Emergency Management in Australia: an overview

Larry Lux
President, Lux Advisors, Ltd.
Plainfield, Illinois
Member, APWA International Affairs Committee
Jennings Randolph Fellow, 2005

In August of 2005, I had the privilege of visiting Australia to study emergency response techniques and learn the disaster preparedness, response and recovery methods currently in use in Australia under a Jennings Randolph International Fellowship. To say the least, it was one of the most memorable, informative and enlightening trips of my entire life. The focus of my study was limited to the State of Victoria and the Commonwealth's (Emergency Management Australia) National Emergency Training Center at Mt. Macedon. Mt. Macedon is located in Victoria about 38 miles (61 km) northwest of the City of Melbourne.

The interior of the National Emergency Training Center at Mt. Macedon

The vision for Emergency Management in Australia is simple and clear: "safer sustainable communities."

First, a little geography and history. Australia is similar in size to the continental United States and is made up of eight states, the largest of which is Western Australia (975,100 sq. mi./2,525,500 sq. km) and the smallest, Tasmania (26,178 sq. mi./67,800 sq. km). Victoria is the second smallest state at 87,876 sq. mi. (227,600 sq. km) with a population of almost 5,000,000. This is approximately the size and population of the State of Minnesota. Victoria hugs the tip of the Australian East Coast. Victoria's capital, Melbourne, is located along and around the shores of Port Phillip Bay and sits beside the Yarra River about three miles (5 km) from the bay itself.

Like every city and geographic area of the world, Australia and Victoria routinely face a wide variety of natural and man-made disasters. Historically, Victoria has experienced significant floods, earthquakes, heat waves, and bushfires. The most frequent and devastating of these are bushfires. Victoria is subject to the most severe and damaging bushfires, not only in Australia, but also throughout the entire world. The worst of these bushfires occurred in January of 1939, killing 71 and injuring over 1,000. This day is remembered in Australia as "Black Friday."

Fire has been present on the Australian continent for millions of years and has been significant in shaping much of the landscape of the continent. The best known of the Australian bushfires are the "Ash Wednesday" fires that occurred in late 1982 and early 1983. Hot and dry weather, coupled with a long drought and strong winds, ultimately led to the over 100 fires that started on February 16, sweeping across Victoria and South Australia. The Victorian fires burned an area of near 500,000 acres, an area twice the size of Melbourne killing 47 and destroying over 2,000 homes.

The Victoria State Disaster plan was initially developed in the 1960s and had been updated periodically in the time between their initial publication and 1983. The administration and management of the plan was the responsibility of the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. Unlike the U.S., in Australia all law enforcement is a State responsibility. All law enforcement within each State is provided by a single police agency. Throughout Victoria, this is the Victoria Police. This approach removes the duplication and multiple layers of law enforcement responsibility that we traditionally see in the U.S. (not to mention the related cost savings), and makes communication and response effectiveness a much more efficient and shorter process (far less room for error or oversight).

Following the Ash Wednesday fires, there were a number of official inquiries and reviews of Victoria's disaster management plans and procedures. These reviews resulted in the development of an interim plan known as the State Disaster Act of 1983, which has since been superseded and repealed. The Emergency Management Act of 1986 defines most of Victoria's current emergency management structure, roles and responsibilities. The Minister for Police and Emergency Services is also the Coordinator-in-Chief of Emergency Management.

The Emergency Management Australia (EMA), Emergency Management Institute at Mount Macedon provides specialized and advanced training in emergency management for all of Australia. EMA also provides financial support for the various State emergency management activities. These state support packages subsidize state and local training, salaries, equipment and facilities. Similar to the FEMA Emergency Management Institute (EMI) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Mt. Macedon is located in a somewhat remote, serene and breathtakingly beautiful area, which is ideal for the serious educational responsibilities that are conducted there. The mission and purpose of EMA is very similar to EMI.

The Mount Macedon War Memorial Cross

Mount Macedon is actually an extinct volcano, 3,300 ft. high. In 1983, Mt. Macedon and the surrounding areas were severely impacted by the Ash Wednesday fires. Aside from EMA, the main feature of Mt. Macedon is the Mount Macedon War Memorial Cross, near the summit. This 69-foot-high cross which can be viewed from miles around was originally erected in the 1930s to commemorate those from Australia and New Zealand who died in World War I. Ironically, the cross was destroyed by the Ash Wednesday fires and subsequently rebuilt. Today the monument recognizes all who have served in wars and conflicts.

EMA is an accredited and registered training organization that offers a wide variety of training and education to emergency responders throughout Australia. Over 70 training packages are offered for which units (certificates) of competency are awarded towards one of two "qualifications" or Certifications: a Graduate Certificate in Emergency Management or an Advanced Diploma of Public Safety (Emergency Management).

Beyond the foregoing, the Emergency Management organization and structure is remarkably similar to the U.S. with one major exception: the State Emergency Services (SES). The responsibility for providing State emergency services lies with the SES, a mainly volunteer organization that is on-call 24/7/365. This agency plays a lead and key role in emergency response throughout the state. SES has lead roles in floods, storms of all types, highway accidents/extrication, search and rescue activities, and support and relief to the Victoria Police, local/regional fire brigades and municipal ambulance services (EMS).

The SES is comprised of volunteers from the communities and regions they serve. Throughout Victoria, there are 149 municipally based and supported SES units. Each unit is comprised entirely of volunteers and is managed by a Unit Controller. The SES network is divided into six regions, each with its own staff. This network of over 5,500 volunteers is backed by a team of 72 permanent paid staff of emergency management professionals throughout the state.

An example of how this system works and interacts with local government would be:

A multiple vehicle crash occurs in an urbanized area. One of the vehicles crashes into a tree, dropping it onto the pavement and blocking traffic. The occupants of the vehicle are trapped and require extrication before transport to a hospital for treatment.

The response to this incident could involve as many as three SES units: a unit to handle the extrication, a unit to handle the traffic and a unit to move the tree to the side and open the road. The Victoria Police would handle the accident, the local fire brigade would handle any spilled liquids or fires, EMS would transport the victims and the local public works department would pick up the debris.

Typically, on an annual basis, the SES renders more than 350,000 hours of community service (including training and operations), are involved in more than 300 searches, are deployed on over 8,000 operational callouts, respond to more than 5,000 storm damage requests and provide support to police and fire agencies in over 200 instances. Clearly, volunteerism is alive and very well Australia.

At the municipal level, the emergency management process is a very high priority for all municipal departments and agencies (much higher than here in the U.S.). Every community has a very active and involved Municipal Emergency Management Planning Committee (MEMPC), as well as a Municipal Emergency Resource Officer (MERO). The MERO is most frequently the communities' "Director of Infrastructure and Environment" or Public Works Director as we know it in the U.S. All levels of government (federal, state and local) adhere to the same Emergency Risk Management (ERM) Model. All levels also are involved in and participate in meetings of the MEMPC.

The MEMPC is responsible for the management of municipal resources and the coordination of community support to counter the effects of an emergency during the response and recovery phases. The MEMPC consists of representatives of each municipal department, the Victoria Police, the municipal fire brigade, the Victoria State Emergency Services, municipal ambulance services and private not-for-profits (i.e., Red Cross, Salvation Army). The MERO is responsible for the coordination of all municipal resources in responding to emergencies and has full delegated powers to deploy and manage municipal resources during and following an emergency.

  The author feeds some kangaroos during his visit to Australia.

While I was visiting the Melbourne area, my host and guide, Warren Roberts, the General Manager of Infrastructure and Environment for the City of Stonnington and MERO for the city, invited me to attend a meeting of the Stonnington MEPC, where I learned first-hand how active and involved local government in Australia is in emergency management planning, response and recovery. It is truly a team effort, not dominated or directed by a single department or individual. (The City of Stonnington is an economically and culturally diverse 16-square-mile city adjacent to Melbourne with a population of about 90,000.)

I left Australia with a new appreciation for how similar emergency management in Australia is to the U.S. model, and how we differ from their very successful model. I also left with a clear understanding that we have a lot more to share with and learn from our friends "down under." I hope I can visit Australia again in the future to learn more about how we can learn from each other to better protect the citizens of our respective cities, states and countries.

For more interesting and useful information on Emergency Management in Victoria and throughout Australia, you may wish to visit the following websites:

Larry Lux is a former member of the APWA Board of Directors and Board Liaison to the Emergency Management Committee. He can be reached at (815) 886-6909 or


Emergency Management in Australia, Part 1: Emergency Management Manual Victoria, January 2005.

Emergency Management in Australia, Manual No. 1, Concepts and Principles, November 2004.

This is EMA, Emergency Management Australia, Attorney-General's Department.

Emergency Planning, Emergency Management Australia, Manual No. 43, October 2004.

Australian Emergency Management Arrangements, Australian Emergency Manuals Series, Manual No. 2, 6th Edition, 2000.

The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, published quarterly by Emergency Management Australia.

Institute Handbook, Emergency Management Australia, 2005.

Community Emergency Planning Guide, Australian Emergency Manuals Series, Manual No. 5, 2003 Edition.

Municipal Emergency Management Plan, City of Stonnington, Victoria, Australia, March 2003.

Cultural Proverbs:

"Adversity makes a man wise, not rich." - Romanian Proverb

"The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected." - Swedish Proverb

"Be on your guard against the silent dog and still water." - Latin Proverb

"Beware of a man's shadow and a bee's sting." - Burmese Proverb

"Tell me who's your friend and I'll tell you who you are." - Russian Proverb