The Australian State Emergency Services grew out of the cold war or earlier civil defence organisations (see for example, NSW SES, The SES Story, 19 April 2011 (accessed 4 April 2016)).   Today Civil Defence is no longer listed as a function of most State Emergency Services (see State Emergency Services Act 1989 (NSW) s 8; Emergency Management Act 2013 (NT) s 46; Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990 (Qld) s 130; Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 (SA) s 108; Fire And Emergency Services Act 1998 (WA) s 18A).

The exceptions are Tasmania and the ACT. In Tasmania, one of the functions of the SES is to ‘in time of enemy action or hostilities against the State, to coordinate civil defence measures’ (Emergency Management Act 2006 (Tas) s 26).  In the ACT it is a function of the SES ‘to undertake civil defence planning and civil defence operations’ (Emergencies Act 2004 (ACT) s 57(2)).  In Victoria one of the functions of the SES is to take part in ‘other authorised emergency activities including … participating in civil defence activities’ Victoria State Emergency Service Act 2005 (Vic) s 5(d).  To ‘take part in’ is not, however, the same as leading or coordinating those activities as required in Tasmania and the ACT.

So what is civil defence?  This is a concept known to international law and in particular 1st additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts.   The first protocol defines Civil Defence (Article 61) as:

… the performance of some or all of the undermentioned humanitarian tasks intended to protect the civilian population against the dangers, and to help it to recover from the immediate effects, of hostilities or disasters and also to provide the conditions necessary for its survival. These tasks are:
(i) Warning;
(ii) Evacuation;
(iii) Management of shelters;
(iv) Management of blackout measures;
(v) Rescue;
(vi) Medical services, including first aid, and religious assistance;
(vii) Fire-fighting;
(viii) Detection and marking of danger areas;
(ix) Decontamination and similar protective measures;
(x) Provision of emergency accommodation and supplies;
(xi) Emergency assistance in the restoration and maintenance of order in distressed areas;
(xii) Emergency repair of indispensable public utilities;
(xiii) Emergency disposal of the dead;
(xiv) Assistance in the preservation of objects essential for survival;
(xv) Complementary activities necessary to carry out any of the tasks mentioned above, including, but not limited to, planning and organization;

Civil Defence organisations have a special place in the law of war and ‘their personnel shall be respected and protected’ during time of war (art 61(1)).  Where a country is invaded, the ‘Occupying Power’ must allow Civil Defence organisations to continue to operate for the benefit of the civilian population (art 63).  Further Civil Defence organisations that are operating in a conflict area are entitled to the same protection so if, for example, the ACT SES were to deploy a force to provide civil defence assistance in a war zone (unlikely I grant you) the parties to the conflict have to allow them to operate for the benefit of the civilian population and protect their staff and assets (art 64).

Parties to the conflict should take steps to ensure civil defence personnel, buildings and shelters are identifiable (art 66).  To this end there is an internationally recognised symbol for civil defence that is ‘an equilateral blue triangle on an orange ground’ (art 66(4)).

Emblem of Civil Defence

International armed conflict is war (whether declared or not) between states.  Non-international armed conflict is ‘”armed conflicts not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties” (ie a State).   Non-international armed conflict includes a conflict between government forces and rebel groups or between groups within a state (see International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) How is the Term “Armed Conflict” Defined in International Humanitarian Law? (March 2008))

The ICRC, as custodians of International Humanitarian Law (ie the law of war) also say, with respect to civil defence (ICRC, Civil Defence in International Humanitarian Law (June 2001)) that:

… the rules regarding [Civil Defence] … should also be complied with during non-international armed conflict, as part of the general protection accorded to the civilian population against the dangers resulting from military operations.

There is an International Civil Defence Organisation (the ICDO) that is

… an intergovernmental organisation with the objective to contribute to the development by States of structures ensuring the protection and assistance of population and safeguarding property and the environment from natural or man-made disasters.

On that definition the ICDO is interested in more than protecting populations in time of war.  It is actively engaged in trying to promote international cooperation in natural disaster response arrangements.   The ICDO has 55 member states but they are concentrated in China, Russia and the former Soviet Union States and Africa.  Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom are not members of the ICDO.    There is a Red Cross/Red Crescent International Disaster Response Law program that is trying to encourage states to pre-plan for how they will receive international disaster assistance and to facilitate the movement of responders across national borders.  There is already in existence a Framework Convention on Civil Defence Assistance (22 May 2000) that if adopted could help facilitate international civil defence assistance in ways anticipated by the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement.  Again the convention, like the ICDO is not widely adopted across the Western world.


Agencies involved in the tasks listed article 61 are civil defence organisations even if that is not specifically mentioned in their functions.  So Fire and Rescue NSW, being an organisation that provides fire-fighting (art 61(vii)) is a civil defence organisation even though civil defence is not mentioned as a function.  Equally the State Emergency Services are civil defence organisations are civil defence organisations even if that term is not used in their legislation.

What is interesting for Tasmania and ACT SES’ is the requirement to ‘coordinate civil defence measures’ (Tasmania) and ‘undertake civil defence planning and civil defence operations’ (ACT).  And presumably the National Capital, ACT and Canberra is a potential war target, perhaps more so than Hobart?  Does civil defence planning (ie planning to support the civilian population should international or non-international armed conflict reach Australia’s shores) occur?  I suspect it does but I’m not sure it’s led by the SES.  I imagine that it’s seen as a task for the police and/or the ADF.  Perhaps Tasmania and ACT SES are leading the planning but keeping it ‘on the quiet’ on the basis that they don’t want to scare the population and it’s pretty unlikely to be called upon?

Does anything turn on this?  Probably not, it was just interesting to observe that Tasmania and ACT State Emergency Services maintain that express link to civil defence and therefore have particular obligations, recognised in international law, to take the lead in supporting the civilian population in the event of a war.  Let us hope it is one function they never need to actually exercise.