Home » Disaster Inquiries » Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 3

Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 3

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In the previous two posts I have examined current trends and future projections of climate change impacts on natural hazards, the estimated costs of extreme weather and potential insurance impacts. In this instalment I move onto the preparedness terms of reference:

(c) an assessment of the preparedness of key sectors for extreme weather events, including major infrastructure (electricity, water, transport, telecommunications), health, construction and property, and agriculture and forestry;

What is a key sector?

Many in the community and emergency management sector talk about critical infrastructure. Unfortunately in Australia critical infrastructure has a specific counter-terrorism related definition, that is security focussed and not scalable to anything below a national level. In its place I prefer to use the term ‘community lifelines’ which I define as:

assets, services, supply chains and networks that if damaged, disrupted or destroyed would cause a severe degradation in the functioning of a community

The importance of this definition is that it’s scalable and focusses on the functioning of communities, making it more compatible with the concept of resilience.

Considering this definition it would be prudent to add to the list of sectors in the Terms of Reference:

  • Food supply: In cities the systems that supply food to the population are large, complex and depend on many other pieces of infrastructure. This sector is critical to the functioning of communities.

  • Waste Management: The removal, treatment and disposal of both solid (garbage) and liquid (sewage) wastes is crucial to the physical and psychological health of communities.

  • Financial Services: The days of people keeping cash under their mattresses are over. People are increasingly conducting transactions online and using debit and credit cards. Most individuals keep limited reserves of cash on hand. Financial services are highly dependent on telecommunications. The ability of people to purchase daily necessities and produce economic activity is dependent on access to these financial services.

  • Education: Although communities can function for short periods without them, long-term well-being is dependent on access to quality educational services.

  • Community and welfare services: Governments provide a range of crucial community services including child protection, income support, family support services, domestic violence services and out-of-home care. These services are generally targeted at the most vulnerable members of communities. Many of these services are outsourced by Government to NGOs.

  • Liquid Fuels: Petrol, diesel and LPG are essential to the transport of people and goods as well as the operation of machinery, including emergency equipment. In turn the supply of these fuels depends on transport to get them to points of distribution and electricity to operate pumping equipment. The import and refining of these products is also relevant.

  • Gas supply: In many areas of the country heating and cooking are commonly powered by gas. Although its supply is less crucial than electricity disruption can still cause similar issues.

Preparedness of all these key sectors involves two elements. The first is business continuity, the ability to continue operations and provide normal services in the event of a disaster and quickly restore any disrupted services. However for many sectors continuity is not enough. During a disaster they are subject to increased demand or demand for different services. For example the health sector needs to care for greater numbers of sick and injured, the waste sector needs to remove and dispose of large amounts of debris and community services need to source emergency accommodation, food and clothing for evacuees.

Assessing Preparedness: The Challenge

In the absence of actual extreme weather it is very difficult to assess the performance of many of these key sectors, particularly where the activities are primarily conducted by the private sector. Government inquiries tend to focus on the activities of Government agencies and emergency services in particular. Consideration of the private sector tends to only extend so far as to count the costs to them, not the preparedness measures that they had in place.

Much of the information on private sector or critical infrastructure preparedness is locked up in documents that are confidential for commercial or national security reasons.

Additionally these key sectors are made up of many companies, government organisations and NGOs. Because of the interdependence in many of these networks any weaknesses in one of its agency components weakens the whole system. Furthermore the organisations that do report on their preparedness and business continuity activities are unlikely to be representative of their broader sector.

I believe that one of the most important and under-investigated issues in disaster and risk management is the interconnectedness of many community lifelines. Failure in any one sector can impact other sectors causing them to fail and so on resulting in infrastructure cascade failure. Most investigations of this phenomena have focused on the centrality of electricity networks and considered threats like terrorism, electromagnetic weapons, hackers and space weather. The vulnerabilities of SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisiation) systems has been a key research focus.

Coordination by Government

The Federal Government through its Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy and Trusted Information Sharing Network brings together many large Government and private sector infrastructure operators. However with its national security focus the TISN doesn’t include numerous smaller organisations and local governments who often provide many of these services. A quick glance at the documents available on the TISN website reveals a focus on cyber and conventional security with little attention paid to natural hazards.

A number of states and territories have arrangements for the coordination of the government agencies and private sector organisations which provide essential functions in an emergency. See

Of all the states and territories NSW appears (based on the existence, public availability and detail of plans for coordination of essential function) to have the most mature arrangements in this area.

Governments have also been assessing the exposure and vulnerabilities of key infrastructure and other sectors to inform preparedness activities. For example, Queensland has published an assessment of the exposure of a variety of infrastructure to natural hazards.

However Government activities are not necessarily indicative of sectoral preparedness. Unfortunately as with investigations into the costs of disasters, reports on the preparedness of various sectors are often fragmented, incomplete and don’t consider cascading effects. Preparedness for extreme weather events should be part of organisations’ broader Business Continuity and Risk Management activities. Presence and quality of these programs should be indicative of a greater level of extreme weather preparedness, event in the absence of specific extreme weather measures.

How Prepared are the Key Sectors?

Below I’ll set out a brief review of the available literature on preparedness in the some of the various sectors outlined above. I’ll also include evidence of more general business continuity arrangements, where available and relevant.

Multiple Sectors: The most recent and comprehensive report comes from The Climate Institute. It covered water, property, electricity, road and rail and financial services and included cases studies of current preparedness activities by some organisations. It found that only the water sector was reasonably well prepared for extreme events, with levels in other sectors low. It also expressed concern over the fragmentation of the preparedness activities of Government and businesses and the interconnectedness of infrastructure.

A 2006 review of business continuity planning by the NSW Auditor General of 15 agencies involved in electricity, water, ports and health found that overall the plans were adequate. The report found that in some agencies there was fragmentation of BCP arrangements, inadequate priority given by senior management and a lack of testing of plans.

Telecommunications: Telecommunications, particularly telecommunications infrastructure is concentrated in the hands of just a handful of providers. In the critical mobile phone sector both Telstra and Optus appear too be well prepared for and practised in emergency response although Vodafone appears to have some room for improvement. There are still key vulnerabilities in the telecommunications system though, the need for an inquiry into the recent Warrnambool exchange fire suggests the operators business continuity arrangements have some way to go.

Forestry: There is little information on the preparedness of the Forestry sector even for bush fire, for which plantations are particularly vulnerable. The Victorian Auditor General found in 2003 that plantation owners were only taking those preparedness measures that were required by regulation.

Community Services: A 2009 Australian National Audit Office Report found that Centrelink had relatively mature business continuity systems, although made some recommendations for improvement. A subsequent report found that Centrelink’s response to the 2009 bush fires and floods (which occurred concurrently) was excellent, although its business-as-usual activities did suffer a drop in performance as as result.

Waste Management: Research on the aftermath of the 2009 Victorian Bush fires found that there was no prior planning for disaster waste management. A process for dealing with the debris generated was established during the recovery process. It was recommended that local government authorities (who generally have responsibility for solid waste management) develop plans for dealing with the debris generated in future disasters.

Transport: The West Australian Auditor General examined the business continuity planning of Port Authorities and found only one out of the four major ports in WA had mature BCM arrangements.

Health: The Australian Health Protection Committee has regularly conducted a National Health Disaster Management Capability Audit, although the last was in 2008. It found that Australia’s health services are well prepared to cope with disaster and undertaking activities to improve their preparedness. However, most analyses of health preparedness don’t address private hospitals and continuity of general practice and pharmaceutical services. These need to be addressed.

Agriculture: Agriculture was examined in the 2006 report Creating Our Future: Agriculture and Food Policy for the Next Generation. It found that agriculture though highly vulnerable is generally well prepared for extreme weather under the present climate, but that further adaptations will be needed for the future.

The level of preparedness and understanding of that level, vary across the different sectors. Factors in sectoral preparedness appear to include:

  • External audit or other accountability measures

  • Dominance by large Government or private sector organisations

  • Experience of recent extreme weather events

  • Highly visible service delivery

The only of these areas that can be easily modified are accountability measures like audits, inquiries and regular reporting. Properly applied these activities could increase the preparedness of many of these key sectors.


There are variety of key sectors in Australia that need to be prepared for extreme weather events. These are best characterised as community lifelines rather than critical infrastructure. These sectors are made up of large numbers of Government, non-government and private sector organisations of different sizes and capacities.

Despite numerous Government programs and coordination efforts there is large variation in the preparedness between and within key sectors. In many cases the understanding of how prepared a sector is, is poor or non-existent. Given the interconnectedness of key sectors, especially infrastructure, this fragmented preparedness effort leads to a society that is less prepared than the sum of its parts. Improvements to preparedness seem strongly connected to audit and other accountability measures


  1. There are large gaps in the understanding of how well various sectors are prepared to cope with extreme weather and other emergency events. Governments should collaborate with industry associations and research institutions to undertake broad-scale assessments to assist sectors to improve their preparedness.
  2. Businesses (including Government organisations where they are the owner or operator of a community lifeline) should assess their vulnerabilities to extreme weather events and ensure they are addressed in their businesses continuity planning and risk management arrangements.
  3. The Federal Government should shift its resilience focus from critical infrastructure to community lifelines.
  4. Government activities around community lifeline preparedness should be expanded to include all levels of Government, businesses of all sizes and focus on all threats including extreme weather, other natural hazards, accidents, counter-terrorism, cyber-security and climate change. These activities need to address interdependence in infrastructure.
  5. To improve accountability Government regulators should require reporting on preparedness activities from large infrastructure operators. Government auditors should also regularly assess the business continuity, risk management and emergency preparedness of key lifelines. These reports should be publicly available.

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