Victoria's approach to emergency management is shaped by lived experiences
The 2009 Victorian bushfires were one of the most devastating disasters in Australia’s history. Over 173 people lost their lives, 414 were injured, 430,000 hectares were affected and more than a million wild and domesticated animals died. Less than two years later in 2010–11, widespread flooding inundated almost 20 per cent of the state, affecting more than 100 towns. These two events led to the most significant period of emergency management reform in Victoria’s history.
Recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the 2010–11 Comrie Flood Review informed a new governance framework for managing emergencies under the Emergency Management Act 2013. We:
- created state level control arrangements for major emergencies including the State Emergency Response Plan and State Emergency Relief and Recovery Plan so everyone’s roles and responsibilities were understood
- created Emergency Management Victoria and a new role ‘Inspector-General for Emergency Management’ (IGEM) to strengthen coordination and improve accountability and assurance.
We also changed our approach and outlook to share responsibility. It was clear no single actor could be responsible for keeping all Victorians safe – government, businesses, not-for- profit organisations and members of the community all have a role to play. We invested in partnerships with Commonwealth, state and territory counterparts under the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience , developed the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Strategy with industry, and partnered with local governments to strengthen community capability and capacity.
These reforms gave Victoria a new model for emergency management and it was soon put to the test. In 2014, Hazelwood was blanketed in smoke for over a month, while in 2016 an epidemic thunderstorm asthma event put record pressure on the health system. Improved communication before, during and after these emergencies better placed Victorians to make informed decisions and take action.
Fires in Wye River and Scotsburn in 2015 shed light on the importance of local partnerships and adapting our recovery approaches to respond to local strengths, needs and priorities. They also highlighted the need for consistency and equity in our services.
New and unexpected emergencies followed. In the period 2017 to 2019, major industrial fires in the Melbourne suburbs of Coolaroo, West Footscray and Campbellfield taught us more. We needed to work with regulators and essential services to better understand risk and protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our communities and our emergency service personnel. Vehicle attacks in Bourke Street and Flinders Street in 2017, followed by a fatal terrorist attack in 2018, made us rethink safety in places of mass gathering and the impact of collective trauma beyond geographical boundaries.
Our approach to relief and recovery, including our partnerships, shifted over time to reflect the breadth and complexity of these emergencies, as we learnt from communities about how we can best support them. We understand that community connection and resilience before an emergency has a strong influence on how communities adapt and recover after an emergency.
We have continued to learn and listen. We have changed how we work, how we prepare, and how we respond. We know that everyone must rise to the challenge of keeping Victorians safe in an ever-changing world. Together.
The last 3 years have been challenging and unprecedented
In 2019–20 there were fires along the length of Australia’s east coast, starting earlier and extending late into the fire season. People across the world were stunned by the destruction. It was the country’s hottest and driest year ever. For months, we were shrouded in smoke, so thick it was visible from space. In Victoria 1.5 million+ hectares burned, 5 people died and over 400 homes were destroyed. Our emergency services personal faced these unprecedented challenges with courage and tenacity. They worked together across all parts of Australia to keep people safe and help us get through the season even when on some days, extreme conditions drove fire behaviour that was impossible to control.
The fires were soon followed by the largest pandemic in living memory – COVID-19. It seemed to change the way the world worked. While the dedication, tenacity and self-sacrifice of our doctors, nurses and all health professionals saved many lives, the pandemic placed real pressure on our emergency management system, stretching its workforce, systems and processes. Even though we pulled together to address this crisis, the independent Hotel Quarantine Inquiry highlighted that more could be done to strengthen our governance arrangements and ensure decisions were being made at the right levels, with the right information.
The difficulties of the last 3 years, combined with insights from Royal Commissions and Government Inquiries into the emergency management sector, show there is more we need to do. To meet future challenges, we need to build our capability, strengthen workforce sustainability and ensure governance arrangements are clear, effective and well exercised.
The Victorian Government is already delivering many necessary changes in its response to the IGEM’s Review of 10 years of reform of the emergency management sector and Inquiry into the 2019–20 Victorian fire season. We’re also implementing lessons from the 2021 June storm and flood event.
Through this Roadmap, we will build on this work to make sure we’re ready for our next emergency, not just our last. We know that the heart of our system – our ‘all communities, all emergencies’ approach defined in the Emergency Management Act 2013 means that no matter what type of emergency we face, our arrangements should be integrated and coordinated.
Working as one, every time, we can help Victorians get back on their feet: learning, adapting, and always advancing our vision of Safer and More Resilient Communities.