‘Cry wolf’ fears on forced evacuation

FORCED evacuation of indefensible homes in the path of bushfires was not a good idea because it could lead to a “cry wolf” situation, Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday.
His comments came as more details were revealed of chaotic communications on Black Saturday, with an overloaded bushfire line putting calls through to Centrelink and Mr Esplin’s staff writing status reports that lagged hours behind events.
Asked by commissioner Susan Pascoe why Victoria did not have a forced evacuation policy like California’s, he said people would “probably respond” the first time force was applied, “may or may not respond” the second time, but “the boy-cries-wolf type scenario” could be played out thereafter if no emergency eventuated.
He said it would be better for education to raise community awareness that some properties are not defensible so that individuals reached “that sensible conclusion” themselves.
He said California had considered trialling Victoria’s “stay or go” policy but following the February fires would probably await the commission’s findings.
Ms Doyle produced several “situation reports” prepared by Mr Esplin’s staff that lagged hours behind events, including:
■ A report at 5pm on Black Saturday that failed to mention the Murrindindi fire.
■ A report at 5pm on Sunday said: “The Taggerty area is now of concern”, but the fire had burnt through Taggerty the day before.
■ A report dated 8am Sunday said: “We understand everyone in Marysville is safe and are assembled at Gallipoli Park. Emergency response crews are working on getting emergency services into the town.”
Ms Doyle said, “That is true so far as it goes, Mr Esplin, in that the people in the park were safe, but that is severely incorrect, isn’t it?” (Thirty-four people died in Marysville and the town was razed.)
He replied: “‘It is on the basis of what we now know.”
Mr Esplin said he was not sure why there had been such confusion. The Murrindindi fire was under the control of the Department of Sustainability and Environment, he said.
But he pointed out that the situation reports were designed only to brief him, and he had no operational role in deciding how to fight the fires.
Mr Esplin agreed he had been arguing for years that Victoria should get a telephone-based emergency warning system to reduce demand on triple-zero and other emergency telephone lines during disasters.
Ms Doyle also produced documents showing that the Federal Government’s disaster plan was only invoked at 10.30pm on the Saturday. By 8am on Sunday, another memo said, Victoria’s only request for Commonwealth help was for 150 mattresses or portable beds for use in a relief centre.
In his statement to the commission, Mr Esplin said that on the day, 9088 emergency calls and 970 SES calls were answered at three triple-zero communication centres: in Burwood, at Victoria Police headquarters and in Ballarat.
He said when the triple-zero call system becomes overloaded it forwards calls to other parties, known as second, third and fourth-preference responders.
If the Victorian bushfire information line receives too many calls, it diverts to Centrelink, and this happened on Black Saturday, he said.
■Situation reports lagged badly behind actual events.
■Triple-zero calls patched through to other parties.
■Request for federal help came only on Sunday morning.
First published in The Age.