NATURAL DISASTER: SES crews search for and rescue people who were stranded in the houses in North Lismore.
NATURAL DISASTER: SES crews search for and rescue people who were stranded in the houses in North Lismore. Marc Stapelberg

SES copped the brunt of criticism

A NUMBER of allegations were made about the way in which the flood was handled by the SES and, one year on, members of the SES are still suffering from the impact of negative community sentiment directed towards them.

An independent review of the NSW SES Operational Response to the event was conducted by Risk-E Business Consultants' Dave Owens. Mr Owens listed 36 recommendations for improvement.

The current region controller for the State Emergency Services Richmond Tweed, Mark Somers, said action was underway on all 36 recommendations and a lot of work has been done to address these issues.

Criticism of the short time frame between the Major Flood Warning, released at 4 pm on Thursday March 30 and the Evacuation Order, just 30 minutes later was also addressed in the independent review which said there was a "very real concern about the evacuation of a community in darkness, in torrential rain whilst in the middle of an unfolding event where the exact rate of rise of the river system was unknown, should the order not be actioned immediately.”

"The decision to evacuate was the right decision, however the Evacuation Order should have included a timing for the Lismore CBD evacuation,” said Mr Owens.

One crucial change the SES has made to its evacuation orders since the flood, is that they will now only be issued after a conference call between key SES personnel in different departments, where time permits, to ensure everybody is aware of the need to evacuate and the timing of the evacuation.

Other improvements include arranging to place a BoM representative within the SES State Operations Centre during significant events, the implementation of an SES triage procedure for flood rescues, storing all Local Flood Action Cards in an electronic format which is centrally accessible, reviewing the design of Flood Bulletins and ensuring the levee overtopping information is clearly identified at the top of the bulletin, and liaising with the appropriate NSW Government agencies to ensure stronger linkages are forged at a local level between the NSW SES, emergency responders, local councils and community development professionals.

The SES is currently working on re-writing and re-formatting all flood plans across the Richmond-Tweed region. There is also an element of re-structure underway.

During the flood public confusion over what role various government agencies play during an emergency, and their powers, contributed to community anger over some decisions.

Unravelling the differing responsibilities of the various organisations, which include the local Lismore SES Unit, the Richmond Tweed Regional SES headquarters, the NSW SES headquarters, the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and local Councils, is not easy.

The BoM monitor and predict floods and disseminate flood warnings via a subscriber based service on their website, as well as sending warnings to the SES and other media. The SES say they then "value add” to that information, by including local information, before re-issuing the warning as a press release. A lot of attention is currently going towards making these warnings and releases more valuable to those who receive them on the other end.

The SES and BoM have started running community forums to explain how these improvements will affect future communications.

The Regional SES is designated to control flood operations and during the flood they allocated an incident controller in the Richmond Tweed Regional headquarters in Goonellabah. There is some confusion over who this was.

Since his arrival Mr Somers has been conducting incident management training sessions with the SES and said they will be making the incident management structure arrangements clear.

"There will be no confusion over that in future for an event of that size,” he said.

The majority of the hands on rescue work was conducted by those at the Lismore SES Unit, who are volunteers - locals whose lives and homes were in some instances affected as badly by the floods as those they rescued.

Although there were around 80 members on their books many were not available at the time. The team operated with four vehicles and five flood boats, doing 200 official rescues in Lismore. This effort was assisted by support from other agencies.

Community Engagement Coordinator, Janet Pettit from the Regional SES in Goonellabah, said there were many additional rescues that went unrecorded as crews spontaneously picked people up as the need arose.

"The March flood was a fast paced, severe weather event. It was overwhelming in so many ways for all those involved with responding to the event," said Ms Pettit.

The 132500 line received much criticism during the event.

The SES explained the 132500 line, which operates out of a call centre at the NSW SES headquarters in Wollongong, is not an information line. It functions to create a one way information flow from people needing assistance through to local SES units who can assist.

"The reasons why the SES set it up that way was because, prior to having that call centre, people were just ringing in to units (local SES) saying 'I need help, I need help,' we didn't have enough people to go out and do jobs because they're manning phones,” said Ms Pettit.

"And you get the calls, 'Is the road closed?...So they centralised it.”

Road closures are listed on the RMS's My Road Info website which is updated by Council.

One major change the SES has made includes implementing a street warden program which will help create a two-way information flow between the community and the local SES unit, the information will then feed back up the chain of command and out to the public via various media and social media channels.

When asked if the SES had changed the way in which they prioritise jobs Mr Somers said that since this event the NSW SES Commissioner has issued a strategic priorities document which assists decision making about the order in which the SES will respond to requests.

"Life threatening events always take precedence as will assisting those less able to assist themselves, such as the elderly,” he said.