Bushfire residents given conflicting emergency advice during crisis

Australian Associated Press
·3-min read

Emergency warnings are not keeping up with the speed of fast-moving natural disasters like bushfires, a royal commission has been told.

There were times during Queensland's bushfires when alerts were inaccurate and did not reflect what was happening on the ground, an issue that was not limited to that state.

Residents were still receiving advice to leave via telephone messages when they had been told they could safely return to their homes by staff on the ground, a report by Queensland Inspector-General for Emergency Management Alistair Dawson noted.

The home of Justin Kam and Helena Wong barely stands after a fire destroyed the house at Balmoral. Source: AAP
The home of Justin Kam and Helena Wong barely stands after a fire destroyed the house at Balmoral. Source: AAP

"In regards to warnings and how they're disseminated, there are times when the event is moving so fast that the warnings do not necessarily keep up with the speed of the event," Mr Dawson said on Tuesday.

He said there was a time delay in getting the information back, constructing the warning and getting the message into the community.

"It's about at what point in time they interact with the message, at what point the messages go out and the speed of messages," he told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

A fire burning in Illinbah, Queensland seen from a property.
A fire burning in Illinbah, Queensland. Source: AAP

"It comes down to almost the decision is 'how often do we tell', because it can actually be confusing, the more messages you put out."

Mr Dawson said community research undertaken for the review showed people received a warning but were not sure what to do, or the sequence of the messages confused them.

Blazes had been threatening homes and property near Mt Archer National Park
Firefighters monitor the area during bushfires in Rockhampton near where one house was burnt to the ground. Source: AAP

"They were scrolling through the messages and saying 'well I wasn't sure which message came first'."

The February report noted there was confusion among both the agencies and groups involved in disaster management and the community about the meaning of some of the warning messages and what action should be taken.

The issues particularly related to evacuation, return and advice around 'watch and act', which the report said needs to be clearer.

Residents pictured standing on their rooftop as bushfires rage at Sunshine Beach in the Noosa National park
Residents stand on their rooftop as bushfires rage at Sunshine Beach in the Noosa National park. Source: AAP

Mr Dawson said emergency services agencies were taking action to improve the messages, including work to pre-construct warnings so they could be sent out in advance.

The confusing nature of the emergency warning system, particularly over watch and act, has been repeatedly raised in evidence to the royal commission.

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