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Opportunities for improvements in national mitigation and preparedness arrangements

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Opportunities for improvements in national mitigation and preparedness arrangements

Emergency planning

74. It is important for emergency planners at all levels of government to have the best available information and input from appropriate experts and organisations. Relevant expertise and, importantly, local knowledge, may be needed from a range of government and non-government sources, including private sector operators, critical infrastructure providers, charities, medical practitioners, and wildlife and stock welfare groups. We have heard that some groups could have been better integrated, at the appropriate level, into natural disaster planning and management.
75. By way of example, local health professionals are an important part of Australia’s health care system and local communities. They have valuable knowledge of, and pre-existing relationships with, the local communities they support. However, they do not appear to be systematically included in emergency planning for response, or recovery arrangements.
76. As Australia increasingly faces cascading, concurrent and compounding natural disasters, 'stress testing' disaster plans and evaluating outcomes will be crucial. Joint and national exercises can assist to evaluate plans, develop and assess competence, identify gaps and improvements, and build relationships.

Evacuation planning and shelters

77. There is an opportunity for more work to be done to improve evacuation planning and sheltering options.
78. We have heard that there may be a need for evacuations to better take all relevant factors into account, including tourist populations, access to appropriately prepared evacuation routes, and the identification of appropriate sheltering locations.
79. We heard of confusion in the community about the nature of the different sheltering options—including evacuation centres, Neighbourhood Safer Places and places of last resort—and the level of protection provided by each of these facilities. This confusion could have an adverse impact on safety where the protection offered by the facility does not meet the expectations of those seeking shelter.
80. In some cases, evacuations crossed state and territory borders. In those circumstances, some people may have experienced additional confusion, including due to the differences in terminology used.
81. The evacuation of people from aged care facilities raises particular issues, and we have referred this topic to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

Supply chain continuity

82. Natural disasters can have a significant impact on supply chains, leading to shortages of essentials for the community, businesses and emergency services. Some have suggested that domestic stockpiles (eg, fire retardant and consumables) are warranted to ensure supply during these times of most urgent need. This might operate similarly to the national medical stockpile, which was used during the 2019 2020 bushfire season to supply P2 masks to alleviate the widespread smoke effects of the bushfires.
83. To support preparedness, we consider that forming a better understanding of supply chain risks would be of great benefit at each planning level. Understanding these risks would provide sufficient time to consider alternatives and options. For example, governments could harness the private sector to create onshore redundancy for key goods sourced from overseas.

Critical infrastructure and essential services

84. In the context of natural disasters, the understanding of critical infrastructure is not consistent nationally. We have taken critical infrastructure to mean the physical assets (such as power lines, water pumps, roads and mobile towers) that provide everyday essential services such as power, telecommunications, transport and water. Commonwealth, state and territory legislation define, and require registers of, critical infrastructure. However, for a variety of reasons, these definitions are different and critical infrastructure registers are not exhaustive.
85. Critical infrastructure can be publicly and/or privately owned and operated. Planning and preparation should ensure that communities, individuals and businesses are aware of vulnerabilities and take necessary steps in advance of essential service outages, in order to manage cascading effects.
86. There seem to be some deficiencies with integrating critical infrastructure into planning processes. We observed challenges faced by managers of critical infrastructure in coordinating with others during the 2019-2020 bushfires. For example, we heard of difficulties for power providers in identifying who owns telecommunications assets for the purpose of notifying telecommunications providers about power outages. We have also noted inconsistencies in the extent to which the vulnerability of essential infrastructure is accounted for in government emergency planning and risk management.
87. Restoring essential services to communities following an outage takes time, and depends on the scale of the disaster. Risks can be mitigated but, in the course of a natural disaster, some outages are unavoidable. During the 2019-2020 bushfires, businesses and communities were significantly affected by essential service outages. While power and telecommunications outages were most visible, communities also had limited access to other essential services. Infrastructure owners and operators appeared to have a broad understanding of their own interdependencies. Others seemed less aware of the extent to which their services relied on other services—until an outage occurred. We are considering whether coordination arrangements can be strengthened to improve understanding of these risks.

Public and private land management

88. Land management can reduce some aspects of natural disaster risk (eg, through vegetation fuel management). However, the effectiveness of land management depends in turn on a range of factors, particularly weather. There are also a number of constraints that limit the extent of, and opportunities for, land management, including cost, community awareness, regulatory settings, and the shortening of seasonal windows.
89. States and territories are primarily responsible for regulating land management, including environmental and hazard management activities. However, the practical implementation of land management rests with the land manager—whether an individual, a business, a government or other entity.
90. We have heard of the complexity and variation in approval processes. In some cases, there appears to be a need for practical guidance for land managers and the broader community.
91. There is a strong interest in, and views on, prescribed burning as a bushfire hazard reduction activity. Other activities include mechanical clearing—such as slashing, thinning and mowing—and grazing by animals. All these activities can play an important role in ameliorating bushfire behaviour and increase the potential for suppression. However, these activities will not eliminate bushfire risk.
92. There is a need for further education and research to improve understanding of the effectiveness of these activities under severe to catastrophic bushfire weather conditions.

Indigenous land and fire management

93. There are varying degrees of community understanding of Indigenous land management practices and how they differ from emergency management-driven hazard reduction activities.
94. We have observed the interconnected nature and cultural and environmental significance of Indigenous land management practices in Australia, including traditional fire management.
95. We have heard evidence that Indigenous land and fire management is supported and practised differently across the varied landscapes of Australia. Indigenous groups and communities have different objectives and levels of knowledge, experience, resources and opportunities to undertake Indigenous land and fire management. We have also heard how Indigenous land and fire management incorporates technology, such as satellite data and helicopters.
96. Indigenous land and fire management in northern Australia is practised on a broader scale than in southern Australia. We have heard that these practices can reduce bushfire risk in the north; more research is required as to their role in bushfire risk mitigation in the south. Some jurisdictions are working with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience and its integration into a whole-of-community approach. There is a place for Indigenous land and fire management practices to be integrated into the planning and execution of public land management activities across Australia.

Land use planning and building

97. Land use planning and building decisions are a key factor in the extent of exposure, and vulnerability, of households and communities to natural hazards. However, there are gaps in the natural disaster risk information available to decision makers.
98. Decisions about where to locate communities, buildings and services and what conditions to impose or standards to require for new buildings or developments, should be informed by sound risk data. Information about hazards and exposure should be publicly available to ensure that informed decisions can be made. Decision makers may need tools or services to use probabilistic data effectively for the assessment of current and future risk in a changing global climate.
99. We have heard that many hundreds of thousands of Australians live in at-risk areas. The insurance industry reported that, in the 2019-2020 bushfire season, 99% of destroyed and damaged residential buildings were located on, or within 500m of, land declared as 'bushfire prone', and 74% were built before the introduction of the relevant Australian Standard, AS 3959.
100. The extent to which structures and communities are exposed and vulnerable to natural hazards should be identified and communicated, so people can make informed decisions about the risk with which they are willing to live, and the actions they can take to mitigate this risk.
101. Land use planning and building regulations presently apply only to new developments (or significant modifications to existing developments), not to existing developments.
102. We have also heard about issues relating to insurance affordability, coverage, and the ability to understand insurance products. Another question raised was the extent to which insurers recognise actions taken by householders to reduce their risk. Many of these issues are covered in more detail in other inquiries.