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Coordinating Australia’s response to natural disasters and national crises

Posted By and on September 15, 2023 @ 06:00

Australia has a relatively new but well-proven adjunct to its crisis and disaster management tools. While previous frameworks focused on intra-governmental planning and response, the National Coordination Mechanism (NCM) embraces the capabilities of the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

This comprehensive national crisis coordination process is underpinned by complex systems and network theory [1] and provides a governance framework to facilitate integrated and coherent planning, clarify problems, reveal escalation triggers, identify and agree on actions and responsibilities, and establish oversight and communication arrangements. It works well, and its continued use—and evolution—points the way to even more comprehensively coordinated resilience building, crisis planning, response and recovery. Extrapolation of the NCM will prove critical if national mobilisation is required to deal with crises other than natural disasters and pandemics.

The NCM was first employed in the early stages of Covid-19 to manage the pandemic’s non-health consequences, but it originated in the preceding two years from a series of discussions based on natural hazard scenarios with catastrophic, nationally distributed impacts. These were conducted by Emergency Management Australia, which was then a division of the Department of Home Affairs. Participants included federal government departments, state and territory emergency management agencies, major corporations (including logistics, energy, food and grocery companies), non-government organisations, and disaster recovery agencies.

The exercises demonstrated that the existing processes and governance structures were inherently limited and couldn’t be scaled to the degree required to deal with the sectoral interdependence of contemporary Australia. Participants identified that an adaptive national mechanism to coordinate responses was critical to prepare for, respond to and recover from anthropogenic and natural crises.

The NCM played a central role in the national coordination of non-medical aspects of the pandemic, including identifying issues, deconfliction, resolution, allocation of responsibility and providing whole-of-response advice—and options—to government. More than 100 meetings were held to ensure shared understanding and rapid stabilisation of problems as they emerged. This allowed a supply-chain taskforce to work with road transport companies and their peak bodies, shipping and freight companies, food and grocery suppliers, agricultural peak bodies and cooperatives, state and territory government agencies, and local governments.

Early in the pandemic, the major supermarkets advised that rules limiting contact threatened the grocery supply chain, with a high likelihood of empty shelves if the settings weren’t adjusted. The NCM supported all involved to quickly provide expert advice to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. The committee developed interim guidance that was endorsed by National Cabinet, and changes in state and territory policy were implemented in time to ensure availability of food and groceries.

In January 2022, more than 300 kilometres of rail line and major highways were severely damaged by flooding, effectively cutting north–south and east–west road and rail transport corridors. The NCM was convened with federal, state and territory authorities and the transport and logistics sector to identify consequences and potential solutions. Food and grocery supplies to Western Australia and supply of water purification chemicals to the eastern states were identified as critical issues. Solutions included establishing a land bridge between Adelaide and Kalgoorlie, establishing a sea freight corridor, and using liners in shipping containers to allow for safe loading and transport of chemicals.

In December 2021 came a nationwide shortage of AdBlue, a necessary additive for diesel-fuelled vehicles, including trucks and emergency services appliances. Supported by supply-chain and modelling expertise from McKinsey & Co, the NCM brought together domestic AdBlue manufacturers, fuel suppliers, logistics and freight companies, trucking associations, food and grocery providers, regulators and the federal government. The NCM obtained Australian Competition and Consumer Commission exemption to allow industry-led solutions to stabilise the situation and enable other government areas to work on policy to diversify supply. Industry ensured AdBlue was available along transport routes for critical supplies and no disruption to emergency services was recorded.

The NCM has been further refined and is now sponsored by Emergency Management Australia’s successor entity, the standalone National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). Since March 2020, NEMA has used the NCM more than 540 times on crises and problems including flooding, supply-chain disruptions, food supply interruptions, road destruction and reconstruction, provision of temporary accommodation at the community level, major cyberattacks, and the impact of the roll-out of Apple’s SOS function on emergency telecommunications for the public.

NEMA’s strategic aim for the NCM is to ensure that government action is synchronised, coordinated and responsive; key functions within communities are maintained; the ability of impacted communities, the economy and affected individuals to remain resilient is strengthened; recovery across communities and the economy is assisted; and the overall severity and harm of crises is reduced.

The NCM uses a critical domain, or sector-based, approach. A domain describes a cooperative community of related parties rather than a simple hierarchical command-and-control structure. It typically includes organisations with like responsibilities and capabilities—and dependencies—that can help make sense of complex issues before, during and after a crisis.

Formal hierarchical structures are necessary to govern the response to emergencies regardless of cause. But in large-scale, complex crises, cooperation and collaboration become just as important as coordination. Domain-based coordination reflects and strengthens the less formal but very present relationships between government agencies, companies and civil society. The domain concept allows groups to cooperate according to formal and informal ties with explicit and implicit commitments and authorities.

Each domain has a nominated lead. Drawing on the substantial convening power of the federal government, leads are usually senior officials, but increasingly senior industry or non-government representatives fill the roles. Each domain is connected to the NCM coordination hub, which is there to de-conflict and synchronise effort. It is not a command-and-control structure.

Essentially a system of systems, the NCM offers a governance structure and supported process to help participants identify and define problems and to stabilise a situation through common understanding and cooperation. The NCM is not a committee. Participants are invited because of their equity in defining problems and their role or expertise as required by the situation. The model is supported by NEMA’s crisis appreciation and strategic planning methodology and its broader crisis operations capabilities, including the significantly enhanced national situation room and crisis coordination teams.

The private sector has been a key partner in the NCM’s development and its participation has been central to the NCM’s success. An industry reference group has been established to facilitate direct communication to government of industry priorities and decisions within each domain.

A key challenge in emergency management is decision-making under time pressure and with unconfirmed and possibly conflicting information. That includes managing people and organisations with different protocols, priorities, cultures and locations. This collaboration is critical to building public trust and confidence in elected leaders during and after crises and disasters. The NCM can provide the overarching framework for coordinating the national response to any crisis and can feed directly into National Cabinet, the National Security Committee of Cabinet or the full Cabinet.

If the nation is required to mobilise in response to armed conflict or a massive disruption to, for instance, the internet, the NCM would support and inform the government response, support the maintenance of essential services, coordinate information and messaging, and provide guidance and support to industry on priorities for business continuity. A crucial role will be to identify emerging vulnerabilities.

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[1] network theory: https://cas.uwo.ca/discover/cas-introduction.html

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