Bushfire Royal Commission: Agencies to look at coronavirus health advice when responding to emergencies

Emergency Management Victoria Deputy Commissioner Chris Stephenson
Emergency Management Victoria Deputy Commissioner Chris Stephenson

The response to bushfires in the midst of a pandemic might look a bit different this summer.

Emergency Management Victoria Deputy Commissioner Chris Stephenson told the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Thursday about his role in planning for and responding to the bushfires.

Pandemic plans were in place in Victorian agencies, but deputy commissioner Stephenson said "it's been a scale that we didn't expect".

They were going to look at the logistics of bringing helicopters and other resources into the state and how to have people gather at incident control centres.

"We may need two where we might have before just needed one, to allow for physical distancing," Deputy Commissioner Stephenson said.

"We absolutely just have to take the advice of the Chief Health Officer in relation to this.

"Agencies might like to act in a certain way, but we need to be conscious of the health advice and we'll work closely with the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria on whatever that will look like this year ... It will be a balance between the health risk and the significance of the potential bushfire season that we may see."

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The bushfires that devastated Australia this summer were unlike those experts had ever seen before, and they were well into preparing for what the next season would bring.

"In Victoria this year, the fire behaviour we saw was absolutely extreme - firefighters aid behaviour that they've never seen before," Deputy Commissioner Stephenson said.

"We had a very early season in Victoria and it extended through until early this year."

There was even a small bushfire in Gippsland just last month.

Heavy rainfall, especially in the west of the state, will lead to changes in 2020-21.

"The risk is more in the grassland and the cropping areas of Victoria - fast-moving grass fires, fires started potentially through harvesting of crops. We'll need to tailor our preparedness this year," Deputy Commissioner Stephenson said.

He also explained the change in the CFA, moving paid firefighters and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to the new Fire Rescue Victoria.

"We now have clear deliberation between the volunteer agency in Victoria, the CFA, and Fire Rescue Victoria which is a professional urban response," he said.

"Due to the increasing spread of the urban footprint there was a need for our professional services in Victoria to expand.

"What it's effectively done is take the paid services from the Country Fire Authority, amalgamated those with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and that's the new organisation."

This story Fire agencies to look at COVID-19 health advice when responding to emergencies first appeared on The Canberra Times.