A royal commissioner has said it is “breathtaking” that despite community confusion over the meaning of the Watch and Act bushfire alert, it is not expected to be updated for another two years.
- Annabelle Bennett says the wording of the advice is confusing for people in bushfire emergencies
- Research on the advice warnings is underway and the results will be implemented by 2022
- Work is also underway to make the advice levels nationally consistent
The bushfire royal commission has previously heard evidence that the Watch and Act direction was difficult for people in a fire zone to understand, because it gave conflicting instructions, to observe the fire and take action to leave.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) told the commissioners widespread research was being conducted to inform an updated national warning system, which was expected to be put in place by 2022. The work began in 2016.
Royal commissioner Annabelle Bennett AC SC said she could not understand why there was not a greater sense of urgency.
“I find it breathtaking that it takes that many years to come up with something where you know there’s confusion,” she said.
“You know that, and yet, year after year, people are being exposed to natural disasters and fires, in particular, where they have no idea what they’re meant to do under this system.”
The Watch and Act instruction is part of the three-level emergency warning system fast-tracked for the 2010 bushfire season following the deadly Black Saturday fires.
The first Advice alert level means a fire has started but there is no immediate danger.
Watch and Act is the second level and means there is a heightened level of threat, conditions are changing and people should take action to protect themselves and their families.
The highest alert level is Emergency Warning, which means people are in danger and delaying action puts lives at risk.
Commissioner Bennett said the quick action to make changes after the 2009 fires should have been replicated.
“You know what the problems are, you know what the community concerns are, you know what the issues are,” she said.
RFS communications manager Anthony Clark told the hearing the work to make the system clearer and consistent across the country was almost done.
“The research has shown that there’s overwhelming community support for consistency,” Mr Clark said.
He said he wished the review process could “happen much faster”.
RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers also defended the timeframes.
“We know that there is a degree of community concern or confusion around that, but I think we want to get it right and we need to get it right,” he said.
“We’ve often spoken about ensuring that we have got the compelling case for change and having the right words that we know will get the right response from the community.”
The royal commission is in its second block of hearings and is focused on improving Australia’s preparation for, response to, and recovery from natural disasters.