Confusion about emergency warnings sent during the Loch Sport fires on October 1 has prompted demands for improved warning communication in the future.

Member for Gippsland East Tim Bull, wants improvements in how warnings are relayed to the public before summer comes.

“There was considerable confusion on Sunday (October 1), when warnings with very different advice were received in short proximity,” Mr Bull said.

“At 1.31pm on October 1, an emergency warning was issued for Loch Sport, which stated, ‘Shelter indoors now. You are in danger, act now to protect yourself. It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately’.

“However, at 1.38pm, seven minutes later, a new alert was issued for Loch Sport which stated, ‘Leave Now. Don’t wait – if you are not prepared to stay, leaving now is the safest option.’

“You really could not get two more contradictory messages so close together and, while I am full of praise for our firefighters, we cannot have this confusing messaging being put out to the public from Emergency Management Victorian (EMV) head office in what can literally be a matter of life and death.”

Mr Bull said Finding 6.3 in the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) inquiry following the 2019/20 fires read: ‘The community received mixed messages around staying or leaving following the Code Red declaration and as a result they were not clear on evacuation requirements and it recommended this be addressed.’

During both the fire and floods, residents sheltered and received assistance at Loch Sport Marina Hotel. Discussing the October 1 fires, hotel manager David Armstrong said confusion was rife after the two aforementioned warnings were given.

“We were getting a few calls, especially from (the elderly) who were not sure what to do,” Mr Armstrong said.

“Do we evacuate or do we stay off the road?

“There’s that panic as well. We can only give the advice given in the Vic Emergency app.

“We didn’t want to give any advice that was (contrary) to the advice on the app.”

EMV told the Gippsland Times that the warnings issued were correct.

“Victoria uses the Australia Warning System (AWS) which provides information and warnings to the community through a range of channels,” an EMV spokesperson said.

“There was no error in the information provided to Loch Sport. The two warnings were referring to two separate areas of the same town, which was separately mapped in the areas for each warning.

“All channels in Victoria’s integrated warning system were used to inform communities of risks and advise them of appropriate action to protect lives and minimise impacts.

“An important part of preparedness and planning ahead of emergencies is to know how to stay informed and never rely on one single source for emergency information.”

Mr Armstrong said in response that both warnings affected all Loch Sport residents.

“In Loch Sport there’s one road in, one road out. It’s going to affect everyone in Loch Sport,” he said.

“When they see Loch Sport, they don’t assume it’s for one part of Loch Sport, it’s all of Loch Sport.”

But Mr Armstrong said that after a couple of hours, the “mixed messaging” became clear.

“Around 3pm, it became ‘if you want to evacuate, you can evacuate’,” he said.

“We had a pretty good response afterwards. The next day, emergency services came in to talk to locals about what we can do (next time) for the emergency response.

“So it’s good they came in to see what can be improved.”

EMV warnings are authorised by the Incident Controller in an Incident Control Centre (ICC) at local level, in this case, Bairnsdale.

According to EMV, significant enhancements have been made to national coordination and communications before, during and after emergencies, with Victoria leading the implementation of the AWS in December 2021.

This involved significant cross-border collaboration with NSW and South Australia, each of which implemented the AWS last year.

EMV said the AWS is a national approach to information and warnings during emergencies like bushfires, flood, storm, extreme heat and severe weather, meaning no matter where you are in Australia, emergency warnings and information will be consistent.