Australia’s fire danger warning system is being overhauled, with new action-oriented signage showing only four levels of risk replacing the various six categories the states and territories currently use. The new signs will be rolled out across the nation ahead of the fire season,
The new system comes after social research confirmed 52 per cent of people mistakenly thought the current rating system predicted how likely a fire is to occur, rather than the potential level of danger should a bushfire start.
The research also found people were confused about what to do, meaning the current format failed to drive desired behavioural outcomes even among people familiar with the signs. While people were generally familiar with the signs, the research found most were not using the six-level warning system and most had never taken action relating to it.
The new community warning system will start on September 1 and includes a major upgrade in forecasting models. A new Fire Behaviour Index, published by the Bureau of Meteorology, will provide a 100-point scale of potential fire behaviour based on fuel and weather conditions across eight different vegetation fuel types.
The new national system calculates fire danger at a finer geographic scale than before to offer more specific and relevant information. The index will inform key operational decisions such as fire bans and when burning off can be done safely. Other indices are being developed to measure bushfire impact and the likelihood of fire ignition and suppression.
The new system has been developed by the Australia and New Zealand national council for fire and emergency services (AFAC), with prototypes tested over last summer by the NSW Rural Fire Service and the BOM.
“This exciting national project is based on new science, doing away with the old system which was created in the 1950s,” RFS commissioner Rob Rodgers said.
“The new Australian Fire Danger Rating System will be more accurate as it assesses not only the landscapes but also eight vegetation types across the nation – a vast difference to the old system which could only assess two vegetation types.
“What this means for the community is simpler, clearer messaging around preparedness, which will result in better-informed communities.
“It’s messaging that will potentially save lives.”
Since the 1960s, Australia has been using the McArthur meter developed by fire research pioneer Alan McArthur and the CSIRO. It was based on only two models for forests and grasslands, meaning it was only relevant for about a third of the continent.
Nor does the current forecasting model take account of fuel load in forests and rapid changes in wind patterns and other insights from 60 years of fire research. The old model was tested at Mount Black in Canberra and is highly sensitive to changes in input values and performed poorly at the higher end of the ratings scale where most impact occurs.
The change to the community signage follows calls from the 2019 Black Summer Royal Commission for a nationally consistent, easy to comprehend danger rating system. This followed confusion about what actions communities should take and misunderstandings among communities along the NSW and Victorian borders because of different warning systems and apps.
Each state and territory will now use four categories of danger with simple warning actions associated with each category to replace thousands of current road signs across the country. The four categories will be colour-coded based on research, and the associated recommended actions will be displayed horizontally for easy reading.
The current six categories of danger – low, moderate, high, very high, severe and catastrophic, will be replaced with four categories. These are: moderate (green – plan and prepare); high (yellow – be ready to act); extreme (orange – take action now to protect life and property); and catastrophic (red – for your survival, leave bushfire risk areas).
Victoria has agreed to drop its “Code Red” description, introduced after its 2009 Black Saturday fire disaster.
There will also be an “off” category for those days where no proactive action is required by the community because there is little or no risk of a fire that could spread in a dangerous or life-threatening way.
The new system is expected to be replicated in the various state emergency warning apps such as NSW’s Fires Near Me and Victoria’s omnibus emergency app. The Black Summer royal commission called for states to develop a national all hazards warning app.
Research commissioned by the South Australian Country Fire Service on behalf of AFAC found that most participants stated that six levels was too many to enable people to accurately recall the meaning and intended actions for each. People were unable to differentiate between many of the levels, instead mentally grouping them and assuming that under halfway meant no action was required.
None of those surveyed understood the intention or meaning of the numbers typically used to show the six gradient levels. Most assumed this was a percentage change indicator, though a small number thought it was some kind of measurement based on temperature, wind and other environmental considerations. The research found including these numbers created additional clutter and confusion.
All survey participants wanted rating names in simple, everyday language. Despite a significant number saying “catastrophic” was an uncommon word that many people would not understand, the new system adopted the word. Code Red was considered “Americanised” and linked to “fearmongering”.
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