Report on the 2023-24 National Disaster Preparedness Summit

Dr Tony Bartlett represented Forestry Australia at the 2023-24 National Disaster Preparedness Summit (the Summit) held in Parliament House Canberra on 25 – 26 September 2023. The Summit arose following a Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) briefing of the Australian Government Cabinet about the predicted weather during the period between October and April and the potential for above average risks of heatwave, bushfire and cyclone events. It was hosted by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and brought together over 160 invited organisations from the three levels of government, industry and the not-for-profit sector, that are involved in natural hazard emergency response and recovery activities. The Summit focused primarily on understanding the risks and responses to be faced in the coming months, identifying any gaps and additional actions that could be considered and examining how the National Emergency Management arrangements operate in conjunction with the existing State and Territory Arrangements. It was not a forum for identifying what additional strategies and actions could be considered to reduce the risks arising from the increasing frequency and intensity of weather-related natural hazard emergencies. Bushfires were not given any special focus.

The Summit was opened by the Australian Government Minister for Emergency Management, Hon. Murray Watt and the Prime Minister, Hon. Anthony Albanese spoke to the delegates on the second day. The first day involved presentations from BOM and NEMA followed by eleven breakout panel sessions, covering topics such as First Nations Communities, Vulnerable Communities, Aerial Firefighting, Heatwaves, Crisis Appreciation and Strategic Planning, Disaster Recovery Funding, Insurance and Supply Chains. The delegates were each allocated to one breakout session and my allocated session was Aerial Firefighting. However, the facilitator of the First Nations Communities session, Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson from Monash University, asked me to speak to that group about bushfires that have threatened Canberra and progress with cultural burning. Returning to the assigned Aerial Firefighting session, I heard the presentations from Josephine Stirling from the National Aerial Firefighting Centre and Commissioner Rob Rogers from NSW RFS.

Key messages from the BOM presentation:

  • At the national level, Australia is facing a period which both El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole are active, which has occurred seven times since 1960. El Niño typically leads to reduced spring and early summer rainfall for eastern Australia, and warmer days for the southern two-thirds of the country. A positive IOD typically leads to reduced spring rainfall for central and south-east Australia.
  • Across the country we are experiencing below average root zone soil moisture and also a delayed onset of the northern monsoon.
  • Other than in some identified regions, BOM are predicting average bushfire risk at least until the earlier part of the summer. BOM considers that the 2024-25 bushfire season could be much worse than the coming season.

Key points from NEMA presentations

  • The Commonwealth Government has implemented 12 of the 15 recommendations that it is responsible for from the Royal Commission on National Natural Disaster Arrangements, with the other 65 recommendations being implemented by States and Territories.
  • NEMA is working collaboratively with the three levels of government to enhance coordination and support for emergency management and recovery and to build scalable capabilities.
    The national disaster coordination mechanisms have been improved and a National Situation Room established within NEMA.
  • NEMA and AIDR have jointly prepared the 2022-23 Major Incidents Report that details aspects of 27 major incidents and analyses nine case studies of floods, storms and fires. (available at:
  • NEMA is working with the Insurance Industry on the problem of insurance market failure in relation to increasing occurrence and impacts from natural disasters.
  • The Commonwealth has allocated $38m over four years to create an additional 5,000 volunteers for deployment on natural disasters.
  • The second National Action Plan for Disaster Risk Reduction has been prepared.

Key points from Aerial Firefighting Breakout Session

  • There are now 160 aircraft available for aerial firefighting, coordinated through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre, including 78 small-medium helicopters, 15 large helicopters and 6 Large Air Tankers.
  • 95% of this national aerial firefighting fleet is owned or operated by Australian companies.
  • Unit costs for contracting aircraft have risen significantly in recent years, due to increased global demand and rising operating costs.
  • While the Commonwealth financial contribution has increased in dollar terms, particularly due to the acquisition of a nationally-funded LAT, overall the relative contribution of costs between the Commonwealth and the States/Territories has fallen from about 50% to 20-24%.
  • Investigations following two LAT crashes, have resulted increased responsibility for risk management being passed onto emergency management agencies.
  • The increasing number of aircraft of different types operating on bushfires is making airspace management more complex.
  • Research on the efficiency and effectiveness of different aircraft is being conducted.
  • There is interest in the potential for greater use of high-elevation drones for fire detection and fire development monitoring, but limited interest in their use for suppression activities.

The second day of the Summit was devoted entirely to the conduct of a National Preparedness Exercise in which all delegates were allocated to State/Territory based groups, including the delegates from the Commonwealth agencies. The exercise was run in three stages, covering escalating concurrent natural hazard incidents around the country, covering periods, September-November, December-January and January-February. It was primarily focused on aspects of national coordination, and greater understanding of the circumstances that might trigger a National Emergency Declaration. During this exercise, delegates were asked to identify their jurisdictional responses, where they might need additional assistance and any gaps in the current arrangements.