People who live along the border of New South Wales and Victoria were left confused about bushfire movements because the fire-tracking apps produced by the Rural Fire Service of NSW and Emergency Management Victoria did not share information, used different colour-coding systems, and used different symbols, the bushfire royal commission has heard.
The chief executives of Towong shire council, in Victoria, and the Snowy Valley and Snowy Monaro councils, both in Victoria, told the inquiry on Wednesday that the apparent lack of information sharing between fire agencies in Victoria and NSW meant some residents were confused about what was happening, because the apps did not show fires burning on both sides of the border.
Matthew Hyde, chief executive of the Snowy Valleys Council, said that if a fire started in NSW, “the RFS maintained the fire information until it crossed the border and then it didn’t maintain that information”.
And vice versa in Victoria, so there were significant issues about the movement across the border.
Peter Bascomb, chief executive of the Snowy Monaro Regional Council, said the different colours used by the two apps to indicate fires that were at an emergency warning, watch and act or advice level also left them open to misinterpretation.
Both the Emergency Vic app and the RFS’s Fires Near Me app use red to indicate fires under an emergency warning level. But NSW uses blue for watch and act and yellow for advice, and Victoria uses yellow for watch and act and blue for advice. If you’re constantly switching between apps to track a fire moving across the Murray River, Bascomb said, that can get confusing and people could be “potentially misled about what is actually happening”.
There were also significant differences in how emergency evacuation centres were managed. Victorian authorities set up an evacuation centre at Delegate, which is just on the NSW side of the border, for people fleeing the East Gippsland fires. It was fully established and stocked by state government services. But a NSW-run centre, at Coomba, was not fully stocked.
I actually contacted the salvation army who brought the mattresses from their local supply store and a supply of linen to go with them to establish that.
At one point Bascomb called the NSW welfare agency to send someone to support the Delegate centre, but neglected to tell them ahead of time that the evacuees were Victorian.
It turns out that the person, once they arrived at Delegate, indicated that they could not provide support to Victorian residents and turned around and left.