CFA head will issue public bushfire warnings under new emergency management structure

CFA head will issue public bushfire warnings under new emergency management structure

27 October 2009

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Australia — The head of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority will have the legal responsibility for issuing public warnings during bushfires under an overhaul of the state’s emergency management structure, the Black Saturday royal commission was told today.

But the actual warnings will still be issued at a local level by individual incident controllers, although that task will be given a higher priority under the changes.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland told the hearing he had completed a review of the State Emergency Response Plan, which was criticised by the royal commission in its interim report in August.

He said under the revised plan there would be three levels of command, a state controller at the top, area of operations controllers at regional levels and incident controllers at the local level.

When it came to ensuring that public warnings were issued during an emergency, “the buck stops with the state controller,” Overland said.

An area of operations controller would also be expected to check that warnings were going out, with Victoria Police in its role as Emergency Response Coordinator acting as a “failsafe”.

The royal commission has heard repeatedly of the failure to issue adequate warnings on Black Saturday, with some communities not receiving any warning before they were engulfed by wildfires.

Mr Overland said there was confusion amongst emergency services under the state’s old emergency response plan, in place during Black Saturday, regarding the difference between the command, control and coordination functions.

“There was confusion about basic things like the terminology,” he said. “What is command, what is control and what is coordination?

“Unless you actually have that straight, everything that flows from there very quickly becomes confused and confusing.”

The position of a single state controller, which would be filled as necessary depending on the type of emergency, would be created by legislative changes due to be introduced by the Brumby government in November.

A state controller would have both a broad strategic responsibility and a pro-active role in ensuring that area of operations controllers and incident controllers were carrying out their tasks.

CFA head Russell Rees was criticised in the royal commission’s interim report for failing to take operational control of the Black Saturday emergency on February 7, “even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge”.

Mr Overland said that under the new structure, the “default” situation on a day such as February 7 would be that the head of the CFA would become state controller for the emergency.

But Mr Overland struggled at times during cross examination by counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Doyle on how the new structure might work on a day like Black Saturday, saying the way bushfires were fought was beyond his expertise.

He said it was important that the new emergency management structure be able to cope with all types of hazards and incidents, and not be specifically designed to respond only to bushfires.

“I understand your fascination with the events of February 7,” Mr Overland said.

“That’s perfectly understandable. I’m obviously interested in them as well.

“But my responsibility is to put in place emergency management arrangements for all emergencies, all incidents, all hazards.”

Mr Overland said the review of the state emergency response plan was an interim measure and it would be further reviewed following the final recommendations of the royal commission, due in July next year.

The royal commission is continuing.

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