were reluctant to release their staff to support response operations, especially for ‘out of area support, where an employer might not see a direct threat to their local area.’ [739]

6.171 As the seasons lengthen, and the call upon volunteer time expands, there is a need to ensure volunteers are protected to support their continued service.

6.172 We heard from the Australian Government that all workers in Australia are covered by the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). [740] The Act supports employees who volunteer by providing:

  • community service leave entitlements that allow employees to take leave for the purpose of voluntary emergency management activities including dealing with a natural disaster [741] (community service leave is unpaid), and
  • protection from dismissal based on a temporary absence from work for the purpose of engaging in a voluntary emergency management activity. [742]

6.173 Some jurisdictions provide employment protections beyond those set out in the Fair Work Act. [743] For example, NSW and SA provide protection above dismissal, stating that a person absent due to volunteering should not be ‘victimised’ or ‘prejudiced’ in their work place. [744] Under NSW legislation when a Volunteer Protection Order is in place it is a criminal offence for an employer to victimise an employee based on their absence to volunteer in emergency operations. ‘Victimise’ is defined as:

  • dismissal
  • negatively altering the employee’s position, or
  • otherwise injuring the employee in his or her employment with the employer. [745]

6.174 In addition, WA emergency management legislation provides that a volunteer who is away from their job because they are responding to a declared state emergency is entitled to be paid by their employer for the period they are responding. [746] This exceeds the obligations imposed nationally by the Fair Work Act. However, additional provisions applicable to WA volunteers only apply when a volunteer is responding to a declared state of emergency in WA. They are not provided to volunteers who are deployed to respond to interstate emergencies. [747]

6.175 Volunteers and some fire and emergency services support increased volunteer employment protections. We heard from volunteers who suggest employment protections should be increased and standardised across jurisdictions. [748] The Victorian, ACT and SA fire and emergency services all raised the need for greater employment protections and employer support to assist volunteers, drawing attention to the Australian Defence Force Reservist protections as a potential model to adapt for emergency service volunteers. [749]

6.176 Volunteers’ employment should not be negatively impacted by their volunteering, regardless of the state or territory they are volunteering in. Legislative changes to the Fair Work Act to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against, disadvantaged or dismissed for reasons associated with their volunteer service with an emergency service organisation would harmonise employment protections for volunteers across the country. Legislative changes would also have the effect of acknowledging the value provided by volunteers.

Recommendation 6.6 Employment protections for fire and emergency services volunteers

The Australian Government should consider whether employment protections under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) are sufficient to ensure that fire and emergency services volunteers will not be discriminated against, disadvantaged or dismissed for reasons associated with their volunteer service during natural disasters.

← Chapter 5 Chapter 7 →