Desperate emergency callers put through to Centrelink
THE morning after 34 people were killed in Marysville on Black Saturday, a report prepared by the staff of Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner declared that everyone in the town was safe.
“We understand everyone in Marysville is safe and are assembled at Gallipoli Park,” said the report, issued at 8am, and again at 5pm, on the Sunday. “Emergency response crews are working on getting emergency services into the town.”
It was one of several badly out-of-date situation reports produced at the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday as more details emerged of chaotic communications, including an overloaded bushfire line putting calls through to Centrelink.
Counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, described the situation reports as “just embarrassingly out of date”.
Another report, issued at 5pm on Sunday, said: “The Taggerty area is now of concern”, even though the fire had burnt through Taggerty the day before.
Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin agreed that they were “unfortunate and wrong” but pointed out that the reports were designed only to brief him, and he had no operational role in deciding how to fight the fires.
On the Marysville report, 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?”
Mr Esplin replied: “‘It is on the basis of what we now know.”
He 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.
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. Centrelink was also dealing with Queensland flood inquiries that day, he said.
Mr Esplin told the commission that he was against the forced evacuation of indefensible homes in the path of bushfires because it could lead to a “cry wolf” situation.
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 also said Californians were different to Australians. “California doesn’t have the amazing tradition of volunteerism that exists (here).”
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 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.
First published in The Age.