Australia adopts new standards for emergency warning systems

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Australian Warning System icons
New Australian Warning System icons

One of the many recommendations in the report issued in October by Australia’s “Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements” was to make the country’s Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS) more uniform across the eight states and territories. The goal was to ensure that there is national consistency in the visual display of the AFDRS and action to be taken in response to each rating. Since then progress has been made, which is not always the case down under and in the United States following reports and studies that urge changes to be made.

The new standardized icons representing three levels of warning for five types of events are seen above. Below is what was previously used for bushfires.

Australian Warning System icons
The various icons for bushfires across Australia that are being replaced.

The Australian Bushfire Warning System is a national, three level bushfire alert system: “Advice”, “Watch and Act”, and “Emergency Warning”. The alert system is an important framework used by emergency services agencies to indicate the level of threat from a fire and the recommended action that should be taken. The higher the warning level, the greater the risk to life and property.

The Royal Commission’s report indicated that there was some confusion about the meaning of “Watch and Act.”

Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements
From the report by the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, page 296.

Research released in November, 2019 showed that nationwide only 53 percent of Australians surveyed understood the required behavior of Watch and Act. On the other hand, only 57 percent understood the behavior required under Emergency Warning.

But the new standards recently issued retain the same three levels, including Watch and Act as the middle level of warning:

Advice (Yellow). An incident has started. There is no immediate danger. Stay up to date in case the situation changes.

Watch and Act (Orange). There is a heightened level of threat. Conditions are changing and you need to start taking action now to protect you and your family.

Emergency Warning (Red). An Emergency Warning is the highest level of warning. You may be in danger and need to take action immediately. Any delay now puts your life at risk.

The video below released December 1, 2020 describes the “New national approach to information and warnings during emergencies and natural disasters like bush fire, flood, storm, extreme heat and severe weather.”

Our take:

Standardizing the icons is a major improvement. However there is still opportunity for confusion about the difference between “Watch and Act” and “Emergency Warning”.

The United States could benefit from some of the lessons learned that are described in the Royal Commission’s report.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “Australia adopts new standards for emergency warning systems”

  1. Here in the US, we, the public, are so accustomed to “High Fire Danger” signs that their impact is questionable. Have there been any really good studies of program effectiveness or does this come under the heading of “just do something” based on bureaucratic expediency without any adequate study of it’s effectiveness (beyond a few interviews, in which lying to the interviewer is common. The little statistics book, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics” explains this very well–if memory serves me correctly.


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