Home » Disaster Inquiries » Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 5

Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 5

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Further submissions have come in in the past week or so and I move onto the fifth instalment in my series on the extreme weather trends and emergency preparedness senate inquiry. See part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. This term of reference relates to federalism and emergency management:

(e) the current roles and effectiveness of the division of responsibilities between different levels of government (federal, state and local) to manage extreme weather events;

The division of emergency management responsibilities is a product of Australia’s history of federalism. I’m going to try and restrict this discussion to just responsibilities and ignore the role money has to play in federalism and emergency management through vertical fiscal imbalance and horizontal fiscal inequity.

Local Government

Local governments are created and regulated by the states (and the Northern Territory) who retain fairly sweeping powers to sack, appoint, overrule and otherwise direct councils. Thus the division of responsibilities between state and local governments is different for each state in Australia.

(A quick note – when I use the term local level, I refer to the local grouping of emergency services and support agencies including local government. In some circumstances local level can be synonymous with local government, but this is usually not the case)

In Queensland, for example, disaster response is managed by the local government in their role as the chair of the Local Disaster Management Group (LDMG).

In NSW disaster response is managed by the combat agency (such as the SES or Rural Fire Service)or where there is no combat agency by senior police officers in their statutory roles as Emergency Operations Controllers. Councils provide key support functions to the emergency response including emergency operations centre facilities and plant and equipment.

There are also large differences in the politicisation of local disaster management. In Queensland the chair of the LDMG is the Mayor or another elected member. In NSW the chair of the Local Emergency Management Committee is the General Manager.

In any case though, the response to anything beyond a routine accident is a whole of state approach with emergency services and support agencies activated at state, regional and local levels. Each level will apply itself to the emergency where it most effective. For example the state level may manage state-wide media, the regional level direct emergency resources to local areas of most need and the local level manage an evacuation.

Decision making, despite the authority being vested in one individual, will often be a joint effort with involvement from state, regional and local officials across multiple agencies. This ‘unified command’ enabled by improved communications and other decision support tools is increasingly becoming a feature of modern emergency management.

Emergency management responsibilities of local government outside of response tend to be a little more consistent across the country. They all have key roles in implementing state government planning legislation as well as expectations that they will undertake mitigation activities and be a key player in disaster recovery. However responsibilities for mitigation may not be clearly articulated by many states and policies implemented by encouraging local government to undertake mitigation activities rather than requiring them to do so.

The appropriate division of responsibilities between state and local government will vary between the states and territories depending on their size, hazard portfolios, general role and regulation of local government. I don’t propose to comment further on that here, and will bundle state and local responsibilities together.

Federal Government

The Federal Government’s role in emergency management ties in with constitutional powers on telecommunications, defence, meteorology, census, banking and insurance, quarantine, social welfare and foreign affairs. Any additional roles arise through federal cooperation.


The Bureau of Meteorology is the most important counter-disaster agency of the Federal Government and quite possibly the most important counter-disaster agency in the country. The meteorological and hydrological forecasts it produces underpin the nations’ warning systems. Timely and accurate warnings are arguably behind the large reductions in disaster deaths in Australia over the last 200 years. The BoM works closely with emergency services to issue disaster warnings and provide specialised forecasting for counter-disaster operations. This is reflected in the respect and increasing demand for the BoM’s severe weather services.


When disasters occur there is often a call to ‘send in the army‘. Australia doesn’t have a particularly large defence force. Nor does Australia have anything like the National Guard in the USA, which are specifically based in states and called upon when a state of emergency is declared.

State based emergency services now have extensive experience and capacity in the management of natural and other disasters. This is quite clear when you compare the ADF strength of about 80,000 permanent forces and active reservists (of whom about 3300 are on overseas deployment) with the roughly 255,000 ambulance, fire and SES personnel. Australia also has about 56,000 police and another 100,000 volunteers with organisations like the Red Cross, ADRA, Anglicare etc.

Given the strength, funding and experience of the nation’s emergency services the idea that a defence takeover of emergency response in extreme conditions (other than in a security emergency) would improve the situation is far-fetched.

Nevertheless ADF assistance can be very useful in disaster situations. It’s provided under arrangements called Defence Assistance to the Civil Community which detail how the ADF provides non-security related assistance to the states and territories. These arrangements allow local defence resources to be used for nearby emergencies or in more significant disasters special resources, like aircraft for transporting equipment and emergency personnel, to be called in.

International Assistance

The external affairs power gives the Commonwealth the responsibility for both coordinating Australia’s response to overseas disasters and coordinating any international assistance provided to Australia in the event of a major disaster. Although Australia has a proud record of assisting our neighbours in disasters a review by the International Federation of the Red Cross found problems with our humanitarian assistance frameworks, including inconsistencies with our treaty commitments. The review also found large gaps in Australian legislation, including state legislation, and emergency management policy when it comes to the provision of international assistance to Australia.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics through its census and other statistical activities collect, analyse and provide valuable information for risk assessment activities conducted by the states – as do other agencies such as Geoscience Australia.


The Federal Government regulates the telecommunications sector and provides for the national emergency number 000. As telecommunications become increasingly important in disaster response further regulation may be needed to ensure continuity of service.

Banking and Insurance

The Federal Government regulates the banking and insurance industries. Insurance is a key measure to protect individuals, businesses and governments from the effect of disaster loss and is becoming increasingly contentious in recent times. Natural Disaster Insurance was the subject of a recent review which made a number of wide-reaching recommendations. The review doesn’t build a strong case for the establishment of a Government insurer which it proposes. Government should regulate the industry to ensure the availability of disaster insurance (although not necessarily affordability – a risk based price could encourage mitigation) and potentially provide subsidies to low income-earners in disaster prone areas to make insurance more affordable.

Social Welfare

The Federal Government operates Australia’s pension system, which provides a range of social welfare support. The Government also provides direct financial support in the form of a one-off payment for people affected by disasters. It could be argued that without the pension system and the existence of Centrelink this direct assistance would not occur. States and Territories also provide financial and other support to disaster affected businesses (including primary producers) and individuals.

Coordination and Leadership

The Federal Government plays a key role in national disaster management through its leadership and coordination of activities of the states and territories across the disaster management spectrum. Most of this is undertaken by various divisions of the Attorney-Generals Department. In the response phase this task is undertaken by Emergency Management Australia. The Australian Emergency Management Institute plays a key role in the knowledge management of disaster resilience through it’s journal, training programs, library and website. Policy coordination occurs through the Federal Government’s chair and support of the National Emergency Management Committee and its sub-committees.

There have been a number of recent calls for improved disaster management capacity at the Commonwealth level, especially for catastrophic natural disasters. The Commonwealth lacks emergency legislation that would allow the appointment of a ‘coordinator in chief’ for the response of Commonwealth departments and override Commonwealth legislation (both are key features of state emergency legislation – activated when a State of Emergency is declared). The Federal Government also does not publish its plans on the Australian Emergency Management website.

The States

National emergency management policy states that the states have primacy for the management of disasters including prevention, preparation, response and recovery.

Emergency Services

Australia is unusual internationally in that we have a small number of large, state-based police and emergency services. In most other countries (although there are many examples of state police forces) fire and rescue services are local organisations, which can create coordination difficulties and discourage sending resources to other areas in need. For example NSW has a similar population to Washington State in the USA. NSW has 1 police force, 2 fire services, 1 ambulance service and 1 state emergency service. Washington State has 204 law enforcement agencies and 419 fire departments alone.

In some regards Australia’s fire and state emergency services are more like militaries in their ability to rapidly mobilise large numbers of resources across large distances in short timeframes.

The emergency services are the main organisations in Australia, responding to, planning for and undertaking much of the research and policy development on natural disasters. They also lead community engagement activities.

Land use planning and building controls

State Governments are responsible for strategic and statutory land use planning and the implementation of the nationally agreed building code. Land-use planning and building controls are one of the most effective and cheapest disaster mitigation options for governments (although the opportunity and compliance costs for the private sector are largely unknown). Recent disaster losses suggest that these measures are not being as effectively used as they could be. The activities of the Land Use Planning and Building Codes Taskforce appear to be trying to address some of these gaps.

Establishment and maintenance of public infrastructure

This includes infrastructure that might be impacted by a disaster (like ports and bridges), infrastructure that can help during a disaster (like fire stations and hospitals) and disaster mitigation infrastructure (like levees and fire breaks). Particularly important is the maintenance of infrastructure – it increases its disaster resilience and ensures it functions properly during a disaster.

Although disaster infrastructure is usually built in less exposed areas or to a more resilient standard other types of public infrastructure are often not. This includes a lot of transport infrastructure such as roads, rail and bridges which are commonly damaged by flooding and electricity distribution which can cause and is damaged by bushfire. When infrastructure is destroyed Governments should rebuild it to a more disaster resilient standard.

Health Services

The States and Territories operate the nation’s hospitals and public health systems. These systems look after the sick and injured in an emergency and are also the front line against public health emergencies like pandemics.

Coordination and Leadership

The states and territories are also responsible for leading and coordinating emergency management within their jurisdictions and with other jurisdictions, particularly in terms of cross border arrangements. Most states and territories have some sort of central agency which play a key policy coordination role and undertake various ‘all-hazards’ activities. This function extends to coordinating the efforts of the private and NGO sectors.


State and Territories are the primary emergency managers of Australian governments, with local government implementing many programs of the states and the Federal Government coordinating state activities. The division of responsibilities between state and local government varies across the country, especially in emergency response. There are some gaps in national emergency management arrangements particularly around inter-jurisdictional and international assistance mechanisms.


  1. State Governments and the Northern Territory should better specify expectations of local governments for the prevention of, preparedness for, response to and recovery from emergencies. Where not already established, state governments should strengthen requirements for local government to undertake disaster mitigation activities.

  2. The Federal Government should establish a panel, including membership of relevant humanitarian and emergency management organisations, to review Australia’s overseas disaster assistance frameworks and make relevant recommendations

  3. The National Emergency Management Committee establish a working group to review Australia’s ability to accept international disaster assistance and make relevant recommendations

  4. The Federal Government should give further consideration to the report and recommendations of the Natural Disaster Insurance Review.

  5. State and Territory Governments should review their land-use planning systems to ensure they are effective in mitigating disasters.

  6. State and Territory Governments should ensure infrastructure is constructed to a disaster resilient standard when being built, or returned to a more disaster resilient standard if destroyed or damaged by disaster.


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