Emergency management in Australia: comparing bushfires and Covid-19

A photograph of Em Prof John Handmer delivering a presentation

Australian fire and emergency management is dedicated to reducing loss of life and property and to do this with an implicit assumption of equal treatment for all, even though this can be difficult in practice. However, there are some long standing issues such as system capacity, especially for long lasting emergencies; an increasingly centralised approach; and a reluctance to tackle exposure (although this is largely outside the control of the sector). There is also a desire for national approaches even for problems that could be seen as local.

The emergency management system does well with normal or routine emergencies – those characterised by clear time and space boundaries, and agreement on the problem and what to do about it. Planning and training is well matched to this type of emergency. The system can also manage well in much more testing circumstances. The experience with fires over summer is illustrative, as there has been little criticism of emergency service agencies or operations, even though the emergency management sector and much of Australian society was put through some very difficult times. Post-fire enquires and reviews had hardly begun when the coronavirus hit and rapidly took over the nation’s concern. As with the fires, a pandemic had long been seen as likely and had been the subject of planning for many years.

This presentation examines some key attributes of Australian emergency management and how they are playing out in these two major emergencies. Implications will be identified for the system and for the emergencies, as well as the possibility of such events occurring simultaneously.

This seminar is part of the Susan L Cutter seminar series, by the ANU Disaster Risk Science Institute. 

Em Prof John Handmer is a Senior Science Adviser in Risk at IIASA, an Emeritus Professor with the RMIT School of Science, an Honorary Professorial Fellow with Geography, University of Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Australian Social Science Academy. He works with the Australian Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. He has also held positions at the Australian National University and at the Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University (London). He chairs the Scientific Committee of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) Program of ISC (International Council of Science and the UNDRR), and has recently been on a number of Australian advisory bodies. These include climate change adaptation, disaster risk and resilience, and most recently the National Vulnerability Profile project.