Preserving Lives: Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Puts Human Safety First

Where considering current approaches to bushfire management and future adaptations, it is good to reflect on past lessons and recommendations.

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission conducted an extensive investigation into the devastating bushfires that occurred in Victoria, Australia, in 2009. One of the central focuses of the commission’s findings and recommendations was on prioritising and protecting human life.

Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission
Remembering the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission

During the 2009 bushfires, 173 people lost their lives, and thousands of homes were destroyed. In response to this tragic event, the commission aimed to understand the factors that contributed to the loss of life and identify strategies to prevent such catastrophic outcomes in the future.

The Royal Commission recognised that preserving human life should be the highest priority during bushfire events. It emphasised the need for comprehensive and coordinated emergency management strategies that prioritise the safety and well-being of individuals and communities. This focus on life encompassed several key areas:

Early Warning Systems: The commission stressed the importance of effective and timely warnings to alert communities about impending bushfire threats. It highlighted the need for improved communication systems, including advanced technology, robust infrastructure, and clear procedures, to ensure that people receive accurate and timely information to make informed decisions about their safety. This is reflected in the new Australian Warning System.

Evacuation and Shelter: The commission examined evacuation procedures and the provision of safe shelter options for individuals in high-risk areas. It emphasised the importance of developing clear evacuation plans, ensuring accessible and well-maintained evacuation routes, and establishing appropriate evacuation centers or safe refuges for people to seek shelter during emergencies. The commission sought for a layered approach providing redundancies and options for people. This is reflected in Private Bushfire Shelters, Community Refuges, Neighbourhood Safer Places, Safer Places and evacuation management including not being in Bushfire Prone Areas during high consequence bushfires.

Community Engagement and Education: Recognising that community engagement and education are critical components of bushfire preparedness, the commission emphasised the need for ongoing efforts to educate individuals about bushfire risks, preparedness measures, and appropriate responses during emergencies. It highlighted the importance of empowering individuals to make informed decisions to protect their lives and property. The new Australian Fire Behaviour Rating system is a reflection of this.

Building Standards and Regulations: The commission also examined building standards and regulations to ensure that homes and structures in bushfire-prone areas are designed and constructed to withstand fire threats. It recommended implementing stronger building codes, improved construction practices, and better land-use planning to minimise the vulnerability of buildings to bushfire hazards. This is reflected in publications like Planning for Bushfire Protection 2019 and associated legislation.

Emergency Response and Coordination: The commission addressed the need for effective emergency response coordination among various agencies and organizations involved in bushfire management. It emphasised the importance of clear command structures, well-defined roles and responsibilities, and efficient communication channels to facilitate a coordinated and timely response to bushfire events. Victoria provides a clear hierarchy of emergency management priorities.

By focusing on life, the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission sought to drive systemic changes and improve the overall preparedness, response, and recovery efforts in the face of bushfire emergencies. The commission’s recommendations aimed to enhance the protection of individuals and communities and reduce the loss of life during similar incidents in the future.

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About the Author
Lew Short is a recognised expert in bushfire and emergency management, land-use planning, risk mitigation, consequence management, environment and the working of government.