The New South Wales government has been urged to learn from past mistakes after a review of the deadly March 2021 flooding found staffing and communication problems at the state’s emergency service hampered operations, as many people claim also happened this year in Lismore.
The review made 28 recommendations after interrogating the NSW State Emergency Service’s response to the catastrophic flooding, pointing to poorly trained and overworked volunteers, insufficient staff, improper equipment, and out-of-date flood plans as key issues.
The Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council’s report found key flood indicators were missed and warnings were sent too late because of the lack of staff at the agency.
At the end of June last year, there were just 333 SES staff and about 10,200 volunteer members.
Similar issues with communication and flood warnings and lack of appropriate equipment and training have been highlighted in the wake of the northern rivers flooding earlier this year.
The investigation found that trained incident managers were hard to come by during the 2021 crisis, meaning those who knew what they were doing were left with too much responsibility.
In one case, an intelligence support officer was left to monitor nine river systems, all operating at “major flood level”, which meant “several significant flood triggers [were] missed”.
This resulted in late or no evacuation orders for some affected communities, posing “a significant risk”.
It also found some volunteers were left operating police radios without the training to do so, and many facilities were not fit for purpose and lacked important technology, seating, and meeting rooms, which affected the agency’s ability to manage the crisis.
Among key recommendations were for the NSW SES to prepare a business case for additional resources and staff, expand the presence of the Bureau of Meteorology within the agency and develop preprepared flood communication packs.
The state opposition’s emergency services spokesperson, Jihad Dib, said the NSW government had failed to learn “key lessons” last year and called on it to respond to the recommendations, including better resourcing the largely volunteer-driven agency.
“No disaster is alike, but the same mistakes around lack of resourcing, coordination, and mixed communication seem common,” he said.
“What is disturbing about these recommendations is their applicability to the 2022 floods.
“The government needs to resource the SES better because the science tells us that these severe weather events will become more frequent.”
The report has been handed to the state government and the heads of the independent inquiry set up after flooding devastated Lismore and many parts of northern NSW earlier in the year.
Steph Cooke, the emergency services minister, said the government would consider “recommendations and common themes” from this report and the upcoming independent inquiry report.
The NSW SES commissioner, Carlene York, said the agency had already started addressing issues raised in the report and more would be done.
“The service is also awaiting the outcomes of the 2022 NSW flood inquiry to undertake and prioritize improvements to management and response to catastrophic events of the scale seen in 2021 and again in 2022,” she said.