Opinion: COVID-19 has taught us that coordinated and effective emergency response is possible

By David Nicol

Thursday October 29, 2020


Australia should harness what it has learned in its bi-partisan national cabinet response to COVID-19 to employ a national, coordinated approach in tackling environmental and human-made disasters.

With a body like the national cabinet in place, well informed legislation that coordinates the use of next-generation communication technology will be the cornerstone of an effective response to any emergency, such as the 2020-21 fire season – which will be compounded by all the problems of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time, we will have to deal with fires along with the ever-present threat of COVID-19 outbreaks and the varying state responses to those outbreaks, such as quarantine restrictions and border closures.

Unless we act now, there is likely to be confusion in our bushfire response, especially around border areas, and we may not be able to fully optimise our firefighting resources.

Fresh disaster management legislation will hopefully flow from the state and federal inquiries into the horrific 2019-20 bushfires. The NSW government inquiry has released its final report and all 76 recommendations have been accepted in principle.

The inquiry acknowledged an immediate need for improved telecommunications both to ensure community access to relevant information and to improve the coordination of emergency response teams, government and community stakeholders. The report said many government response systems needed improvement, as did cross-agency accountability and governance. Recommended measures included better power backup arrangements, expanded fire information apps and upgrading firefighter access to radio public safety networks.

In the longer term, the report urged we push available technologies much harder. This means coupling remote sensing, artificial intelligence, big data techniques to the latest developments in fire science. An example of research and development in this space is the new partnership between ANU and Optus to build an advanced bushfire detection system. The result of that work should be near real-time understanding of fire fronts, much faster delivery of more accurate evacuation information and efficient fire-fighting asset management.

How do we get there? Adapting our national approach to the pandemic to the coming bushfire season would establish a good foundation.

Applying the pandemic response to other disasters

State, federal and local governments moved quickly and decisively to deal with COVID-19 when it reached our shores and our infection rates and death toll from the virus have been comparatively low.

Despite some shortfalls along the way, the national cabinet system has worked to suppress COVID-19 in Australia and its structure could be adapted to coordinate state and federal resources during this bushfire season and to manage other future disasters.

The idea of creating a bushfire season version of the national cabinet has already been floated by the interim report of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The report says: “The functions of the national cabinet, or a similar peak intergovernmental decision-making body, could be adopted for the national management of future natural disasters.”

The report also warns of potential technology mix ups if we do not have national coordination. The reality is, with any incident it is not just the general population and emergency responders involved. Governments at all levels, volunteers, transport providers, and building management teams are just some of the many groups needed to coordinate and optimise emergency response. With better systems that enable efficient collaboration, these groups can relieve pressure on frontline emergency services.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel

Jurisdictions in other countries have tackled the problems of co-ordinating federal, state and local responses to disaster management and their lessons help with Australia’s efforts.

Canada created a Temporary National Coordination Office in 2018 to help build a Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) that is jointly staffed by federal, provincial/territorial officials, tri-service representatives and other potential PSBN users. The Office is finalising national recommendations for PSBN requirements and working up options for a permanent coordination structure.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5) created a single system to synchronise federal, state and local responses to terrorism.

The plan came under scrutiny when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2011 and US emergency teams were unprepared to manage the 65,000 responders called to action from across the country. Poor on-ground co-ordination had grim consequences for teams operating in unsafe conditions. The fallout led to the passing of the Interoperable Communications Act, that requires US government agencies to maintain interoperable communications in the event of a disaster.

Preparing to respond to any disaster

2020 has taught us that a national coordinated effort is possible, and that we can mitigate the risk of secondary impacts during an emergency. The urgent response necessitated by the global pandemic has also reinforced the duty of care that every organisation has for its people and triggered the establishment of better communications structures for both foreseen and unforeseen future events.

With the mechanisms now in place to keep people safe in fluid circumstances, we should ensure they extend to terrorist attacks, cyber incidents, extreme weather events, and other situations such as blackouts or poor air quality. Regulation should be implemented at a federal and state level to ensure organisations have those processes in place longer term.

By coupling regulation with next-generation crisis communications technology designed to streamline complex and time-sensitive communications across multiple channels, Australia can vastly improve its preparedness to respond to any disaster. Now is the time to revamp our national emergency response mechanisms to better protect the Australian community and the brave first responders protecting us.

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