Who makes the call about evacuation centres?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in the Taree evacuation centre during the fire emergency. Photo Scott Calvin
Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference in the Taree evacuation centre during the fire emergency. Photo Scott Calvin

It's not MidCoast Council, the NSW Rural Fire Service or the Department of Communities and Justice. It's NSW Police who make the call about where and when to open an evacuation centre. But when asked why there wasn't one opened in Gloucester during the recent bush fire emergency, NSW Police did not respond.

There were centres set up in Taree and Tuncurry on Friday, November 8 when the Hillville fire was threatening properties, however, when the fire threatened Bretti (north of Gloucester), Bundook (south of Mount George) and the areas around Krambach and Nabiac on Tuesday, November 12, no additional centres were open.

This may not have been an issue for residents who chose to leave their homes if the roads to access the centres had been open. But during the peak of the fire emergency, the Bucketts Way between Krambach and Taree, and the Pacific Highway between Nabiac and Taree were closed, leaving no way of reaching Taree or Tuncurry.

During this unprecedented fire situation, the NSW RFS were telling people to consider leaving their homes early if their homes were not properly prepared and to seek shelter in built-up areas, but for residents on the western side of the Hillville fire and the southern side of the Manning River of the Bretti fire as it approached Mount George, there was nowhere to go. Both fires reached emergency status with residents being advised by the RFS to enact their bush fire survival plan, yet no evacuation centre was set up in Gloucester.

The RFS advised people to avoid bushfire prone areas and if your home was in a bushfire prone area, the safest option was to not be there. "A safer location may be a large town or city, shopping centres or facilities well away from bushland."

For more information about Neighbourhood Safer Places and where they are located visit www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/neighbourhood-safer-places

For more information about Neighbourhood Safer Places and where they are located visit www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/neighbourhood-safer-places

But where do you go if a town that doesn't have a shopping centre, like Gloucester? One suggestion by the RFS is to go to a designated 'Neighbourhood Safer Place' for bushfire emergencies only. Barrington has Barrington Hall and Bundook has 512 Easton Street listed on the RFS site, but there isn't one for Gloucester or Krambach.

In regard to setting up an official evacuation centre, it involves a team of people known as the Local Emergency Management Committee (LEMC). Gloucester is part of the MidCoast Council Emergency Management Plan, and while council has a role to play in facilitating and planning for emergencies, it is not the lead agency.

"We supply resources in the form of a Local Emergency Management Officer and coordinate the Emergency Management Committee between multiple government and other agencies in our area," council's director of engineering and infrastructure services, Robert Scott said. "In most situations, major centres such as Gloucester are designated as locations suitable for residents in surrounding areas to retreat to during different emergency events.

"Evacuations centres can be opened up quickly by combat agencies in public facilities," Mr Scott said. "They do not become an evacuation centre until they are established by the NSW Police during an emergency situation. It is up to the person leading the emergency response to determine when evacuation centres are put into operation."

According to the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), the decision to establish evacuation centres is based on a number of factors and is made by the LEMC in consultation with the combat agency, which in the case of the recent fire event was the RFS.

"The DCJ are tasked with ensuring that appropriate services are available within the centres once they are determined by the LEMC and the combat agency," a spokesperson for the DCJ said.

At the time of publication, the NSW Police had not responded to enquiries.