Submission to The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Issues paper: Understanding how emergency planning and response can include and support people with disability.

Australia has a very effective bushfire flood cyclone and natural hazards emergency warning system but it fails vulnerable people in our community.

Those people – with disabilities, chronic illness, the frail and aged and children – have special need when confronting an emergency, but thse needs are not reflected in the emergency warning system

In my work book ”The Principles of Effective warnings” I lay out the problems those people face, but nearly all are about accessibility, timing and leadership.

The amount of time a person with a disability needs to prepare for and escape a bushfire or flood is substantially longer than the warning system provides. What is needed is a new element in the warning system – the ”education warning” – which is issued in the same way as other alerts but hours ahead of the likely hazard and containing different information.

And to make sure these warnings are compiled, distributed, reviewed and researched a new authority is needed in each state, mirroring the work of the emergency commissioner – someone with responsibility to ensure vulnerable people are warned about every natural and man made hazard.

Finally, because of the special status of vulnerable people their carers and coordinators of their heal care should be trained in emergency management processes needed to keep their people safe.

The submission is below.

May 1, 2020


1.     Summary. 2

2.     Background on emergency warnings. 2

3.     Warnings for people with disabilities and other vulnerable people. 6

4.     Failures of the warning system for people with disabilities. 10

5.     Caring for people with disabilities, the frail aged, and those with chronic illness. 12

Figure 1 Ian Mannix APSM CF
The author

About the author: Ian Mannix was the Manager of Emergency Broadcasting and Community Development ABC Radio, TV and Online 2006-2017.The author left The ABC in 2017, and started “Forewarned” to deliver training on emergency broadcasting, warnings, media and in the process has written a book “The Principles of Effective Warnings’’ which has chapters on ethics, psychology, gender, children, and ‘’vulnerable groups” – people with disabilities, chronic illness, LGBTI.

The book forms the basis of the author’s business to provide workshops to enable people to issue more effective warnings.

People with disabilities in closed facilities and segregated settings, and in the wider community, are being neglected during emergencies such as natural hazards and man made disasters (eg: pandemics, infrastructure failure, pollution).

This situation can be remedied by following the lead of the Black Saturday Bushfire Royal Commission which mandated that in every state a single person must be responsible for people’s safety.

Ensuring that a single person has legal responsibility for ‘’emergency warnings’’ for the cohort of vulnerable people being examined by the Royal Commission could contribute to greater understanding of their needs; better advanced warning and protections around natural and man made hazards for this group; more research and for the frail aged and those with chronic illness and other vulnerable groups.

A warning is described as: “.. a trigger for a useful change in the behaviour or attitude of a person in response to a possible or probable threat which might create harm or cause damage.’’[1]

The first Australian emergency warnings for natural hazards were issued by the Bureau of Meteorology, which issued cyclone warnings from the 1960s. These warnings were carried as text, and on ABC Radio News. The warnings described the cyclone and flooding, and were later enhanced with track maps.

On the 21st January, 1997, a fire was started by an arsonist in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne. The fire spread rapidly and killed three people, a husband and wife and an elderly neighbour, who died while sheltering in a basement.

ABC Melbourne Radio worked with the Country Fire Authority to create ‘’bushfire warnings’’ which would enable people to respond to the fire, its speed and direction. These were the first bushfire warnings broadcast in Australia.

ABC Melbourne worked with the CFA and the Commissioner for Emergencies in Victoria from 1997-2007 to improve the warning system. In short the ABC agreed to broadcast all warnings, repeatedly and for as long as necessary.

Over time the warnings were scaled relating to their severity.

In April 2006 The ABC agreed to make the warning system a national requirement for ABC Radio, and in a world first the ABC appointed a Manager of Emergency Broadcasting and Community Development (The author).

The ABC was widely praised for saving lives during the Black Saturday bushfires Saturday, 7 February 2009, and The Bushfire Royal Commission recommended that its warning system be enhanced, and made national. The Australian National Bushfire Warning Framework was introduced in mid-2009, and later became the basis for all natural hazard emergency warnings in Australia.

Figure 2: Emergency Warning issued by Tasmanian Fire Services, January 2019

The framework is now scaleable – “Warning,’’  ‘’Watch and Act’’, ‘’Emergency Warnings” being the best known descriptors. See figure one and two for typical warnings.

Figure 3: Flash Flood Warning Victoria

(Note…edited image for space reasons)

Warnings are delivered quickly via emergency agency web sites, social media and ABC Radio, and between the platforms, are close to universally available in a timely manner.

The author coordinated warnings on The ABC for all hazards in Australia – bushfires, cyclones, floods, equine flu, locust plague and H1N1 virus from 2009 to the present.

Over many years emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology have enhanced the warning process with significant resources being applied to meet the needs of people before, during and after disasters. Much of the research was undertaken jointly with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, and the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. (AIDR) and usually involved reference to working groups with specialist knowledge of the various vulnerable communities.

In 2018-2019 AIDR released ‘’Warning Principles’’ which seek to protect people and save lives; empower people to build shared responsibility for disaster resilience; and expects warnings to be issued in a timely way.[2]

The AIDR Warning Principles says: “Warnings should be …tailored to suit each channel and consider accessibility for diverse audiences.”[3]

The guidelines are written largely to provide warnings to able bodied people and the majority of the community and content relating to vulnerable people is focussed on how warnings can be WRITTEN or PREPARED for those with special needs.

AIDR has created a handbook ‘’Communicating with People with a Disability: National Guidelines for Emergency Managers.”[4]

‘’Some people are more at risk when emergencies and disasters strike; some are frequently and mistakenly overlooked under current emergency management arrangements. Ensuring those persons most at risk become, and remain, an integral part of any emergency management arrangement requires a collaborative effort between emergency managers, service providers, carers and the community to address a myriad of complex issues in building safer and more resilient communities.’’

‘That said, people with disability are not always at risk or at greater risk in an emergency. If their impairment or limitation needs are met, they are not more disadvantaged. People with disability may be self-sufficient in their residence or community (neighbourhood or social community). However, the impacts of disabilities may be more pronounced in times of emergency if a person’s enablers (aids and equipment, personal care support, neighbourhood or social community) are unavailable.[5]

The quick guide shows best practice in creating and distributing the content of warnings for people with disabilities (Figure 1).

A warning which would suit vulnerable people would need to consider the following elements:

  • limited mobility.
  • Limited communication.
  • Lack of sight, hearing.
  • Limited cognitive ability.
  • Limited or restricted ability to be understood when speaking.

Warnings being delivered by emergency agencies and the Bureau of Meteorology are targeted at the wider community.

Figure 4 shows a flood warning published by the State Emergency Service of Victoria, republished on the Victorian Emergency Commissioner website which includes (see bottom of page 7) an attempt to address the needs of vulnerable communities.

The Australian emergency response system puts responsibility for all hazards on a designated first response agency. During an event the agency is fully responsible for community safety, and as the lead actor in response, all other agencies – including health, police, defence, ambulance, roads, telecommunications and so on, are contacted on a needs basis.

The Australian emergency warning framework is geared towards natural hazards, and is overseen by first responders – SES, Emergency , fire and rescue agencies and in some states, a commissioner for public safety.

For the majority of the community this is a well-developed, cohesive and reliable system which gathers accurate information about weather systems and natural hazards which are expected to lead to conditions which will create a possible loss of life and extensive economic or building loss.

The elderly and people living with disabilities are not catered for by the system because their specific needs are not met: (See Figure 5: Failure of Qld Warning System)

  • Timeliness…people with disabilities, chronic illness, many under the responsibility of a carer, need a great deal more time to get ready for a natural hazard. The warnings are not geared for this possibility.
  • Accessibility: The cohort we are focussing on might not be able to read; view a web site; hear the radio or view a TV.
  • Planning: This group of people is not regularly included in pre-event planning. (Although in some states, their advocates in health and community agencies are)
  • Preparation: People with special knowledge of the vulnerable community are not first line responders.
  • The cohort is rarely included in exercises such as drills and evacuations.
  • First responders, including ambulances, SES and other rescuers, are not always aware of people in their community who might need extra care and attention.

Figure 6: Failure of Qld warning system, 2019.

The residents of an aged care facility situated dangerously close to this week’s Peregian bushfire on the Sunshine Coast had a nail-biting night stuck inside because they could not be safely evacuated, authorities have revealed.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) chief superintendent Michelle Young said the original plan had been to evacuate the 90 residents and staff of Arcare Peregian Springs on Monday night, but this had to change when they realised they lacked the crews to get them out safely.

“They were all on the fire ground,” she said.

“We realised we couldn’t spare staff, we couldn’t get QAS [ambulances] and we would have needed 50 vehicles to get these people of there,” she said.

Fire crews instead formed three lines of defence around them.

Superintendent Young said the fire went right up to edge of the building and there were 20 appliances protecting it from the bushfire “when it really started to hit”.

The aged care facility is located in Ridgewood Drive, just around the corner from Koel Circuit where the fire started on Monday afternoon.

“We had operations and vehicles and crews around the perimeter on the grassland, and we had crews inside the fence line, right up to the building,” Superintendent Young said.

“We had staff inside ready to pull the sprinkler on if anything should happen.

“We moved all 90 residents into the foyer, [they] were ready and prepared just in case we had to start moving them.

“It would have been an absolute nightmare to get them out of there. But we had those plans in place early and we had them safe early and it worked.”

The following characteristics of a total warning system should be initiated to keep every person safe:

  1. A person should be given legislated responsibility for the safety of vulnerable people before, during and after, natural hazards and emergencies.

This person should have authority to take actions to keep people safe, provide resources and warnings for evacuations; authorise research into the needs of the group; and to review activities in line with accepted standards of natural hazards care.

This person must sit on emergency agency coordination groups, and therefore must be delegated by a state authority.

  • People with direct responsibility for people’s safety should undergo training in hazard response and planning.

People including NDIS district coordinators, nursing home managers, carers, school principles, local government officials, must undertake training to ensure they are aware of the emergency process, and how to plan to keep people safe.

  • Emergency agencies must implement a new level of warning – tagged by the author as ‘’education warnings’’ to provide this cohort and other vulnerable groups with sufficient time to prepare and act.

‘’Education warnings’’ would be issued every time a natural hazard is identified that is ‘likely’ to cause injury and property loss.

They are not a feature of emergency warnings at present, although in some states, a Total Fire Ban is carried on ABC Radio and TV news, and commercial radio and TV on the morning it is issued, regardless of whether there is fire in the landscape. This is an example of a highly effective education warning.

  • Research should be conducted into the specific needs of people with disabilities and their carers before, during and after natural and man made hazards to ensure world’s best practice is being followed by the legislated person.

I am available to further discuss elements of this submission.

Tel: 0448 135 587

Email: [email protected]

The workbook is available to purchase:

Ian Mannix

May 1, 2020

[1] Principles of Effective Warnings, Mannix, Published by Forewarned April 2020


[3] Public Information and Warnings Handook, AIDR, p8.Principle 9 “Readily Accessible.