The warnings issued during the last bushfire season were confusing at times and in one case caused widespread panic and stress when a message was misinterpreted, councils have told a royal commission.
As the NSW mid-north coast battled bushfires in November, a number of people in Kempsey Shire thought they were being told to urgently evacuate over a large area when they were not at risk.
The Kempsey Shire Council said the bulk text message and phone warning, sent on a day of catastrophic fire danger across parts of the state, caused significant panic and stress as a large number of people evacuated to the Kempsey Showground.
A nursing home that was also not at risk was about to evacuate its residents before that was stopped, the council told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.
“Whilst the intent of the message was appropriate, and it is noted that the message was not an evacuation order, unfortunately due to misinterpretation by those that received the message this resulted in widespread panic and stress, which for a large part of the area of distribution was not required,” its submission said.
The confusing nature of the national bushfire warning system was the area of greatest concern to local government out of the Black Summer bushfires, the Local Government Association of Queensland said.
LGAQ manager Mike Lollback said councils reported messages were sent out in an inconsistent way and were confusing at times.
“(One) council basically said that ‘watch and act’ and ‘leave now’ were almost being simultaneously broadcast on different radios, which made it particularly difficult,” he said on Monday.
Other councils also raised concerns that the community in general did not understand the bushfire alert levels and messaging, particularly over ‘watch and act.’
“Council switchboards were being inundated with questions being asked about ‘what are we supposed to do—do we watch, do we act, do we leave, do we stay, do we defend’,” Lollback said.
“It created that confusion about exactly what people should be doing.”
Chair Mark Binskin said the commission was concerned about the time it was taking to get a consistent national message and wording for warnings.
“It’s taking us at our count at the moment at least four or five years to try and align just the wording for the community to have an understanding of what’s meant in preparing to, leaving, watch and act and what that all means,” Binskin said.
A number of councils faced significant issues during the bushfires because of telecommunications outages and the loss of power, while many experienced lengthy road closures.
Eurobodalla Shire Council’s Warren Sharpe described the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the NSW south coast in January as a “Herculean effort” amid the challenges of no fuel, power, telecommunications or highway access to the north, west and south.
The Wollondilly Shire Council in NSW said an evacuation alert on December 19 caused a 15-kilometre traffic jam as thousands of people tried to leave at once with cars at a standstill and running out of petrol.
The gridlock cleared “just in time” before the fires went through.
By Megan Neil