The ACT legislature has passed the Emergencies (Commissioner Directions) Amendment Act 2012.  This will amend the Emergencies Act 2004 (ACT). Under the current Act, the Commissioner of the Emergency Services Authority ‘is responsible for the overall strategic direction and management of the emergency services’ (s 9) (the relevant emergency services are ACT Fire and Rescue; the Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Service and the Ambulance Service).  That Commissioner’s role is an overarching, policy position but the Act does not give any express operational role to the Commissioner.

When the amending Act comes into force, there will be a new s 8A that will say:

 Directions by commissioner in relation to emergencies

(1)   This section applies to an emergency other than one for which an emergency controller is appointed.

Note      Pt 7.3 provides for the management of an emergency for which an emergency controller is appointed or a state of emergency declared.

(2)   The commissioner may direct a chief officer to undertake response or recovery operations in relation to the emergency.

(3)   The commissioner may not direct the chief officer to undertake an operation in a particular way.

The effect of this section was explained by the Minister in the accompanying explanatory statement.  There he says

New Section 8A (2) provides the commissioner with the authority to direct a chief officer to undertake response or recovery operations in relation to an emergency… the intended effect of the new Section 8A is that the commissioner should have the ability to give direction under certain situations, where the scale and complexity of the emergency is, or is likely to be, significant and may exceed the traditional scope of one or more emergency service. For example if an incident occurred that was attended by a single emergency service, the commissioner may direct the chief officer of another service to provide additional resources to ensure the optimum capability of the Territory is made available to respond…

New Section 8A (3) establishes that the commissioner may not direct the chief officer to undertake an operation in a particular way. This clarifies that it is not intended that the commissioner’s direction making power should usurp, or result in ambiguity or conflict in relation to the powers of the chief officers during an emergency, and the existing responsibility of each chief officer to manage and control the emergency service he or she is appointed to lead.

In a press release the Minister said that the changes were made based on ‘findings and lessons learned from recent disasters in Australia that highlighted the necessity of having a centralised and coordinated approach to emergency events’ and ‘the amendment brings the ACT into line with arrangements in Victoria and NSW for high level control and coordination during an emergency.’

The Act also makes some other administrative and minor amendments that are described in the explanatory statement.

We’ll have to wait for the next major emergency to see what practical effect the changes have.

Michael Eburn

23 March 2012.