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Using technology to increase resilience and coordinate response in times of crisis

Developing standards and technologies to enable collaborative emergency response

At the recent Emergency Management Innovation event, we heard from Trevor Jones, Assistant Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Joe Buffone, Director-General, Emergency Management Australia, Department of Home Affairs as they discuss developing standards and technologies to enable collaborative emergency response. In this article they explore:

  • Reviewing the recent reforms to the Australian Government Crisis Management Framework, including the development of new national agencies such as the Australian Climate Service and National Recovery and Resilience Agency (NRRA)
  • Exploring how several innovations are supporting interagency collaboration and data sharing, including the development of a common operating picture, public safety mobile broadband network and increased interoperability of state emergency management systems

Preparing for all crises

From a crisis perspective, the last few years in Australia, before the pandemic took over most of our lives, were largely about protecting ourselves from natural disasters. Trevor Jones, the Assistant Secretary at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, says that in anticipation of potential crises, the “Australian Government Crisis Management Framework (AGCMF) was initially developed back in 2012.” However, the fires that occurred in Proserpine in Queensland in October of 2019 showed that the framework on its own was insufficient, so in November 2019, “before the fires that engulfed the eastern seaboard later that summer,” the federal government decided to update the framework to cover “natural disasters such as severe fires, floods and tropical cyclones, and in fact all hazards.”

Joe Buffone, the Director-General of Emergency Management Australia (EMA), which sits within the Department of Home Affairs, says that across the country, there are likely to be “more frequent, more intense and more complex emergencies.” At the EMA and at the national level, they focus specifically on “the severe or catastrophic end of those crises.” But even these types are increasing because emergency events are now “consecutive, concurrent and compounding, and no longer linear. They are a lot more complex and we need to make much quicker decisions.”

With all of these things in mind, after the end of the bushfire crisis in 2020, and after the pandemic settled down in 2020 (before the advance of the Delta strain), the federal government revamped and redeveloped many of their policies, frameworks and procedures. Trevor Jones says that the new AGCMF was launched in July 2021[1]. It is specifically a framework “for the management of all hazards by the Commonwealth Government,” It sets out a “new seven phase continuum which is about prevention, preparedness, response, relief, recovery, reconstruction and risk reduction.” The framework also clearly lists the “roles and responsibilities of Ministers and government departments, and it covers a range of likely scenarios under the rubric of an all hazards framework.”


The framework is the primary mechanism by which all Commonwealth agencies work collectively to deliver a national effort in support of a particular jurisdiction that has an operational responsibility in dealing with the crisis at hand
- Trevor Jones, Assistant Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

In other words, whilst the federal government has a national responsibility to be across all crises, “it has no interest in getting involved in jurisdictional responsibilities in terms of operational responses. Making specific decisions about operational capability is very much the principal responsibility of the states and territories.” This is true for things like fires and floods, but is also true for other disasters. Joe Buffone says that from a federal government perspective, it is important to consider all hazards.

To assist with making those right decisions, “through a series of workshops and exercises, we developed the national coordination mechanism (NCM) that was initially used to deal with the non-health aspects of the pandemic.” It is specifically about “the coordination of all different aspects of government, the private sector and the community. Instead of command and control, it is a coordination, collaboration and communication model.”

Rationalisation and consolidation

The NCM however, according to Trevor Jones, is just one of a number of new or improved coordination facilities set up in the last few years. Some of the previous tools and coordination bodies “were a little too focused on fires, floods and tropical cyclones” rather than the new all hazards approach. The NCM provided much needed coordination between the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the various Premiers and Chief Ministers during the height of COVID-19. Stemming from that “we now have the Australian Government Crisis and Recovery Committee. We also have a National Emergency Declaration Act 2020, which is only foreseen to be used in the most extreme circumstances.” And the government also established the “National Recovery and Resilience Agency, which is an amalgam of other agencies, as well as the Australian Climate Service, which is focused on delivering data services to government agencies.” All of this is part of “a rationalisation of governance consistent with the all hazards approach.”

Joe Buffone says that all of these tools, centres and mechanisms are designed to create “a common operating picture.” Whilst not all need to be engaged at once, “we can pretty much dial them up as we need.” In fact, the federal government is currently developing a “National Joint Common Operating Picture (COP), which should be in place by 1 November.” It will be “single entry portal that draws on multiple data feeds. After all, we currently use 142 different data feeds from the states, the territories and other sources.” This joint COP will rationalise all the data coming from the various jurisdictional agencies, as well as from agencies like “Defence, the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia so that they can all interconnect.” Once it is set up, the next process will be to include “automation and new forms of analytics.” The COP will provide modelling for future disasters as well as an idea of potential risks.

At the end of the day, responding to a crisis, particularly a complex natural disaster, is not about pressure from the community or the media. It is about “the requirement to make decisions very quickly in a complex environment. The only way you can do that is to actually have good data coming in, good analytics and then make sense of what you’ve actually got.” Trevor Jones says that ultimately, “the average citizen, when confronted with a crisis, doesn’t care which government agency is responsible for delivering their assistance. They just want to know when their supports are arriving.” As such, it is “up to us to share data as much as possible across agencies so that in the end, we benefit those individuals who have suffered from the consequences of a major event.”

In the first instance, we focus on natural hazards and associated disasters, but all hazards includes emergencies associated with cyber, terrorism, biosecurity, agriculture, health and anything else. It is about collating information, analysing it and making the right decisions.