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State of Emergency – What powers does it add?

For the second time in 18 months NSW is under a State of Emergency due to a natural disaster. You can read the wording of the declaration here.

From memory, before the flooding in 2012 there have only been two declarations of a State of Emergency in NSW under the current legislation.

A State of Emergency is declared under the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act to give emergency services extraordinary powers to combat an emergency situation. These powers are usually more extensive than those available to the emergency services under their own acts (in this case the Rural Fires Act).

I thought it might be interesting to do a play by play comparison of the powers under each act. This is necessarily a simplification, if you’re interested or need to use this stuff you need to read each Act, their Regulations or even get legal advice.

A few quick notes. Not all RFS Members are Officers for the purposes of the Act. I’m not sure which rank confers these powers or whether they’re delegated in another fashion, but if anyone knows I’d appreciate it. An Emergency Services Officer for the purposes of the SERM Act include RFS members of or above the position of Deputy Captain.

Coordination and Direction

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it?: The Commissioner of the RFS (s44)

What is it’s extent? When a Section 44 bushfire emergency is declared the Commissioner or delegate (in reality, the incident management teams) take control of the bushfire response. Directions can be issued to the RFS, Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Police Force and other persons in connection with fire fighting operations. (s45)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: The Minister

What is it’s extent? The Minister gains the ability to direct the entire resources of government in the emergency response – even if those directions are contrary to other legislation or law (with the exception of the Essential Services Act). (s36)


In my opinion this is one of the most important provisions of the State of Emergency powers – Michael Eburn covers it in his excellent post on the State of Emergency declaration here.


Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers

What is it’s extent? Only if a person, vehicle or thing is interfering with RFS Operations. (s22A)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister

What is it’s extent? Evacuate and remain out of the emergency area, these powers include the use of force. (s37)


The RFS does not have any power to evacuate people for their safety, so if they believe it is necessary They could rely on common law powers of the Police to detain and remove people from an area for their own safety, but a State of Emergency is likely to produce much greater levels of compliance and require less use of force. However this does raise the question of whether the RFS should have the power under their own act to ‘force’ evacuations. The traditional paradigm in community response to fires has been to leave it up to the community to decide. Recently we’ve seen a trend towards strongly advising people to evacuate in the worst fires – and an overall preference to evacuation as the safest measure. The State Emergency Service has significant evacuation powers under their Act in the case of flood emergencies, which can even include the use of force. To give the RFS greater powers to evacuate people would give them more options in the event of a fire without needing to resort to a State of Emergency.


Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers in the possession of a written authority (s32) and in some circumstances providing notice (s29)

What is it’s extent? Any premises to exercise their functions. (s23)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Any person in possession of a written authority (s37F) and in some circumstances providing notice (s37C)

What is it’s extent? To comply with a direction to undertake safety measures in section 37.

Road Closure

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? Officers in charge of RFS brigades

What is it’s extent? Any road in the vicinity of a fire (and the RFS do not need to be controlling that closure – they can instruct somebody else to do so) (s24)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister

What is it’s extent? Any road in an emergency area (and the emergency services officer does not need to ‘man’ the closure) (s37A)

Pulling down buildings and other safety measures

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers

What is it’s extent? To protect life and property destroy buildings, fences, vegetation or establish fire breaks (and the RFS can instruct somebody else to do so) (s25)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister can direct actions to

What is it’s extent? Pulling down or destroying damaged walls or premises. The destruction or removal of any material or thing that threatens life or property or inhibits the emergency response. (s37A)

Use of Force

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers where authorised by the Commissioner

What is it’s extent? Only for the purpose of gaining entry (s31)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Persons where authorised by the Minister.

What is it’s extent? Only for the purpose of gaining entry (s37E)

Commandeering Property

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? RFS Officers

What is it’s extent? Take and use without payment any water on any land. (s26)

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: The Minister

What is it’s extent? Take possession of and use any property. The property owner may receive but is not entitled to compensation.

Disconnection of Utilities

Under the RFS Act


Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Emergency Services Officers where authorised by the Minister can direct actions to

What is it’s extent? Shutting off of any main supply of gas, water or other substance or gas or electricity to premises in the emergency area. (s37A)

Protection from Liability

Under the RFS Act

Who Exercises it? Any officer or member of the RFS, other fire fighting agencies or those acting under their direction

What is it’s extent? Protected persons (or the Crown) cannot be held liable for actions done in good faith.

Under the SERM Act

Who Exercises it?: Any person acting under the execution of a State of Emergency.

What is it’s extent? Protected persons (or the Crown) cannot have legal proceedings brought against them for actions done in good faith.


Worst Case Scenario: Evacuation of the Blue Mountains

The NSW Government has declared a State of Emergency with regard to the bushfires in the Blue Mountains and the forecast deteriorating weather conditions. One of the reasons given for the declaration is the additional evacuation powers this grants the Rural Fire Service (once the actual wording of the declaration is published I’ll be making a post on what exactly are the additional powers it grants). Large areas of the Blue Mountains could come under threat. Though the likelihood of a complete evacuation of the Blue Mountains has been played down the RFS says that it is looking at the planning.

So let’s look at the feasibility of a large scale evacuation. I’ll use a back-of-the-envelope version of the evacuation timeline method developed by the NSW SES.

NSW does have a plan for a large scale evacuation – in the event of an extreme flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River (incidentally this plan also calls for the declaration of a State of Emergency – primarily to convey the seriousness of the situation). If there was to be a whole-scale evacuation of the Blue Mountains I would expect some elements of the evacuation planning around a Hawkesbury-Nepean flood to be utilised.

But is an evacuation even possible. Everyone would need to exit via the Great Western Highway, presumably to Sydney

Though the Great Western Highway is mostly double lane, dual carriageway it narrows to a single lane each way in a number of places, notably at Hazelbrook and Woodford. Single traffic lanes can carry 1200-1500 vehicles per hour. Standard practice is to halve this figure to account for emergency conditions, smoke, emergency vehicles, accidents etc. Census figures estimate a total of about 50,000 vehicles owned by households in the Blue Mountains area – experience shows that households will use all available vehicles to evacuate.

The math is pretty simple:

50,000 vehicles / 600 vehicles per hour = 83 hours or about 3.5 days. If Wednesday were indeed going to be catastrophic the evacuation would need to start now.

Even with perfect traffic conditions, contra-flow arrangements (which I highly doubt would be used as they would prevent emergency vehicles from coming in) and only 1 car per household it would still take a long time:

33,000 vehicles / 2400 vehicles per hour = 14 hours

What about trains?

Seated capacity of 6 car V set trains (those normally run on the Blue Mountains Line) is 608. At the peak they run at four trains per hour. Assuming double capacity and an increase to 6 trains per hour you have the ability to move about 7300 people per hour. The census gives a population of 75,000 for the blue mountains. So by train:

75,000 people / 7300 people per hour by train = 10 hours

Now if you could convince a whole lot of households to leave their cars at home, travel with only what they could carry (both of these are pretty unlikely assumptions) and take the train it might be possible to evacuate all the Blue Mountains in about 6 or 7 hours. Still too long?

If it did come to it, an evacuation of the Blue Mountains would be a multi-day round-the-clock operation involving massive coordination of transport assets, traffic control and a huge effort to convince the community of the need to leave very early. It would need to be called long before the fire was directly threatening properties – in the worst case the decision would need to be happening now.

Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Emergency Preparedness Senate Inquiry: Part 4

As the first submissions come in and dates for public hearings are set I continue my series on the extreme weather and emergency preparedness senate inquiry. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. In this post I move onto the fourth term of reference:

(d) an assessment of the preparedness and the adequacy of resources in the emergency services sector to prevent and respond to extreme weather events;


The Census and Emergency Management

Yesterday saw the release of the first batch of data from the 2011 Australian Census and my inner statistics nerd was very excited. But the census is not just for demographers and statistics nerds – it has real practical uses for emergency managers. Here’s just a few areas where it comes in handy:

Risk Management

Risk is often characterised as Hazard X Vulnerability. Hazard is generally easy to determine and there are substantial studies on natural hazards in particular. Vulnerability can be much more difficult to determine, especially when talking about people. What makes someone vulnerable will ultimately depend on a host of complicated factors and relationships, but demographic data can provide some coarse indicators.

A description of a community and its vulnerabilities is grounded in solid demographic data, the best of which comes from the census. It can suggest specific issues in a community and allow researchers to target further work to better reveal and understand its vulnerabilities.

The census reveals a raft of data about socioeconomic status, education, age, family characteristics, motor vehicle ownership, English language ability and employment. It can help identify communities where there are concentrations of people who may be more vulnerable in the event of a disaster and thus at higher risk. This can inform risk assessments and ultimately target mitigation and preparedness measures at these communities.


Modern evacuation management depends on demographic data to ensure that the population of an area can be evacuated safely in the event of an emergency. It is particularly relevant for emergencies where there is some warning such as floods, tropical cyclones and bush fires. Here are some key items useful in evacuation planning which can be derived from census data:

Total Population: This number isn’t as important as you might think, but it’s a good starting point. Evacuation centres need to be able to cope with evacuees who go there, but most people who evacuate prefer to stay with friends and family. Still the total population can give an indication of the number of people evacuation centres may need to assist.

Number of households: Although technologically based systems, such as Emergency Alert in Australia, are being increasingly utilised by the emergency services doorknocking remains a mainstay of evacuation warning. It is an effective means of warning, particularly when combined with other methods such as mass media and new technology. Doorknocking is resource intensive in terms of personnel and time. To know how many teams you need or how long it will take you need to know the number of doors that need to be knocked. The census provides answer in the number of households in an area.

Number of cars: In Australia and most other developed nations motor vehicles are the traditional method of evacuation. Australian emergency managers pioneered simple methods for calculating the time required to evacuate an area along a limited number of routes. The number of motor vehicles is a key factor in this calculation. Most households will take all their cars with them, so you can’t just rely on household numbers. With the rise in number of motor vehicles per household, knowledge of the number and growth over time in an area is critical to ensuring safe evacuation.

Number of households without cars: This is a critical factor to ensure that sufficient alternative transport is provided to evacuate those without a vehicle.

Number of vulnerable people: Those who are elderly, have a disability or are from a Non-English Speaking background may find it difficult to either evacuate on their own, or understand the evacuation warnings. These people are present in all areas, but if the census identifies a particular concentration this can allow for emergency planners to take their needs into account and plan accordingly.

Census data can also show changes in population in an area over time indicating when evacuation routes may reach capacity. This should trigger the need to either curb development or increase the capacity of these routes.

Community Engagement

Community engagement material and programs will function best if they are targeted and tailored to the at risk communities. Some of the useful census data for community engagement includes:

Language: A common and relatively cheap option is to reprint preparedness materials in different languages and then distribute these materials among the communities who speak that language.

Non-Private Dwellings: The census doesn’t just count people at home. It counts people in hospitals, prisons and other institutions. This can help emergency managers identify areas with a large concentration of facilities like nursing homes and hotels, which need to be targeted with education materials specific to their circumstances.

Private Dwelling types: The types of private dwellings in an area and the number of people in them can also suggest how community engagement should be targeted. For example caravans are a high risk group combining both high hazard (caravan parks are often in hazard prone areas) and high vulnerability (long term residents of caravan parks often have low socioeconomic status and may also be elderly or have a disability). Census data can identify at a broad scale areas with large concentrations of caravan residents enabling emergency managers to locate the individual parks and target education efforts.

New features in the 2011 census

There have been some changes to the way the census data is packaged for use. Of particular relevance to emergency managers are changes to the geographical areas on which census data is reported have improved in granularity. This allows emergency managers to examine demographic data on much smaller areas. Over time this will enable approaches that are increasingly customised towards communities.