Cross border communications issues highlighted at Royal Commission

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Bushfire Royal Commission) took testimony this week from local governments affected by last summer’s fires, focussing Tuesday on cross border issues. Snowy Valley Council CEO Matthew Hyde represented the SVC, telling the Commission that it was difficult to deal with different agencies in different states, both during the fires and afterwards.
“As you are aware, the RFS are the lead agency on this event,” Mr Hyde told Commissioners. “However, council does participate in the local Emergency Operations Centre, and we did request a number of times a liaison officer placed from Victoria into our operations centre and offered to place someone from our area into Victoria. I think that would have greatly assisted operations.”
Mr Hyde and the CEOs from Towong Shire (in VIC) and Snowy Monaro LGA described issues with cross-border communications, saying that as the fire crossed over the Murray River and back again, the fire was plotted on different apps by different states.
“Communications were so poor during the event it was difficult to tell what was happening,” said Mr Hyde, describing how the fire quickly jumped from one side of the NSW/VIC border and back again.
“The apps were based on where the fire originated from, so if the fire originated on the NSW side of the border, the RFS maintained the fire information until it crossed the border and then it didn’t maintain the information, and vice versa.”
Snowy Monaro CEO Peter Bascomb was concerned that the Fires Near Me app in NSW and the VicEmergency app in Victoria used different colours to mean different things.
“People looking at it just quickly and relying on the colour codes would be potentially misled by what is actually happening,” he said.
The Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AC SC, a Commissioner, pressed into the cross-jurisdictional issues during the Tuesday hearing.
“The bushfires don’t recognise the borders, we’ve worked that one out,” she said, asking the CEOs to describe the specific communication issues they faced during the fires.
“There were significant issues about Emergency Management practises being different between the two states and certainly some practises or protocols around those would be beneficial,” said Mr Hyde, adding that it was difficult for fire victims to see how differently the two states treated their residents, with different types of support offered to Victorian residents that weren’t given to those in NSW.
“In Victoria, the replenishment of water in water tanks was funded under state arrangements and in NSW that wasn’t funded under the state arrangements,” he said.
“Seeing the assistance during the recovery process was certainly different and did cause a level of pain, particularly for people who had gone through so much at the time and to hear that one of their friends had been funded and they weren’t able to get assistance at that level.”
Mr Hyde said SVC tried to assist communities as best they could, but, “At the moment our bushfire expenditure, as at the 1st of June, sits at $6.63mill, and a significant amount of that is actually not funded and has to be paid by the ratepayers of the area.
“We do have to have a threshold where we assist because it’s the best thing for the area and the community does assist others in need, but there has to be a limit,” he said.
Additional concerns were raised around having evacuation centers which could easily be accessed by fire victims, with a central point for registration. Mr Hyde told the Commission that some community members would prefer to have several small evacuation centres around the LGA, but that Council doesn’t have enough staff and resources to cover multiple centres.
“We gain some efficiencies by running one large centre, and we are able to work with the Red Cross and the like,” he said, adding that having one centre makes it easier for the council to monitor evacuees and notify their friends and family that they’re safe.