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Bushfire warnings can cause confusion

The bushfire alert ‘watch and act’ can cause confusion and should be replaced with something more decisive, a senior emergency figure has told a royal commission.

Local councils have previously raised concerns that warnings issued during last bushfire season were at times generic or open to misinterpretation.

“I do get feedback from people on the street about ‘watch and act’, and it creates some confusion,” Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told the commission on Tuesday.

“Personally I would be very comfortable going to ‘enact now’ or ‘take action’, something that’s a lot clearer.”

Work is underway to create a clearer national warning system but it remains to be seen when it will be implemented.

Mr Crisp said he wanted to see a national standardised system in place as soon as possible.

He told the commission further research into the usefulness of the ‘watch and act’ warning should be finished within 10 days.

A scaled system of warnings – advice, watch and act, and emergency warning – was introduced in all states and territories after Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

ABC head of regional rural network Andrew Fisher told the commission on Monday it seemed unlikely a new system would be ready ahead of the upcoming bushfire season.

Victoria SES Chief Officer Tim Wiebusch said having a bushfire level called ‘watch and act’ was problematic and didn’t marry up with advice for floods and tsunamis.

“Certainly from our perspective, ‘watch and act’ needs to change,” he said, adding there was strong support in Victoria for the national framework.

“There’s a need to move to something that the community recognises as being that next level of warning.”

Georgeina Whelan, Commissioner of the ACT Emergency Services Agency, said the states and territories were “some months away” from reaching an outcome on the standardised warning system.

“When you are a consensus sort of led organisation, it’s always going to be difficult to get all of the jurisdictions in the room to absolutely agree to the nth degree on issues such as warnings, which is why we still don’t have an outcome,” she said.

Commissioner Annabelle Bennett has said the inquiry was told a national framework was in the works for more than five years.

The commission has repeatedly heard a lack of continuity in warnings led to confusion in the community during the 2019-20 summer bushfire season as different organisations had varying understanding of their meaning.

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