On May 4, Queensland's flood Inquiry was told a story that could have come straight from a classic television comedy such as Yes Minister.
It heard the saga of an Emergency Service helicopter, sent by State Government officials in Townsville to assist local government personnel battling flood waters in the western town of St George.
It sounds like a perfectly acceptable response, except for this: The municipal leaders of St George didn't ask for a helicopter, they didn't need it and the following day they sent it all the way back to Townsville – unused.
While such stories are easy fodder for critics, particularly in times of crisis, they also serve to highlight the glaring failures of preparation, communications and command that hinder emergency services responses the length and breadth of Australia.
From the Victorian Bushfires to multi-state floods to cyclones in the north and west, recent broad-scale disasters have produced two common outcomes.
The first is great respect for the resilience, spirit and ingenuity of our people. The second, generally, is despair at the lack of resilience, spirit and ingenuity shown by our governments and the lack of coordination across and among governments and agencies in times of crisis.
Time and again we hear stories of government officials – particularly at the local level – battling disaster without a clear understanding of their responsibilities and powers compared with state governments and their agencies.
We see government and community agencies – the SES is a case in point – that perform invaluable services during crisis, but often without a clearly defined role. For some organisations, the role varies from state to state and sometimes within states.
In the case of Emergency Management Australia, despite its grandiose title, it has no stated role in an emergency. It is responsible only for policy.
These issues combined with an over-the-top focus on counter-terrorism – as opposed to counter-disaster – planning mean that our response to natural disasters continues to be inadequate.
Admittedly "government bashing" is the oldest – and perhaps easiest – sport in the land, but in this case there is plenty of evidence from the recent summer of disaster to support it.
Because, despite decades of talk about emergency management, our recent history of disasters includes a range of areas where government preparation has been shown time and again to be simply not up to scratch, in turn hindering their ability to respond. These areas include:
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