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Opportunities for improvements in national response arrangements

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Opportunities for improvements in national response arrangements

103. Time-critical decisions need time-critical information. Accurate and timely information allows decisions to be made at the most appropriate level, and empowers the public to make informed decisions about their safety prior to and during events. Inconsistency in information creates confusion, and limits the ability of individuals and agencies to deal with a natural disaster effectively.

Emergency information

104. The Bushfire Warnings System, established in 2009, is a national, three level bushfire alert system. While the warning levels are the same nationally, the symbols used and the corresponding action required under each alert level varies across states and territories (see Figure 1). We have heard that the middle-level warning, 'Watch and Act', causes confusion—could it mean 'wait and see' or 'act now'? The recommended steps to be taken in response to the warning also vary across the nation. An AFAC working group has been tasked with developing a national all-hazard warning system—the Australian Warning System—for some six years. Community research on the proposed AWS has been ongoing since September 2018.
symbols used on bushfire warnings
Figure 1: Current Bushfire Warnings System.
105. We recognise AFAC’s efforts to pursue consistency in a collegial manner through CCOSC. Nonetheless, for such a critical issue, this work has taken too long and is an example of the need for a clear decision-making process and to elevate matters to national leaders where required. The work on the Australian Warning System should be finished as a priority.
106. Likewise, there are variations in the current fire danger ratings across state and territory fire authorities, and in the guidance on how to react to each level (see Figure 2). 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 for each rating and others do not. In 2014, ANZEMC agreed to the development of a new Australian Fire Danger Rating System. Since 2016, AFAC has been leading the development and implementation of the new system, drawing on the latest science and technology to better reflect the effect of forecast environmental and weather conditions on the potential for bushfires. While we appreciate the complexity involved, we are of the view that this needs to be finalised as a matter of priority.
fire danger signs
Figure 2: Fire Danger Rating System in each jurisdiction.
107. A national community education campaign should be prioritised following the finalisation of the Australian Warning System and the Australian Fire Danger Rating System.
108. During the 2019-2020 bushfire season, members of the community and first responders used state and territory government operated map-based applications (apps), such as the NSW RFS app 'Fires Near Me' and 'VicEmergency', for emergency information and warnings in their respective areas. The various apps use different terminology, symbols and explanations for the same emergency and do not consistently include the same types of information, or all of the necessary information, to enable informed decisions.
109. While the apps are generally well liked by the community, the inconsistencies and differences in information provided in apps caused some issues during the 2019 2020 bushfire season, especially for border communities and tourists who had to use multiple apps. We are considering the value of a national approach to apps that can standardise the process of attributing a warning to an emergency, clarify time lags in publishing warnings, and provide all relevant information an individual may need to make an informed decision in relation to all hazards. We are considering the need for a new 'national app' with information about all natural disasters, not just bushfires.
110. Closer collaboration between agencies, and between agencies and the private sector, could help resolve these issues.

Emergency responders

111. Australia is well served by the career and volunteer emergency responders who work together in the service of the nation. As natural disasters become more frequent and intense, there may be greater need for emergency responders to work with other agencies and across the nation. Emergency responders, both career and volunteer, are already being frequently deployed interstate, to provide surge capacity, relief to local workers, and critical expertise.
112. National standards, training and protocols should make the process for interstate deployments and the relocation of responders more efficient and effective. Despite national standards, such as the Public Safety Training Package, standards, training and protocols differ between states and territories. Some differences are understandable, for example differences in training to account for local geography. We are considering whether emergency responders would benefit from greater consistency in standards, training and protocols.
113. The vast majority of people who fight bushfires and respond to floods and cyclones in Australia are volunteers. They played a vital role during the 2019-2020 bushfires, as they have during many previous bushfires, floods and cyclones across Australia. Volunteers are also crucial in helping communities recover from natural disasters.
114. Evidence of volunteers and volunteering organisations emphasised the importance of according volunteers respect and recognition, for their skills, knowledge, hard work and sacrifice. The 2019-2020 bushfire season made extraordinary calls on some volunteer firefighters. Without these volunteers, the bushfires may well have lasted longer, taken more lives and destroyed more homes.
115. During the 2019-2020 bushfires, many volunteers worked for weeks on end, often taking them away from their regular employment. Some support was offered to volunteers, including a government funded volunteer support payment and support from the private sector. We are considering whether all volunteers ought to have the same immunities, and whether volunteers taken away from their regular employment for extended periods would benefit from additional employment protections.

Aerial firefighting

116. The use of aerial firefighting is an integral part of strategies to contain and control bushfires. For example, aircraft are used to gather information, to apply retardant to reduce the progression and intensity of bushfires, and to move emergency responders to strategic locations.
117. NAFC coordinates the procurement of contracted aircraft and services for state and territory agencies. State and territory governments also presently own a small number of emergency response aircraft.
118. Various types of aircraft play valuable but differing roles in aerial response. For example, large and very large air-tankers (LATs and VLATs) have large load capacity and can travel relatively long distances at speed, and deploy across Australia; smaller aerial assets, such as helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft, have a smaller load capacity, but are capable of operating at higher rates of effort in local responses and from regional locations. There are only a small number of LATs and VLATs in operation globally, with most based in North America. There is only one LAT permanently located in Australia (NSW).
119. Aerial firefighting is not a task directed of the ADF by Government. ADF aerial assets are not generally equipped for firefighting. They are used to support firefighting efforts, such as for evacuations and moving personnel. They are also used for concurrent natural disasters, such as floods and cyclones, and broader national security tasks.
120. Some aerial assets that are relied on as part of the national firefighting capability are based overseas. As fire seasons in both hemispheres increase in length and intensity, and other global issues arise, there is a risk that it will become increasingly difficult to secure overseas aircraft to provide contracted services during the Australian bushfire season.
121. In light of these risks, existing aerial firefighting capability and capacity arrangements require reassessment. This would need to be supported by research and evaluation to inform specific future capability needs, including the desirability for a modest, Australian-based sovereign VLAT/LAT capability. There may also be a need to explore contracting models that encourage Australian industry involvement in the development of future aerial firefighting capability.

Emergency communications and equipment

122. Investing in equipment for fire and emergency services can be expensive. These decisions have long-lasting ramifications, with some in place for decades, requiring long lead times to change. For example, we have heard that the 'refresh' time for firetruck fleets can be as long as 30 years.
123. Effective communication among emergency responders relies on the specific equipment they use. Firefighters and other first responders have repeatedly stressed the importance of their communications equipment being interoperable. An absence of compatible information and communications equipment can make information sharing in the field challenging or impossible. Where people from different jurisdictions are working together to respond to a natural disaster, it is vital that their various technologies also work together.
124. Australian, state and territory governments have long recognised the need to improve the national interoperability of communications equipment. We encourage governments to prioritise and conclude arrangements to deliver more interoperable communications equipment.

Public safety mobile broadband

125. A widely recognised gap in the communications platforms available to emergency responders in Australia is a national public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) capability, which would enable first responders to make better use of internet-based technologies and applications to access video, images, location tracking and other data.
126. We support the need for governments to prioritise, and expedite discussions about, delivering a national PSMB capability, which would confer significant benefits to emergency responders in the states and territories.
127. There are significant spectrum requirements to deliver a PSMB capability. The Australian Government has responsibility for managing the allocation of spectrum, which has significant commercial value. It is unclear to us why the Australian Government should provide this spectrum to the states and territories without contribution from those governments.