New fire warnings might ‘contain very bad advice’

NEW bushfire warnings telling people to take shelter, while also warning that their home may not save them, may cause confusion, the Bushfire Royal Commission heard yesterday.
“This warning appears to contain very bad advice,” said counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, SC. She suggested it might cause panic if people were told, “You must seek shelter but it is both too late to leave and your home is unlikely to help.”
“I think in a fire that’s the situation that may exist,” replied Tony Duckmanton, manager of learning systems with the Country Fire Authority.
“It is describing what? Certain death?” asked Ms Doyle.
“No, it’s saying it could be too late to leave,” Mr Duckmanton said.
“And bad news to stay?” Ms Doyle said.
“It could be,” said Mr Duckmanton.
He said the responsibility for deciding whether to relocate remained with residents, but it would be possible for an incident controller issuing public warnings to include advice on relocation or where to find a Neighbourhood Safer Place (NSP).
But Ms Doyle was also critical of signs to be placed outside designated safer places.
The signs warn that safety and survival are not guaranteed, that many private houses might offer better shelter, that travelling when there is a bushfire can be extremely dangerous, that NSPs have limited capacity and that there is no guarantee the CFA will be there.
Ms Doyle said: “So the person who is reading that might [think], ‘I wonder if I should have stayed or if I should go back because it’s telling me in part that my own home might be safer?’ Are you able to resolve this ‘tension’, to put it mildly?”
Mr Duckmanton said, “No, I’m not.”
Commissioner Ron McLeod also questioned other advice: “A message like ‘Leave now only if the path is clear’ might give the author some comfort but it doesn’t give much comfort to the receiver . . . How does one ascertain whether the path is clear?
“The only way one can do that, particularly if people are unfamiliar with the area, is to have some indication of which roads are closed definitely or which roads are known to continue to be safe as exit roads.”
Mr Duckmanton replied: “If we know that information we certainly provide it.” But he said even the best road can be suddenly rendered unusable.
The commission also heard of many improvements to the wording of warnings, which will now clearly state the size and location of a fire, whether it is under control, how far it is spotting, and at what time and with what ferocity it is expected to hit towns.
The CFA and Department of Sustainability and Environment now share a website and the new system sends warnings to other public sources such as the ABC and Victorian Bushfire Information Line.