States of Emergency: What You Should Know, and What You Should Do

First: information. Check here for a map of the fire and its spread; monitor the Rural Fire Service (RFS) for updates and advisories. Listen to ABC radio for breaking news if you are in the car. And please, please, be careful. You cannot salvage your ruined property and life if you are dead.

There are currently 58 fires burning across New South Wales, of which 14 are out of control. The fires have taken out hundreds of homes and killed one person, with continued temperatures and winds making this fire season the most brutal in 45 years. The largest fire, at Lithgow, has taken out 40,000 hectares land, and is on course to merge with others fires in the region to create a mega-fire: a fire that “exhibits fire behaviour characteristics that exceed all efforts at control, regardless of the type, kind, or number of fire fighting resources deployed.”

Premier Barry O’Farrell has declared a state-wide state of emergency in response to the fires, and I want to explain what that entails. States of emergency are often contentious and misunderstood in civil life as—especially in this country—we aren’t used to wars, pandemics, or catastrophes on our shores. Yet understanding the state of emergency will help people understand what they should and should not do.

States of emergency in NSW are described by division 4 of the State Emergency and Rescue Management Response Act of 1989. Under the Act, police and emergency workers can evacuate people and destroy or appropriate property, or cut off power, in aid of fighting the fires and protecting public safety. It is an offence to exercise noncompliance or disobedience with personnel engaged in the emergency response, and responders are authorised to use “reasonable force” to achieve their goals. Responders, moreover, are not held liable for acts undertaken in good faith and in aid of the response effort. The Act also contains provisions for people affected by the emergency response to claim compensation on property damaged by responders.

The first thing is to understand the threat that justifies the state of emergency. We’ve had major fires in Australia since time out of mind, but these are the worst in NSW in almost half a century. Further, a mega-fire is not an out of control fire; it is an uncontrollable fire. This type of threat necessitates a response above and beyond typical fire fighting, and it is that need that justifies a state of emergencies.

This isn’t martial law, however, and you do have rights. There are lots of provisions within the Act to ensure compensation should you be affected by an emergency action. However, noncompliance is a crime; obstructing responders puts you, responders, and whole communities in jeopardy. Complying in an emergency sucks for everyone—responders don’t want to be in this position any more than you—but the risks to everyone should you not comply are immense. If you feel you’ve been coerced in bad faith, you should definitely sue for compensation. Just make sure you do it alive and well after the fires, and not posthumously.

Fire fighting is not necessarily something that is subject to intuitive explanations, and the expertise of those responding should be respected. Australia has some of the best people in the world when it comes to fire prevention, preparation, and management. Don’t undervalue their skills, and listen to their directions.

The 2013-2014 fire season is incredibly dangerous, and the potential costs for not aiding emergency responders through your cooperation are very high. Hopefully, they’ll never have to use the powers they’ve been granted; responders know that the longer they have to fight the more chance they have of dying, and they want this over as much as you do. So know what your rights are and how to enforce them, but also know the right time to do so.

If you want to help, get informed and follow the instructions over at the RFS website. Include your pets. And if you can, check the map and stay well away from the fire zones.

My dad’s partner lives out at Pheasant’s Nest, which is in the path of the fires in the Southern Highlands. Last time I heard they were prepared and still safe, but the next couple of days will be tense. My thoughts go out to them.

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