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Chapter 13: Emergency information and warnings


13.1 Provision of emergency warnings and related information is an integral part of state and territory emergency management arrangements. Warnings assist the public to make informed actions to safeguard life, property and the environment. The public must have confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the source of emergency information. Any warning issued must be timely, tailored and relevant to the public.

13.2 The current Fire Danger Rating System is scientifically outdated. The visual display, which is a common sight on many of our roads, is not nationally consistent and, we heard, is not easily understood by the public. These challenges have been the driving factors in pursuing the Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS) over some six years. The development of the scientific system to underpin the AFDRS is complex, has taken considerable time and will require field testing. To best inform and empower the community, the visual display, and the corresponding action individuals are recommended to take during emergencies, should be nationally consistent.

13.3 The Bushfire Warning System, the three level bushfire alert system used to warn the public about the threat posed by a fire and to inform the public about actions that should be taken, is not nationally consistent. The middle alert level ‘Watch and Act’ causes significant confusion. Progress to develop and implement a replacement warning system – the Australian Warning System (AWS) – since it was first proposed in 2004, has been glacial. In finalising the system, the symbols, colours and terminology of the AWS must be consistent across Australia, along with public education.

13.4 The Emergency Alert System is being reviewed to ensure that it uses the best technology, and accounts for people with disabilities and from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

13.5 Specific information provided in mobile phone applications (‘apps’) differs according to jurisdiction. During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, this caused problems for cross‑border locations and for tourists who had to rely on more than one app. There is room for improvement to the functionality and utility of the apps. This could include exploring the feasibility of a national all-hazard app.

13.6 Broadcast media, such as the ABC and community radio, provide information to isolated and rural communities when they are unable to receive landline or mobile phone communication, use the internet or watch television. We are encouraged by steps taken by some states to improve the delivery of critical information to broadcast media so that it can, in turn, be provided to the public in a timely manner.

The importance of emergency information and warnings

13.7 During natural disasters the public has an urgent and vital need for emergency information and warnings to ensure they are able to make safe decisions. They need to know what is likely to happen (or has happened), what to do and what to expect. They also need to know what the relevant government and emergency services agencies are doing to address the risk and assist the public. [1352]

13.8 ‘Emergency information’ includes emergency alerts and other information that is disseminated to affected communities before, and during, a natural disaster. This information helps individuals understand what they can expect from a natural disaster, where they can seek help, and how they should act. [1353] A ‘warning’ or an ‘alert’ is a piece of information that relates to a specific natural disaster that is happening or is about to happen, and is currently having, or is likely to have, an impact on the safety of a community. [1354] It provides information as to what steps the public should take to ensure their safety.

13.9 The overall aim of emergency information and warnings is to safeguard life, property and the environment. [1355]

These are events that leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and paralysed by the seemingly impossible alternatives and choices that have to be made. [1356]

13.10 Natural disasters are highly stressful situations that can impact how an individual would normally understand and respond to information. [1357] Individuals will often not have the capability or the time to process large amounts of information and decide how to act. The content of emergency information and warnings therefore needs to be considered carefully.

13.11 The content of the emergency information and warnings must balance the need to provide as much relevant detail as possible, yet be a clear and succinct message so that it can be quickly and easily understood. The information must be instructive and accurate if individuals are expected to respond. Relevant information includes the type and location of the risk, the expected timing of the risk, who will be affected, how they will be affected and what they can or should do to respond. [1358]

13.12 The public requires tailored emergency information and warnings at different times when preparing for, and responding to, natural disasters, and for different purposes. Government and emergency services agencies have developed a variety of systems and tools that have specific functions in informing and empowering the public, for example:

  • general preparedness and pre-season messaging to educate the public about the risks they may face and how to be best prepared for natural disasters
  • natural disaster risk information, such as the Fire Danger Rating System, and
  • frameworks that set out the levels of warnings about incidents that are posing a threat and advice on what people should do, such as the Bushfire Warning System and the Australian Tsunami Warning System.

13.13 To be able to reach the public in a timely manner, the government and emergency services agencies rely on a range of distribution methods, such as roadside signs, the Emergency Alert System, apps and broadcast media. [1359]

13.14 We heard that recipients of emergency information and/or warnings often try to confirm the contents of the message before they take action to protect themselves. [1360] To ensure that individuals feel empowered to act, emergency information and warnings must come from a trusted source, such as government and emergency service agencies, and be accurate. The public may question the reliability of government and emergency services agencies’ information when it is inconsistent across jurisdictions. In time-sensitive, highly stressful situations, any inconsistency will mean that individuals lose valuable time in verifying and reconciling conflicting information.

13.15 The need for national consistency in emergency information and warnings is discussed throughout this chapter.

13.16 The need for emergency information and warnings to be timely, accurate and tailored has been considered in several concurrent inquiries, previous inquiries and reports. [1361] The repeated consideration of this important issue reflects the need for governments at all levels to evaluate continuously and consider if current systems and processes reflect best practice and available technology. If that is not the case, then the systems and processes need to be changed and, changed, as a matter of some urgency.

13.17 There is considerable room for improvement in the existing emergency information and warning systems across Australia.

Roles in emergency information and warnings

13.18 State and territory governments have primary responsibility for emergency management, and this extends to the provision of emergency information and warning systems within their jurisdictions. [1362] State-based emergency management legislation underpins the warning arrangements for each state and territory and, in some jurisdictions, legislation places an obligation on government authorities to warn communities. [1363]

13.19 Within the states and territories, various emergency services agencies are responsible for distributing emergency warnings according to the nature of the warning and agency’s responsibilities. [1364] These agencies are also responsible for providing education to the public about the risks they might face and how to prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. Emergency response agencies are on the ground, have training in emergency management and understand local conditions. They are generally best placed to decide whether to issue an emergency warning, to whom a warning is issued, which warning technologies to adopt, and when to issue the warning.

13.20 State and territory governments and their agencies are, in some cases, supported in this role by local governments, which share emergency information from state and territory authorities. Some local governments keep a local Facebook page, website and/or Twitter account to help the community find locally relevant emergency information.

13.21 The Australian Government recognises that it is more efficient for it to provide some information. For example, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) provides weather information to state and territory governments, and to relevant emergency services agencies. [1365] It is more efficient for the Australian government to provide certain information, such as weather predictions and hazard warnings. Australia’s Emergency Warning Arrangements are reflected in the below Figure.

Australian Emergency Warnings Arrangements

Figure 44: Australian Emergency Warnings Arrangements [1366]

13.22 BoM, as an Australian Government entity, has the responsibility for weather forecasting and its dissemination to both the public and to state and territory emergency services. BoM relies on domestic weather observation equipment and also information provided by global partners. BoM disseminates information about weather events that are likely to endanger people or property, such as severe thunderstorms, fire weather, coastal hazards, high winds, floods and tropical cyclones (in collaboration with Geoscience Australia, it also issues tsunami warnings and provides the Australian Tsunami Warning System). [1367] BoM provides this information to state and territory governments, local government authorities, and fire and emergency services. [1368] State and territory emergency services then use this information to inform their emergency information and warnings distributed to the public.

13.23 In addition to providing the weather information that underlies emergency information and warnings, the Australian government supports emergency management resources such as the Emergency Alert System (discussed in more detail below). It further provides principles, guidance and information to states and territories on how to improve their abilities to distribute emergency information and warnings and, by developing resource material, to help ensure that information and warnings convey the right information, such as the Australia’s Warning Principles, [1369] AIDR ‘Warning Message Construction: Choosing your words’ (2018). [1370]

13.24 As with all elements of natural disaster arrangements, responsibility is a shared between different levels of government. This shared responsibility also extends to individuals. While government has an obligation to provide the emergency information and warnings and educate the public, individuals need to learn about the different emergency information and warnings, so that they can take appropriate steps to ensure their safety.

13.25 Emergency situations can change extremely quickly. There will be situations where there is no time for any emergency information or warning. Individuals must monitor emergency situations closely, be prepared to implement emergency response plans (such as flood or fire plans), and be ready to change their plans to suit changing local conditions, irrespective of whether any emergency information or warning has been provided.

Understanding your fire danger risk

13.26 Fire danger ratings provide a simplified measure of fire danger to assist in the management of bushfires. Theoretically, fire danger refers to the risks posed by bushfires; covering the likelihood of a fire igniting, rate of spread and difficulty of control of a fire once started, and the value of the assets that could be impacted. However, in practice, most fire danger ratings in use around the world focus on fire behaviour and are typically designed to provide a measure of the difficulty of suppressing or controlling a fire.

The current Fire Danger Rating System

13.27 Most people know of the current Fire Danger Rating System (FDRS) from the roadside fire danger rating signs, like that shown in the image below.

FDRS in NSW showing a severe rating

Figure 45: FDRS in NSW showing a severe rating [1371]

13.28 The current FDRS performs a number of important functions, including: conveying fire danger information to the community, determining the level of preparedness for fire service agencies in fire districts, informing decisions on fire bans and the imposition of other similar restrictions (eg closure of national parks and state forests), and issuing activity-specific warnings (eg harvest safety alerts). The information is also used by researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of various fire management activities such as fuel management and suppression techniques.

13.29 Australia’s current FDRS is made up of three main components:

  • A set of two fire danger indices, known as the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) and Grass Fire Danger Index (GFDI), which provide a numerical estimate of fire danger for a forest or grassland area based on the temperature, wind speed, relative humidity and fuel loads.
  • A rating classification system that groups the FFDI and GFDI index values into six rating classes (low-moderate, high, very high, severe, extreme, catastrophic/code red).
  • A visual display scheme, consisting of signboards with a semi-circle that shows the rating classes in different colours and an arrow that is orientated (remotely) to the fire danger rating each day during the fire danger period.

13.30 BoM produces daily maximum FFDI and GFDI maps, which are published on its website. It produces fire danger ratings and fire danger rating maps in consultation with the relevant fire and emergency service agency. [1372] The ratings are generally published on the websites of state fire services and then displayed on the roadside fire danger rating signs.

13.31 The current FFDI and GFDI are based on two fire behaviour models from the 1950s and 1960s and do not fully reflect the variability of landscapes across Australia. [1373] The FFDI and GFDI also do not accurately capture the influence of fuels on fire behaviour; primarily because of the way in which fuel loads are estimated for the purposes of calculating both indices. [1374] These limitations have been the driving factor in pursuing the Australian Fire Danger Rating System.

Progressing the Australian Fire Danger Rating System

13.32 In 2014, Australian governments agreed to, as a national priority, the development of a new nationally consistent fire danger rating system, known as the Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS). [1375] A national Program Board with jurisdictional and national representation was established in late 2016, under the auspices of the Australia-New Zealand Emergency Management Committee, to oversee the staged development of AFDRS. [1376] Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) has been leading the development and implementation of the new system. The AFDRS is intended to be implemented in 2022-2023. A timeline of the development of the AFDRS is provided at Appendix 17: Timeline for Australian Fire Danger Rating System.

13.33 We heard that several aspects of the AFDRS program are in train:

  • the finalisation of the science behind the AFDRS (the Prototype)
  • agreement on the visual display of the AFDRS and the rating classifications, and
  • the development of an education campaign to support the new AFDRS.

Improving the science to understand fire risk

13.34 It is widely acknowledged that there are limitations with the FDRS’s reliance on the FFDI and GFDI. Most notably, research has shown that fires behave differently in different vegetation types because of the continuity and structure of the fuels. Australia has a wide range of vegetation types with different structural characteristics that influence fire behaviour. The FDRS is unable to capture this because it currently uses only two vegetation types, forests (FFDI) and grasslands (GFDI). In addition to this, the FFDI and GFDI are currently calculated with limited reference to the structure and mass of fuels in the landscape, and to the extent that fuel structure and mass is considered, there are differences in approach between the states and territories.

13.35 New research has greatly improved the ability to predict fire behaviour and the potential threat to the community accurately. For example, new fire behaviour models are now available to estimate the intensity and rate of spread of fires more accurately in a range of vegetation types. [1377]

13.36 A prototype for the scientific systems that feed into the AFDRS was released in 2019 and it is intended to be tested during the 2021-2022 bushfire season. [1378] The Prototype seeks to cover:

  • potential fire behaviour, particularly rate of spread
  • difficulty of control
  • fire (or fuel) hazard and fuel availability, and
  • consequences of fire including impact(s), the potential threat to people and their welfare (safety), and the vulnerability, or exposure and susceptibility, to losses. [1379]

13.37 The AFDRS Prototype utilises eight broad fuel (or vegetation) types (grasslands, buttongrass, savanna, spinifex, mallee heath, shrubland, forest and pine). These were selected on the basis of the availability of suitable fire behaviour models. The prototype further subdivides the eight fuel types into 22 mid-scale vegetation groups, with each assigned a standard or modified fire behaviour model, and several hundred fine scale vegetation groups.

13.38 If adopted, the prototype would represent a considerable advance on the existing science underpinning the current FDRS. Most notably, it would move the system from its reliance on two fire behaviour models to utilising eight standard models that would be modified as necessary to capture relevant variations in fuels. Unlike the existing system, all of the ‘new’ fire behaviour models directly capture the impact of relevant fuel variables on fire behaviour. To support this, the prototype has identified complementary information systems to ensure that relevant fuel data are available at an appropriate scale (initially 1.5km x 1.5km grids).

13.39 The finalisation of the prototype is important so that it can provide greater accuracy to support government and emergency services decisions. [1380] We acknowledge that developing the prototype for the AFDRS is complex; that it needs to be field tested; and that agency personnel need to be upskilled to use the new system effectively. While the AFDRS program has been ongoing for several years, we appreciate that this is largely due to the time taken to develop the prototype.

13.40 The implementation of the AFDRS is urgently needed. We encourage state and territory governments, with the assistance of the Australian Government, to ensure that the science underpinning the AFDRS can be finalised and tested as a priority, resourced appropriately, and implemented consistently.

Visual display of the AFDRS and rating classifications

13.41 There are variations in the visual display of the current FDRS across state and territory fire authorities (see Figure 46). For example, in Victoria, ‘Catastrophic’ is ‘Code Red’, and in Tasmania ‘Catastrophic’ is represented by black, not red. Some states show the fire danger index values for each rating and others do not. There is also no consistency in the recommended action for each risk rating across state and territory fire authorities. Appendix 16: Fire Danger Rating System provides an overview of the recommended action for each risk rating across state and territory fire authorities.

Fire Danger Rating System in each jurisdiction

Figure 46: Fire Danger Rating System in each jurisdiction [1381]

13.42 The AFDRS program was created to ensure consistency for fire danger ratings and to ensure that standardised and consistent advice can be provided to communities across Australia. [1382]

13.43 As people only have a few seconds to look at the display as they drive past the signs, it is important that the terminology, colours and descriptions are easy to understand. Consistency in the terminology will help in ensuring that cross border communities and tourists are able to respond to the risk information. While we appreciate the complexity associated with finalising the prototype for the AFDRS, the development and finalisation of a nationally consistent visual display and rating classification should not be delayed further.

13.44 State and territory governments should ensure that the visual display for the AFDRS and the recommended action for individuals are nationally consistent.

The need for education

13.45 We heard that the current purpose and function of the FDRS is not easily understood by the community and may not be ensuring the desired response and actions within the community. In particular, we heard that:

  • The system is not well known and those who do know about it talk about ‘the sign on the road’ rather than naming it—‘[m]any waved their arms in a semicircle or like the needle or simply referenced “the arrow”’. [1383]

They need to explain more clearly what each level means. I thought it just meant we had to be careful. [1384]

  • Individuals struggle with identifying what action they should take in response to each rating, particularly in the middle of the system (Very High to Extreme). [1385]
  • Despite official advice to leave early when there is a Catastrophic/Code Red risk rating, many people wait until they see fire before leaving and others remain committed to defending properties against fires, despite advice that properties are not defendable under these conditions. [1386]
  • On Catastrophic/Code Red days, where the risk level covers large parts of a state or territory (including neighbouring areas) and the advice is to ‘leave early’. When this warning applies to a large area it is not clear how the public could practically implement this advice and where they should leave to.

13.46 Extensive community consultation has been undertaken since 2018 to investigate what a new, nationally consistent, visual display could look like that would best support community understanding of fire risk and encourage people to take appropriate action. [1387] The AFDRS intends to improve community safety by increasing community awareness of risk exposure to bushfire. It is expected to provide simple, easy to understand and clear messages to facilitate community action in response to the risk rating. [1388]

13.47 Education will need to focus on the new rating classifications, the potential danger attached to each rating, and what steps individuals and communities should take in response to each rating. Any education campaign and information should be provided in a range of accessible digital and non-digital formats.

Recommendation 13.1 Development and implementation of the Australian Fire Danger Rating System

State and territory governments should expedite the development and implementation of the Australian Fire Danger Rating System. It should ensure that there is national consistency in the visual display of the AFDRS and action to be taken in response to each rating.

Recommendation 13.2 Education on the Australian Fire Danger Rating System

State and territory governments should deliver education to ensure that the public understands the new Australian Fire Danger Rating System ratings, the potential danger attached to each rating, and the action that should be taken in response to each rating.

The Bushfire Warning System

13.48 The Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system: ‘Advice’; ‘Watch and Act’; and ‘Emergency Warning’. The alert system is an important framework used by emergency services agencies to indicate to the public the level of threat from a fire and the recommended action that should be taken. The higher the warning level, the greater the risk to life and property.

13.49 As with other emergency information and warnings, some fires can start and spread so quickly that there is no time for a warning, or warning levels increase so quickly that several messages are received at once. The Bushfire Warning System is only a guide to help individuals make the right decisions for their safety. Individuals need to monitor their situation closely and be prepared to put their Bushfire Survival Plans into action with little or no warning.

13.50 Despite the three levels of alerts being agreed nationally in 2009, when the framework was implemented, states and territories chose to use different symbols, colours and corresponding recommended action for each alert level.

Table 7: Overview of Bushfire Warning System colour and symbols. [1389]

Overview chart of Bushfire Warning System colour and symbols.
Table 7: Overview of Bushfire Warning System colour and symbols.

Problems with the Bushfire Warning System

13.51 During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, the public faced three key issues related to the Bushfire Warning System.

Watch and Act by itself was confusing to people…Does that mean we stay, and how do we act if we’re staying? Shouldn’t we be going if we’re acting? [1390]

13.52 First, the middle-level warning, ‘Watch and Act’, is simultaneously generic, passive and active – does it mean ‘wait and see’ or ‘act now’? Do we watch? Do we act? Do we leave? Do we stay? Do we defend? We recognise that some people understand ‘Watch and Act’, however, we also heard of considerable confusion associated with the phrase. [1391] ‘Watch and Act’ does not provide a clear and succinct message that can be quickly and easily understood, especially in times of stress.

The area of greatest concern to local government [in Queensland], and specific to the 2019‑2020 Bushfires surround the confusing nature of the national Bush Fire Warning System. [1392]

13.53 Secondly, the inconsistent implementation of the alerts throughout Australia caused specific problems for communities at cross-border locations and for tourists. There were contradictory alerts from different emergency services agencies – fires categorised in one state at ‘Watch and Act’ level were categorised as ‘Emergency Warning’ in another. [1393] We also heard that the recommended action for the alert level differed between jurisdictions (Appendix 18: Overview of Bushfire Warning System provides an overview of the current Bushfire Warning System highlighting the different recommended action under each alert level across states and territories).

13.54 Confidence in the emergency information being provided requires consistency in the content of the messages being issued by the different authorities. In time‑sensitive, high‑stress situations, an individual should not have to struggle to understand the differences in the information and, where there is inconsistency, decide which information and advice to follow.

13.55 Finally, we heard that individuals received ‘Watch and Act’ and ‘Emergency Warning’ recommending immediate departure, simultaneously. [1394] In some cases, individuals received no warnings until they were told to ‘leave now’ or even ‘too late to leave’. Any education campaign should remind the public that warnings might not be issued in a particular order and that, in some situations, bushfires can start and spread extremely quickly which means that there may be situations where there is no time for any warning to be issued.

The development of the Australian Warning System

13.56 The challenges that many people experienced in understanding and implementing the Bushfire Warning System, during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, are not new. The need for a nationally consistent warning system was recognised as early as 2004. [1395] Since then, state and territory governments have been slowly progressing the development of the Australian Warning System (AWS).

13.57 The AWS will build on existing warning frameworks and will apply to bushfire, flood, severe storm, cyclone and extreme heat (and potentially other hazards). [1396] The proposed warning system includes:

  • three levels of warnings with associated ‘Call to Action’ statements
  • a consistent set of hazard icons for each level, adopting a consistent shape and colour scheme, with icons increasing in size as the warning escalates, and
  • supported by consistent hazard warning frameworks that map hazard impacts to warning levels. [1397]

The long road to consensus

13.58 In 2014, the peak intergovernmental body of emergency management ministers and leaders, ANZEMC, endorsed the National Review of Warnings and Information recommendation that Australia pursue greater national consistency in warnings. [1398] In 2015, the National Working Group for Public Information and Warnings was formed under AFAC. [1399] It is not clear what work was occurring in and outside AFAC prior to October 2017, when CCOSC committed to a consistent national warnings framework across all states and all hazards based on a three-level warning system. [1400]

13.59 In February 2018, the AFAC Warnings Group established a project plan, Towards a National Warnings Framework, to ‘[e]stablish a sound evidence base to move towards a national three-level warning framework for all hazards’. [1401] The project plan to develop the AWS was then endorsed by CCOSC in May 2018. [1402]

13.60 Since 2018, extensive community research has been commissioned by CCOSC (at the national and state and territory levels) to determine how the community understands, perceives and takes action in response to warnings. [1403] (Appendix 19: Timeline – Australian Warning System details the timeline for the development of the AWS). [1404]

13.61 The process for pursuing national consistency has taken far too long. It has further been plagued by differences of opinion regarding the merits of ‘Watch and Act’.

13.62 If community research suggests that there is no preference for one phrase over another, the solution is not more community research. It may be that an education campaign after adoption is advisable.

Watch and Act

13.63 A considerable focus of the CCOSC commissioned community research has been to understand, from the public’s perspective, the preferred name for the middle warning level – ‘Watch and Act’ – that would be less confusing and encourage the public to take action. [1405]

13.64 A key finding of the community research commissioned by CCOSC was that:

more than two thirds of participants stated confusion is centred on what actions should be taken at Watch and Act…[w]hile this is the point that participants believe action needs to be taken, considerable confusion exists as to whether or not the expectation is to simply monitor information (watch) or take action to prepare (act) as these are fundamentally different instructions. [1406]

13.65 Despite the community research presented to CCOSC in October 2019, showing a strong case for using the term ‘action’ in the middle level (for example Take Action Now, Take Action, or Act Now), at its meeting in April 2020, CCOSC recommended to endorse ‘Watch and Act’. [1407] The minutes noted (emphasis added):

The idea of a nationally consistent three level warning framework has community support. However, there has been a change of view by Victoria particularly in relation to ‘Watch and Act’. Because of the unsuccessful previous attempt (in 2009) to have Victoria consistent with all other jurisdictions, CCOSC favoured a consensus view and DG EMA committed to fund a fourth round of research on the middle level warning name. [1408]

13.66 The fourth round of community research surveyed 5,500 individuals and only considered two phrases, ‘Watch and Act’ and ‘Act Now’. It found that, overall, two‑thirds preferred ‘Watch and Act’. [1409] Despite long standing concerns from the community and emergency services agencies with the phrase ‘Watch and Act’, CCOSC endorsed retaining it as the middle level warning name for the AWS. [1410] This decision does not resolve the underlying confusion with the phrase ‘Watch and Act’. CCOSC also ‘endorsed the need for a national warnings community education program’ and tasked AFAC to ‘establish a proposal to progress’ this program. [1411]

13.67 The ‘Watch and Act’ process highlights that CCOSC’s consensus model might not be the most suitable vehicle for making such decisions, especially where there have been differences in phrases adopted in different jurisdictions. As discussed in Chapter 3: National coordination arrangements, CCOSC’s decision-making process involves state and territory representatives making decisions in the interest of their jurisdiction rather than in the national interest.

13.68 Critical issues such as this may be better determined by being elevated to an appropriate inter-governmental mechanism that is accountable to the Australian people.

13.69 State and territory governments must finalise and implement the AWS as a matter of priority. To best serve its purpose as an effective warning, and to meet the needs of the public, the system should be implemented consistently across Australia.

Prioritising education

13.70 We are concerned that the decision by CCOSC to retain and endorse, ‘Watch and Act’ will not solve the issues faced by the public during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, and that confusion will remain.

13.71 State and territory governments should ensure that a national education plan is carefully developed to ensure that the public understands the new system, symbols, terminology and recommended action. The education program also needs to target people with disabilities, the Indigenous community and culturally and linguistically diverse Australians.

Recommendation 13.3 The Australian Warning System

State and territory governments should urgently deliver and implement the all‑hazard Australian Warning System.

Recommendation 13.4 An education campaign on the Australian Warning System

State and territory governments should ensure that the implementation of the Australian Warning System is accompanied by a carefully developed national education campaign that considers the needs of all Australians.

Sources of emergency information and warnings

13.72 Australia’s emergency warning system is based on a multi-modal approach. [1412] This means emergency information and warnings are provided through a variety of means (or modes), for example, websites, social media (such as, Facebook and Twitter), media outlets (such as, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and community radio), mobile phone applications (apps), targeted messages, and door knocks. [1413] The use of a variety of means helps ensure the message has the highest impact and quickly reaches the widest possible audience.

13.73 We heard that during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, key emergency information and warnings were provided to the public through the Emergency Alert System and mobile applications. We also heard that when the internet, mobile phones, and other technologies were not available, the ABC and community radio were important sources of emergency information and warnings. [1414] But we also heard that, due to topography, not all residents of border communities will have reliable access to radio stations located in their state. Such cross-border anomalies can become acute in the context of directing residents to particular radio stations for state specific emergency information. [1415]

13.74 Emergency warnings systems are fundamental to governments’ ability to deliver messages quickly, to alert the public to emerging and imminent threats. [1416]

The Emergency Alert System

13.75 The Emergency Alert System is one way in which state and territory governments and emergency service agencies provide emergency information to the public. The system sends out voice messages to landlines and text messages to mobile phones, about likely or actual emergencies, within a defined geographic area. [1417]

13.76 Emergency Alert messages are an important consideration for individuals in deciding what steps they need to take when facing a natural disaster. The system has been relied upon to reach large parts of the population:

During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season (specifically from 1 November 2019 to 16 January 2020), the Emergency Alert system was used by NSW, QLD, Victoria, SA, Tasmania and WA and there was a total of 492,938 fixed line messages and 4,194,576 SMS messages delivered to affected areas. [1418]

13.77 While the Emergency Alert System has been relied upon heavily during a range of disasters in Australia, we heard evidence there are limitations with the system in that it is unable to reach everyone facing an emerging or imminent threat.

13.78 For emergency alerts being delivered to landline telephones, warnings have failed to be delivered in the past if:

  • the telephone was engaged
  • an individual did not answer the call
  • there was a power outage and the individual was using a cordless telephone
  • the telephone was outside the warning area but at a location still at risk, or
  • the telephone was not registered to the correct service address. [1419]

13.79 For text messages, reasons for failed delivery have included:

  • the inbox was full
  • the mobile telephone was switched off or was not in a mobile telephone coverage area
  • the last known location of the mobile handset was not within the warning area at the time of the emergency but was still at risk
  • individuals had not updated their address
  • individuals travelled into a warning area after a message was issued, and
  • individuals were in a mobile telephone blackspot. [1420]

13.80 We also heard that the Emergency Alert System can lead to confusion in cross-border areas. For example, as many residents living in NSW are connected to Queensland telephone exchanges, we heard that it is possible that NSW residents may receive emergency alerts if activated from within Queensland, although the alerts might not have been activated in NSW. [1421]

13.81 We heard that the Emergency Alert System technology is considered to be outdated. [1422] The Department of Home Affairs, through Emergency Management Australia, has commissioned a review of new and emerging telephony-based public warning technologies. [1423] The review is intended to identify and trial technologies to improve the communication of warnings across Australia, including to people with disability and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. [1424]

13.82 The review is tasked with identifying options for future emergency warnings systems beyond 2023-2024. [1425] A draft report was expected to be completed by 31 March 2020 for consideration by the Australia-New Zealand Emergency Management Committee. [1426] We heard that the work has been delayed due to COVID-19.

13.83 The Emergency Alert System is an important mode for delivering emergency information and warnings to the community quickly and to a specific area where there may be an emerging or imminent threat. Events during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, and during other emergencies, have shown the limitations of the current technology and demonstrated that there is a need for an alert system that can better account for people with disability and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

13.84 To ensure that state and territory governments are able to provide timely, relevant and effective messages to the public during emerging and imminent threats, the review and upgrade of the Emergency Alert System needs to be a priority. All governments need to continue working together to ensure that the system is suitably funded and uses the best available technology to improve the communication of warnings across Australia, including to people with disability and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

13.85 National community education will be required to ensure that the public understands that they may receive an Emergency Alert and the action they need to take in response.

Bushfire warning mobile applications

13.86 Social media has changed how information is communicated to the public. Mobile applications (apps) have been an innovative social media tool to provide information to the public during bushfires. [1427]

13.87 State and territory governments, and the relevant agencies (Emergency Services in WA and Victoria and Fire Services in NSW and SA), operate bushfire warning apps (and/or internet pages). [1428] The apps bring together emergency information from a range of sources including incident and warning information, and forecast, historical and observational data. [1429]

13.88 As a result of apps being run at the state and territory level, the specific information provided in the apps differs between states and territories. Generally, the apps provide the public with a platform to visualise the location of fires on a map, set ‘watch zones’ so they can be alerted if there is danger in their area, be provided with updated information that may be important to safety, and any recommended action that should be taken.

How effective were the apps during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season?

13.89 During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, the public relied heavily on apps such as Fires Near Me (NSW), Alert SA, VicEmergency and EmergencyWA. We heard that the apps were, generally, appreciated by the public and assisted individuals in making decisions in response to a new fire or an increase in a fire alert. [1430] The apps were a useful source of information that could be easily visualised by the public and used when planning how to avoid bushfire areas. [1431]

13.90 While many found the apps useful, others observed limitations with the apps and we heard that, at times, they did not meet user expectations. There appears to be room for improvement in the information provided in the apps.

13.91 First, we heard of the different types of information that state and territory governments include in the bushfire warning apps. For instance, in NSW, the alert attaches to the fire itself; whereas in Victoria the alert attaches to the action that needs to be taken by a particular community as a result of a particular hazard. [1432] Some apps show road closures, burnt areas and have push notification functions that allow users to be notified of an emergency in their area. [1433] VicEmergency provides for all hazards, not just bushfires, and extends coverage 50 kilometres into SA and NSW. [1434]

The ‘Fires Near Me (NSW)’ app The ‘VicEmergency’ app

Figure 47: A comparison of the ‘Fires Near Me (NSW)’ app (top) [1435] and ‘VicEmergency’ app (bottom) [1436]

13.92 Secondly, the information provided in the apps was, in some situations, too general and not sufficiently accurate. The apps were considered useful for a general understanding about the progress of the fire, however, they did not provide detailed information, such as the direction in which the fire was moving, wind speed, and the estimated time in which a fire may reach a specific location. [1437] Users expected that the information would be provided in real time. However, the time taken to publish information on the apps varied, depending on the data source and there were delays in updating the information. [1438] The ability to provide up-to-date information was further impacted by damage to essential infrastructure, such as power lines and telecommunication towers. This meant that the data in the user’s app might not have been updated for a significant period.

13.93 Thirdly, while the levels of warning under the Bushfire Warning System are the same between States (eg ‘Advice’, ‘Watch and Act’ and ‘Emergency Warning’), states and territories use different colours and symbols on their apps (See Table 7 for an overview of the different symbols and colours used across Australia). This was challenging, particularly for tourists and those at state borders:

So while the actual words are similar, if not identical, people looking at it just quickly and relying on the colour codes would be potentially misled by what is actually happening. [1439]

13.94 For example, in NSW, the background to the ‘Advice’ warning is blue and in Victoria it is yellow. In NSW, the ‘Watch and Act’ background is yellow, and it is orange in Victoria. Similarly, the symbols that are used on the two apps are different. The ‘Fires Near Me (NSW)’ app uses a diamond shape to reflect where there is a ‘Watch and Act’ warning, whereas the Victorian app uses a combination of diamonds and triangles.

Either, build a wall that stops fires from going over State/Territory borders, or have one national app. [1440]

13.95 Fourthly, despite some of the public expecting that a ‘map-based app’ would provide them with all the emergency information they needed in an area, an app could not be relied upon as a single source of emergency information. We heard that individuals on the NSW and Victoria border had to download and monitor several apps. Apps being run at the state and territory level resulted in fires on maps appearing to stop at the border. [1441] This presented challenges for the public, as they could not visualise on one app where the threat of fire was coming from or see in one place how they could safely evacuate from an area. [1442]

13.96 Finally, the public needs to understand that apps cannot be relied on as a single source of emergency information. While they are useful tools for the public, they are not intended to be a stand-alone source of emergency information and warnings:

…because fires change so quickly. We also say to people that by the time maps are updated, things can change, and that’s why we say listen to local radio, make sure you don’t have one source of information. [1443]

Developing consistency across state and territory bushfire warnings apps

13.97 Map-based, bushfire emergency apps are an effective and efficient way to provide information to the public – they distribute information quickly, target a specific location, and can be provided to a wide range of people. The apps can enable people to make appropriate decisions, based on their situation. Importantly, the apps are liked by the public as a tool for receiving emergency information.

13.98 We heard that the current lack of consistency in the information, methods for assigning warnings, symbols and colours caused problems. Consistency in apps is important, as in times of high stress, and when quick decision making is needed; individuals do not have the time or ability to go between different apps and reconcile the, often inconsistent, information being provided. [1444]

13.99 To equip the public with the tools they need to make informed decisions during emergencies, the challenges and limitations of the apps, experienced by the public during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, need to be addressed. We acknowledge that state and territory governments, in their own concurrent inquiries into the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, and in evidence before us, recognise that there is a need for greater consistency in the information provided. [1445] We welcome the steps that state and territory governments (and emergency service agencies) are taking to improve the functionality and utility of the apps. We urge them to give priority to achieving this consistency.

Is a national all-hazard app the solution?

13.100 We have considered the potential development of a national all-hazard warning app to address the limitations of the bushfire warning apps during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season. The development and implementation of an all-hazard app could complement the development and implementation of the AWS.

13.101 The Australian government has previously developed such an app, however, we heard that it is no longer in use. [1446] Similarly, while NSWRFS operates a national app called ‘Fires Near Me Australia’ (FNMA App), we understand that this has been largely superseded by the development of jurisdiction specific bushfire emergency apps, which provide broader functionality (for example, the FNMA App does not provide push notification or Watch Zone functionalities). [1447]

13.102 We heard that the development of a national all-hazard app is possible and that data can be fed into such a system from the state and territory governments and from other sources. [1448] We heard, however, that data from state and territory governments lacks consistency and this presents a challenge to developing a national warning app. [1449] Availability of nationally consistent data is a key enabler for the development of a national app by the Australian government, or a commercial provider. In the meantime, while the development of a national app is technically feasible, governments have differing views on the utility and viability of a national app. [1450]

13.103 NSW suggested that it would be a challenge to obtain state and territory governments’ agreement on the development of a national app and that it is not exploring the expansion of the ‘Fires Near Me (NSW)’ to an all-hazard app. [1451] NSW questioned whether a national app is necessary or appropriate if it resulted in inflexible standards that stifle innovation, or adopted a ‘lowest common denominator approach’. [1452] This concern may reflect a preoccupation with jurisdictional approaches over the benefits of consistency for the communities relying on the advice.

13.104 Victoria submitted that consideration of a national app needs to balance what people on the ground need to be able to make decisions against the necessity of individuals having a national view of natural disasters. For instance, following the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, Victoria recognised that cross-border communities may be better served by tailored local information, rather than by a broader national picture, and is taking steps to explore this. [1453]

13.105 The ACT, which currently relies on the Fires Near Me (NSW) app, recognised the benefits of adopting a national approach to the design, development and delivery of an initiative which potentially could positively influence the affordability for smaller jurisdictions. [1454]

13.106 As discussed earlier in this chapter, the development of an all-hazard AWS has been a long and challenging process for governments. We are mindful that integrating the development of an all-hazard warning app alongside this project may further delay the AWS.

13.107 Ultimately, we recognise that a national app may be useful in providing a national picture of natural disaster risks and warnings to the public. Until there is consistency in underlying data that would feed into the app, and uniformity around the country in warning terminology and symbols, it is not clear, on the evidence available to us, that the public would best be served by governments prioritising the development of a national all-hazard app over these other important initiatives.

13.108 National consistency may be better achieved by Australian, state and territory governments working together to develop national standards of information that should be included in emergency warnings apps and ensuring consistency in the data platforms used to enable, for instance, the private sector to aggregate the information into a consolidated national app.

13.109 To improve the functionality and utility of the apps, the Australian government should facilitate state and territory governments working together to develop national standards of information that should be included in bushfire warnings apps. These standards could then also be applied to other hazard-specific warning mobile applications, and could include:

  • consistent terminology and symbols
  • consistent approach to assigning warnings to the bushfire (or other hazard)
  • extending coverage of each jurisdiction’s app to no less than 50kms into the neighbouring state or territory
  • the provision of push notifications so a user can be notified when updated emergency information is available
  • information on when the data for the app were last updated, and/or the regularity with which data are updated
  • information on road closures, fire front, fire direction, and fire spread prediction, and
  • link to websites with additional information directed at supporting the community during an emergency.

13.110 Some jurisdictions are exploring the possibility of a national all-hazard app. [1455] We welcome this and support the Australian, state and territory governments’ consideration of whether the development of a national all-hazard warning app would provide the public with better emergency information and warnings.

Recommendation 13.5 The development of national standards for mobile applications

The Australian Government should facilitate state and territory governments working together to develop minimum national standards of information to be included in bushfire warnings apps.

Recommendation 13.6 Exploring the development of a national, all-hazard warning app

Australian, state and territory governments should continue to explore the feasibility of a national, all-hazard emergency warning app.

The importance of having a radio

13.111 Government and emergency service agencies rely heavily on essential infrastructure, such as power lines and telecommunication towers, to distribute emergency information and warnings to the public. During the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, some essential infrastructure was severely affected by fire and did not operate reliably, if at all. As a result, communities did not have constant access to landline or mobile phone communications, the internet or television. [1456] We heard that in these situations, the public relied on ABC and community radio as the source of emergency warnings information.

13.112 Radio provides an important ‘lifeline’ to rural and regional communities that have no other means of obtaining emergency warnings information. [1457] While radio services are an important source of emergency information, where access to mobile phone networks, television and the internet are not available, radio transmission towers are also vulnerable to damage caused by bushfires (see Figure 48). Having a battery powered AM radio improves redundancy by reducing the reliance on electricity supplies.

13.113 Although radio transmissions are sometimes more reliable than other media for receiving emergency warnings advice, no single communications medium is impervious to the impact of natural disasters.

13.114 Individuals should ensure that they have a range of ways to receive emergency warnings information, and should not rely on any single source or means. Individuals should closely monitor their surroundings and make decisions to ensure their safety.

An ABC broadcast tower impacted by the Mount Wandera bushfire in NSW

Figure 48: An ABC broadcast tower impacted by the Mount Wandera bushfire in NSW [1458]

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation

13.115 The ABC is Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster. Although neither the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth) nor the ABC Charter prescribe a role for the ABC in emergency broadcasting, the ABC does broadcast emergency warnings. [1459] The ABC told us that it has developed its role during emergencies:

…as part of its general responsibility to provide Australians with high quality services that keep them informed. This means that, although not specifically required or funded to provide such services, they remain central to ABC operations and have the highest priority among its activities. [1460]

13.116 The ABC has significant coverage through its radio transmission network that affords it a unique position to deliver emergency warnings information. The ABC told us that its AM radio network is accessible to over 99% of the Australian population. [1461] The ABC also operates an extensive range of FM radio and digital television services.

13.117 During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, the ABC experienced a significant surge in the public’s use of its services across a range of platforms. [1462] Between 29 December 2019 and 4 January 2020, the ABC South East audio streaming service experienced a 1,800% increase in usage and the ABC Emergency Facebook page received the equivalent of 12 months’ usage during the period December 2019 to January 2020. [1463] The ABC provided emergency warnings information in relation to over 950 natural hazard events over the course of the bushfire season. [1464]

When the power went off, towers must have been damaged in the area and communication with phones (dropped) out…most of our information then was coming from the ABC and radios. [1465]

The loss of communications…is a major blow to any…community. And it was total in our case…we were only connected to the outside world by listening to ABC when they were conducting their emergency broadcasts, which they did exceptionally well… [1466]

Community radio stations

13.118 Community radio stations also offer an important source of information during emergencies, particularly for Australians living in remote communities. Each week, approximately six million Australians listen to over 450 community radio stations. For many Australians, community radio is the only source of news and information available in their region. [1467]

13.119 Community radio stations are also an important source of information for Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse Australians. There are 89 regions across Australia where Indigenous Australian community radio stations are the only broadcast services available in the region. During the 2019‑2020 bushfires, over 80 community radio stations broadcast emergency warnings advice to fire affected remote Indigenous communities. [1468]

Media engagement with emergency management agencies

13.120 The ABC, and other broadcasters, work with emergency management partners before, during and after emergencies to coordinate the communication of emergency information and warnings to the community. [1469] The level of engagement varies across jurisdictions and includes:

  • state-based emergency service training and accreditation for media personnel
  • formal and informal arrangements for engaging with, and managing relationships between, local media organisations and emergency agencies
  • ABC representation on emergency management committees and within operation centres, and
  • agreements to access senior emergency officials during emergency incidents. [1470]

13.121 The ABC submitted that embedding ABC managers within state and territory emergency management committees and operation centres facilitates the communication of timely, effective and appropriate information and warnings to the public to assist communities and individuals (including, understanding inconsistencies in emergency information terminology, symbols and explanations between states and territories). The ABC emphasised that the role of their embedded managers would be to assist with warnings and not be a journalist’s function. [1471]

13.122 While ABC officers have, on some occasions, been embedded in WA, NT, NSW and the ACT, we heard no consistent practice of embedding ABC managers in committees and operations centres across all jurisdictions.

13.123 Victoria and Tasmania have questioned whether formally embedding ABC managers would improve the rapid delivery of critical emergency information. [1472] Concerns were expressed around resourcing, access to confidential and operational information, the potential need for a formal arrangement requiring the ABC to share the information received with other emergency broadcasters, and that it would limit the necessary flexibility in managing the varied operational arrangements in each state and territory. [1473] The Australian government indicated that such an opportunity should not distinguish between public and commercial broadcasters. [1474]

13.124 We also heard, however, broad support for exploring ways in which state and territory governments’ could better engage with emergency broadcasters to improve the timely delivery of emergency warnings information to the public. [1475] We recognise the important role that broadcast media plays in emergency information and warnings.

13.125 State and territory governments should explore how to improve engagement between emergency managers and media representatives before, during and after natural disasters.

13.126 All state and territory governments (and relevant emergency service agencies, as appropriate) should provide timely warnings and public information to appropriate broadcast media to maximise the potential for critical information to reach the public.

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