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Chapter 11: Emergency planning


11.1 Proactive planning for natural disasters enables risks to be identified and addressed ahead of time across the social, built, economic and natural environments. Planning ahead ensures that the division of roles and responsibilities before, during and after a natural disaster are agreed in advance, supporting effective preparations for, responses to, and recovery from natural disasters. Due to its central role across preparation, response and recovery, emergency planning underpins many other issues explored in our report – from evacuation planning to wildlife management.

11.2 To be effective, emergency planning requires a collective and collaborative approach. Key stakeholders with potentially important roles and capabilities in response and recovery efforts – such as primary health providers, wildlife organisations and telecommunications service providers – are not always included in emergency planning processes. Consideration is required as to whether additional stakeholders should be included in appropriate emergency planning processes at all levels of government to draw on the full breadth of expertise, capabilities and resources to prepare us for increasingly frequent and intense natural disasters into the future.

11.3 State governments need to understand and be accountable for the capacity and capability of their local governments in order to ensure that they are able to perform their role in disaster management in their local areas. Part of planning ahead for an emergency is ensuring that persons or bodies which have been allocated disaster management responsibilities by state or territory governments, such as local governments, have the necessary capacity and capability to discharge those responsibilities effectively. Some local governments experienced significant difficulty in fulfilling their responsibilities during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season.

A collective, collaborative approach to natural disaster planning

11.4 Planning is an essential element of being prepared for and responding to natural disasters. To be effective, that planning needs to address a wide range of factors and involve all levels of government, private sector entities, non-government organisations, communities and individuals.

11.5 Specifically, emergency planning must identify natural disaster risks and their possible consequences across the social, built, economic and natural environments. It must also address arrangements (including the division of roles and responsibilities) for preventing, preparing for, responding to and recovering from natural disasters, ensuring that they are agreed and established. [1173]

11.6 Emergency planning informs prevention and preparedness activity across a wide range of areas. Emergency planning can be undertaken, for example, to identify evacuation routes and sheltering facilities, set emergency response coordination arrangements, flag information needs and sources, plan for recovery and establish available resources and other supports. Emergency planning also has a role in facilitating continuous improvement, and should be informed by ongoing monitoring and review. Through these elements, emergency planning can reduce the impact and consequences of natural disasters and increase resilience. [1174]

11.7 Planning requires a collective, collaborative effort. [1175] As highlighted by the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience ‘Emergency Planning’ Handbook:

The interconnectedness of systems in society causes cascading consequences in emergencies. Effectively managing risks therefore requires all sectors of society to plan for emergencies. [1176]

11.8 At the national level, the Australian Government plans for emergencies that are severe or catastrophic in nature, particularly where these emergencies can overwhelm a state’s or territory’s capability and capacity. Relevant national plans include the National Catastrophic Natural Disaster Plan (NATCATDISPLAN) and the Australian Government Disaster Response Plan (COMDISPLAN). We discuss these further in Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements.

11.9 State and territory governments undertake emergency planning to prepare for, respond to and recover from natural disasters in their respective jurisdictions. Each state and territory maintains emergency management and natural disasters plans at a jurisdictional, regional and local level, and systems for developing, reviewing and implementing those plans.

11.10 Although each state and territory has different arrangements, emergency planning is typically undertaken by emergency management committees (known as disaster management groups in Queensland). Some are supported by sub-committees or working groups, which may be responsible for developing plans on specific aspects (such as on particular hazards or on relief and recovery arrangements). Emergency management committees may also work across state borders to address shared risks, as is the case with the City of Gold Coast Local Disaster Management Group in Queensland and the Tweed / Byron Shire Local Emergency Management Committee in NSW (see Box 11.1).

11.11 Emergency management committees facilitate a consultative approach to emergency planning. They include input and expertise from a range of stakeholders representing various sectors. Membership of emergency management committees at the regional and local levels is typically outlined in state legislation. In general, the following are prescribed as members of relevant committees:

  • representatives of government (eg members or employees of local governments, or from government service delivery organisations)
  • representatives of emergency service organisations (eg police, fire, ambulance or search and rescue)
  • representatives from other emergency management committees (eg a regional emergency management committee comprising of the chair of local emergency management committees within the region), and/or
  • others involved in emergency management arrangements, such as those appointed to coordinate or control the response to, or recovery from, an emergency.

Box 11.1 Planning for natural disasters across borders

The City of Gold Coast in South East Queensland, and the Tweed and Byron Shire Councils in north-east NSW, are located in close geographic proximity to one another. A natural disaster affecting one local government (for example, flooding or a cyclone) can affect others in the surrounding region.

In recognition of this shared risk, the City of Gold Coast Local Disaster Management Group and the Tweed / Byron Emergency Management Committee worked in partnership across the Queensland/NSW border to develop a ‘Cross Border Sub-Plan’. [1177]

This plan aims to minimise challenges facing cross border communities and acknowledges differences in emergency management arrangements, command and control structures, language and communication channels. The plan enhances cross border coordination in preparing for, responding to and recovering from natural disasters between the two states. [1178]

Cross Border Sub-Plan

Figure 38 Cross Border Sub-Plan [1179]

11.12 Emergency management committees generally have the ability to include representatives from other fields as needed, depending on, for example, local needs, contexts and other factors. Other functional areas that may be, but are not necessarily always, included in emergency management committees include:

  • public health and mental health services
  • energy infrastructure (eg electricity and gas)
  • telecommunications services
  • building and engineering services
  • civil society organisations, such as charities and other non-government organisations (eg the Australian Red Cross)
  • public information services
  • transport services, and
  • agriculture, primary production and wildlife management.

11.13 We heard from those representing non-government organisations that they see opportunities for greater inclusion and integration of these functional areas in emergency planning processes. [1180] Most notably, this includes the functional areas of primary healthcare, wildlife management and telecommunications services – with each field representing capabilities relevant to preparing for, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters.

11.14 We heard that the involvement of primary healthcare providers in emergency planning processes was ad hoc and varied between local areas and jurisdictions [1181] – which, in some situations, meant assistance from local general practitioners was unable to be accepted in some evacuation centres. [1182] For wildlife management, we heard integration of wildlife organisations in emergency planning processes varies, with some being integrated into emergency planning in some jurisdictions (for example, in SA), but not elsewhere. [1183] For telecommunications services, we heard from some providers that they were not always included in emergency planning processes, which meant that they could not contribute to disaster recovery and emergency plans and lacked information on, for example, the locations of evacuation and recovery centres during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1184]

11.15 We also heard suggestions that others with different capabilities need to be involved, or should have a greater role, in emergency planning. Some of these suggestions include architects, Indigenous organisations, neighbourhood houses, education authorities and schools, private land managers, peak volunteering bodies, insurance representatives, private aviation operators, and other charities not currently included in emergency planning (such as those involved with vulnerable groups), among others. [1185]

11.16 Including a broader range of participants with various capabilities and expertise, at appropriate times in the planning process, can contribute to more holistic emergency planning. However, care is also required to ensure that emergency planning processes remain focused on core objectives, and involve participants who will provide necessary and complementary capabilities, skills and expertise. States and territories (including their local governments) are best placed to determine which stakeholders need to be involved in their emergency planning processes and what capabilities they require, which may vary between jurisdictions. Stakeholders’ views may inform that consideration, but ought not to be determinative.

11.17 Australian, state, territory and local governments should include stakeholders with relevant capabilities and expertise, at appropriate times, in emergency planning processes.

Local government disaster management capabilities

11.18 As part of their disaster management roles, state and territory government responsibilities include providing and resourcing emergency service agencies, developing and delivering education material for their communities, undertaking risk assessment and mitigating these risks, and ensuring warning systems are in place, among others. [1186]

11.19 State and territory governments [1187] delegate some responsibilities for disaster planning and recovery to local governments. [1188]

11.20 Delegation is reflected in state and territory legislation and emergency management plans. This delegation recognises the principle of subsidiarity and that a local government will, in general, have a more detailed understanding of its local community (eg on specific risks, vulnerabilities and locally available resources) than other levels of government. [1189] They may also lead the delivery of community services during and after a natural disaster, such as through operating evacuation centres, relief centres and safe places. Local governments also have an awareness of their local infrastructure and generally have primary responsibility for restoring local community infrastructure after a disaster.

11.21 The responsibilities delegated to local governments that relate to natural disasters differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and may include:

  • delivering public education and awareness programs to support preparedness at a community level
  • contributing to and implementing bushfire risk management plans
  • managing firebreaks and asset protection zones around key assets, including enforcing asset protection zones on private land
  • working with local fire agencies to undertake hazard reduction activities, such as prescribed burning
  • land use planning, including zoning and administering development assessment applications
  • maintaining fire trails and vegetation management programs with emergency service agencies on land managed by the local government
  • providing operational and administrative support to the local emergency management committee and evacuation centres during emergencies
  • preparing recovery plans for the local community and coordinating recovery following a natural disaster. [1190]

11.22 The capability and capacity of local governments to fulfil the responsibilities delegated to them appear to depend on factors including their relative size, natural disaster risk profile, demographics and the resources available to them.

11.23 We heard that local governments with large geographical footprints and high natural disaster risk profiles but fewer resources experienced particular difficulties during the 2019‑2020 bushfires (see Box 11.2).

11.24 We heard concerns regarding the level of capacity of some councils to fulfil their responsibilities. The Indigo Shire Council, for example, told us:

…small rural shires do the best they can with what they’ve got, but in some cases it’s not much … it’s quite a challenge for small rural shires and a very unfair expectation of government and communities to expect shires the size of ours and Towong and Alpine and others where … most of these natural disasters take place, particularly bushfires … to take the full load of relief and recovery responsibilities [1191]

11.25 Some jurisdictions have reviewed the capacity and capability of local governments to perform their responsibilities in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. The conduct and scope of such projects varies considerably. We were directed to reviews that had been conducted by a state itself, [1192] by a local government association with support from the state and the Australian Government, [1193] by an Inspector-General of Emergency Management [1194] and by a State Emergency Management Committee on the basis of voluntary self-assessments. [1195] Two such projects are described in Box 11.3.

11.26 Other states indicated they have not conducted a specific review of the capacity and capability of local governments as Victoria had, and indicated no intention to do so, [1196] but referred to programs implemented to strengthen the capacity or capability of local government. [1197]

11.27 An assessment or review of the capacity and capability of local governments may assist to identify deficiencies in local governments’ ability to perform their role in relation to natural disaster management. This, in turn, may assist to redress any deficiencies and strengthen the capabilities of local government.

11.28 Where the capability or capacity of local governments to manage a disaster in their area is strained, local governments often coordinate and share resources with other local governments. We heard of a number of arrangements for resource sharing between local governments that were used during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. In some circumstances, these were informal and ad hoc. [1198] Others were based on pre-existing arrangements, facilitated for example by regional joint organisations or local government associations.

Box 11.2 Comparison of local government resourcing for disaster management

Example 1: Moreton Bay Regional Council, Queensland

The Moreton Bay Regional Council spans approximately 2,037 square kilometres, with 1,495 full-time equivalent staff as at 30 June 2019. [1199] As with many other local governments across Australia, the Moreton Bay Regional Council experienced bushfires during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season.

In managing disasters, we heard that the Moreton Bay Regional Council operates an emergency management department comprising of three teams, being the disaster management team, the fire management team and the public safety team – with some staff being permanently dedicated to these roles [1200]. The Council also has a dedicated fire management capability, with 40 staff trained to support this function, 18 vehicles and ‘numerous’ water tanks and water carts. [1201]

Example 2: Towong Shire Council, Victoria

The Towong Shire Council, in contrast, spans 6,673 square kilometres – more than three times the geographic size of the Moreton Bay Regional Council (refer to Figure 39) – but with just 76 full-time equivalent employees. [1202] Towong also experienced bushfires during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, with 43% of its area reportedly being burnt. [1203] Unsurprisingly, this placed significant strain on Towong.

We heard that staff of the council were required to undertake emergency management roles on top of their normal functions. [1204] The council’s resources were stretched to their limit during the season by managing the disaster and the council’s business-as-usual activities, with the resources reportedly being ‘effectively exhausted’ within 72 hours. [1205] With 22% of the council’s staff members also reportedly impacted personally by the bushfires, this presented significant challenges for Towong performing its relief, recovery and coordination functions. [1206]

Side by side comparison of Towong Shire Council (left) and Moreton Bay Regional Council (right)

Figure 39: Side by side comparison of Towong Shire Council (left) and Moreton Bay Regional Council (right) [1207]

Box 11.3 Reviews of the capacity and capability of local government


Victoria is engaging in a multi-year ‘Councils and Emergencies Project’ that aims to enhance the capability and capacity of councils to meet their emergency management obligations. Phase 1 clarified and confirmed the emergency management responsibilities and activities of councils. Phase 2 aimed to understand councils’ emergency management capability and capacity, based on the needs and risk profile of each municipality. All councils undertook a self-assessment.

The December 2019 Councils and Emergencies Capability and Capacity Evaluation Report [1208] identified areas for improvement, and common challenges. It stated ‘The most common reason councils identified for not achieving their target maturity was that they lack the capacity to undertake the required range of emergency management responsibilities’. [1209] In Phase 3, councils, state government agencies and emergency management organisations will be engaged to develop strategies and action plans to address the areas for improvement. We have been told by Victoria that it is intended that Phase 3 will be completed by the end of June 2021. [1210]


The Queensland Emergency Risk Management Framework (QERMF) Risk Management Process provides the capability for local governments to assess resources available for disaster management. [1211] That includes a review of the disaster risk profile of the local government area or district by the Hazard and Risk Unit within QFES, and an ‘action plan’ provided to the local or district disaster management group. The risk assessment process enables local governments to identify and take steps to rectify deficiencies in their resources. If rectification is not possible at the local government level due to a lack of capacity, funding or resources, the QERMF classifies this as a ‘residual risk’ which can be escalated to the district level for further evaluation and additional support if necessary.

The Queensland Inspector-General of Emergency Management (IGEM) also conducts reviews of district and local disaster management capability, through reviewing the self-assessments of local disaster management plans and reviewing district capability on an as-needs basis. We discuss the role of IGEMs further in Chapter 24: Assurance and accountability.

11.29 In Victoria for example, the Municipal Association of Victoria’s Protocol for Inter-Council Emergency Management Resource Sharing provides an agreed process between local governments from across the state when sharing resources during emergencies. [1212] Even with a resource sharing protocol in place, shortages of available resources still occurred during the 2019‑2020 bushfires. [1213]

11.30 In NSW, the City of Sydney, Office of Local Government, Resilience NSW and Local Government NSW established the Local Government Bushfire Recovery Support Group (LGBRSG) in November 2019. City of Sydney set up an online portal for other local governments to use – which we heard made making these requests an easy, timely and accessible process. [1214] Through the LGBRSG, surrounding local governments were able to share personnel and resources to assist with their day-to-day business and on emergency-related tasks, such as assisting with recovery centres. [1215] We heard that this was the first time this approach had been initiated in NSW and that the model may be considered in the future when necessary. [1216]

11.31 The Local Government Association of Queensland coordinates the Council to Council Support Program. [1217] This program is described as a ‘streamlined method for providing assistance from one local government group to another within Queensland’s disaster management arrangements’, where requests for assistance may be lodged through the District Disaster Management Group. This assistance may be in the form of personnel, goods and/or services from local governments unaffected by the disaster. [1218]

11.32 These examples highlight the reliance of local governments on the ability to access a ‘surge capacity’ during severe to catastrophic natural disasters. While the principle of subsidiarity suggests that ‘risk should be managed by the lowest level of government that is capable of managing it’, this does not suggest that local governments should have a self-contained capability to manage all disasters in their local area, nor have an understanding of the risks to adjoining local governments, or to the jurisdiction as a whole.

11.33 Given this, and the increasing natural disaster risk, it is important that resource sharing arrangements are adequate and sufficiently supported to provide surge capacity for local governments. While we heard that many resource sharing arrangements operate on a council-to-council basis, or are outsourced to local government associations, state and territory governments are ultimately accountable for managing disasters within their respective jurisdictions and need to ensure that the resource sharing arrangements are adequate, sufficiently supported and reflect all relevant risks facing that state or territory. We acknowledge that, in some jurisdictions, the local government associations are more formally integrated into emergency management (such as the Local Government Association of SA or the Local Government Association of Queensland), however, this does not absolve state and territory governments of their responsibilities.

11.34 The practice of state and territory governments delegating some of their responsibility for disaster preparedness, response and recovery to local governments is only effective if local governments are adequately resourced to meet those responsibilities. As state and territory governments are ultimately accountable for managing natural disasters in their respective jurisdictions, they should be responsible for ensuring that their local governments are able to effectively discharge the responsibilities devolved to them.

11.35 Some states told us that they supported regular review of existing arrangements, [1219] or already conducted regular reviews of the resource sharing arrangements between local governments. [1220] WA on the other hand, stated that ‘[l]ocal governments should have the discretion to enter into any agreements as appropriate and relevant for their local context’. [1221] A state or territory review of local government resource sharing arrangements does not exclude this. A review of arrangements (including agreements between councils) is consistent with the jurisdiction taking responsibility to ensure that arrangements are sufficient.

Recommendation 11.1 Responsibility for local government disaster management capability and capacity

State and territory governments should take responsibility for the capability and capacity of local governments to which they have delegated their responsibilities in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters, to ensure local governments are able to effectively discharge the responsibilities devolved to them.

Recommendation 11.2 Resource sharing arrangements between local governments

State and territory governments should review their arrangements for sharing resources between their local governments during natural disasters, including whether those arrangements:

  1. provide sufficient surge capacity, and
  2. take into account all the risks that the state or territory may face during a natural disaster.

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