Monday the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission released an interim report on the February 7 inferno — known as Black Saturday — that killed 173.
The findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission may shift the Australian model of bushfire (wildfire) response closer to that of the United States. In a Tuesday editorial on the interim report The Age of Melbourne offers,
The commission’s recommendations leave in place the policy of ”Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early”, commonly known as ”stay or go”, which has long been the core of Victoria’s bushfire response strategy. But they do not leave it intact. Indeed, the commission has advised a reinterpretation of ”stay or go” so thoroughgoing that the policy can no longer be applied as traditionally intended. Hitherto, ”stay or go” has rested on the understanding that the safest tactic, for those who are adequately prepared, is to stay and defend their homes. That assumption is turned on its head by the report: in future, it recommends, firefighting services should make clear to householders that the safest option is always to leave early.
The Royal Commission’s work is focused tightly on risk readiness and response to wildfire. But I found many of its findings and recommendations to have implications for a range of hazards. The following is taken from the interim report’s executive summary. Replace the noun “bushfires” with a threat of your choice. I expect the principle will continue to be valid.
Timely warnings save lives. The community expects and depends on detailed and high quality information prior to, during, and after bushfires. The community is also entitled to receive timely and accurate bushfire warnings whenever possible, based on the intelligence available to the control agencies.
Though they are distinct concepts, the provision of information (Chapter 5), warnings (Chapter 4) and the response to emergency calls (Chapter 12) are inextricably linked. Ongoing information about bushfires prepares the community and educates on the appropriate steps to take if a warning is issued. In contrast, a bushfire warning is specific advice about an imminent event. Such a warning should propel the community into action in response to a specific threat — ideally, armed with the information and education which has prepared them to respond.
Prior to 7 February the State Government devoted unprecedented efforts and resources to informing the community about the fire risks Victoria faced. That campaign clearly had benefits, but it could not, on its own, translate levels of awareness and preparedness into universal action that minimised risk on the day of the fires. Indeed, no campaign will have universal success. The effectiveness of any campaign depends on the quality of information, the modes of dissemination and the willingness and capacity of people to hear, understand and act on the message. This is a shared responsibility between government and the people.
The interim report makes fifty-one recommendations, many focused on improving near-term preparedness for the forthcoming wildfire season in Australia. The recommendations address very specific issues of intelligence, incident command, evacuation, command authority, and much more.
But the vast majority of recommendations focus on public communication during — and even more importantly, before — a wildfire emergency. Unless a serious investment in public education is made prior to an emergency, even the best communications during an emergency will be considerably less effective.
Findings highlight systemic failure (The Age)
Prepare for worst fire season ever (Sydney Morning Herald)
Victoria names 52 towns most vulnerable to bushfires (The Australian)
Confusion over ultimate authority (Herald-Sun)
Review to lock in crisis command (The Age)