Reviewing Queensland's Emergency Management Operations- Relationships Matter.

Tracey Arklay

Senior Lecturer at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University

Natural disasters are costly in human and economic terms. They can also be damaging politically as shown by the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina where there was a lack of effective communication, political deadlock, and very little community engagement (Chamlee-Wright and Storr 2010). Since that time governments and agencies around the world have intensified their efforts to provide a timely and effective response when disaster strikes.  Since 2010 in our own region, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have experienced significant natural disasters (cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, flooding) that have wreaked havoc on local communities, their people and key infrastructure.  Such events have provided Australian authorities with significant expertise for managing future crises.

Government agencies charged with responding to disasters have, through past experience, become increasingly flexible, responsive and shown that they are capable of learning lessons from what had happened previously. Inquiries and reviews further aid this process and are common after disasters, especially those that have resulted in loss of life. One of the most recent Australian reviews was conducted in 2013 by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty for the Newman LNP government in Queensland. Keelty’s recommendations on how the state’s emergency response could be better managed were contained in the ‘Police and Community Safety Review’ (PACSR). Keelty’s investigation examined the agencies that encompass Queensland’s emergency management portfolio. While his examination began before any crisis event occurred, it was still underway when extensive flooding cut across large swathes of Queensland in 2013.  It was his findings that spurred me to write a paper that has been recently published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration ‘(Arklay 2015).

No response to a disaster is perfect but the Queensland response to the 2010-11 state-wide flooding and Cyclone Yasi event had been lauded by international observers. During this disaster 80 percent of Queensland was flooded, including the capital city of Brisbane. This damage was extended when Yasi, a cyclone of more intensity than Hurricane Katrina crossed over Nth Queensland. These two events cost 35 people their lives and caused damage to cities and towns and the State’s key infrastructure to a cost estimated to be around $US 15.9 billion (NCCARF 2012, 9; The Brookings Institution 2012, World Bank Report 2011, 3). It was a logistical nightmare, but given that the response effort by government and non-government agencies had been praised as containing elements of ‘global best practice’ (World Bank 2011a) was worth further examination.

I was granted permission to be embedded in the State’s Emergency Operations Centre in 2012 and while there interviewed many of the senior officials about their management of the 2010-11 crisis (see Arklay 2012). The thing that struck me at the time was the importance of relationships that was stressed by those I interviewed – from the Director-General down. Many noted also that developing these relationships took time and planning. This makes sense when you consider that disaster management encompasses many different agencies and cultures: police, fire and rescue, ambulance, Red Cross and volunteers to name but some. In a vast State such as Queensland it was also considered vital to seek input and advice from local government, who are close to the ground and the people. The interviewees stressed the need to cultivate and build these relationships in what they called ‘peace-time’. Many stated that there is little to no hope of having any degree of trust with people you haven’t spent time talking to when the State is in the grip of a disaster. These words came back to me as I read Keelty’s PACRS review.

So what did Keelty find? His report recommended significant structural changes to Queensland’s emergency agencies (abolishing some, changing the functions of others). Many of these made operational sense. Some seemed counterintuitive though, including his recommendation to place additional responsibilities onto agencies that his own report noted had displayed a rigidness of culture, without adequately addressing ways to change that culture. As noted earlier, Keelty began his inquiry at a time when there was no declared emergency. To many it felt opportunistic and politically driven. A crisis did emerge during his examination when regions in the South Burnett experienced significant flooding. This disaster while terrible for those impacted was not as significant as the 2010-11 event in terms of scope, (see Newman 2013). Yet Keelty reviewed the response effort that took place in 2013 while not referring to 2010-11. In his report Keelty labelled the Queensland emergency system as ‘unsustainable’. He argued that ‘the success of the current model relies on people, not systems’ (PACRS 2014:27), and that there was confusion in the organisation and running of the state’s main coordination group. He argued that confusion was exacerbated by ‘an extraordinary number of people in attendance at meetings; barriers to getting out information in a timely way, and finding that ‘the success of the current model relies on people, not systems’ (PACRS 2014:27). I look at the circumstances of the 2013 event (Arklay 2015), and note that political leadership, a willingness to trust others and delegate, and to have an appointed State Disaster Coordinator were crucial factors in an effective response and that unlike 2010-11 many of these were missing in the 2013 event.

Keelty’s finding that Queensland relied too heavily on relationships and that this fact made its disaster management system ‘unsustainable’ flies in the face of a substantial body of literature that supports the view that well-established and trusting relationships are crucial to effective disaster management (Waugh & Streib 2006:137; Moynihan 2009; Drabek 1987). The literature also tells us that relying on structural changes while ignoring cultural factors are one of the often seen problems in command and control organisations – of which emergency management is a classic example. An effective response requires the political and administrative arms to work together. Information sharing, taking nothing for granted, and being well-prepared before a disaster strikes are crucial.



  • Arklay, T, 2015 ‘What Happened to Queensland’s Disaster Management Arrangements?: ‘From Global Best Practice’ to ‘Unsustainable’ in 3 years’ Australian Journal of Public Administration 74 (2) 187-198.
  • Arklay, T, 2012 ‘Queensland’s State Disaster Management Groups: An All Agency Response to an Unprecedented Natural Disaster’ Australian Journal of Emergency Management 27 (3) 9-19.
  • Chamlee-Wright, E, Storr, H 2010. “Expectations of government’s response to disaster”. Public Choice, Vol 144, Issue 1-2, pp. 253-274.
  • Drabek, T 1987 The Professional Emergency Manager Boulder: University of Colorado.
  • Moynihan, D 2009 ‘The Network Governance of Crisis Response: Case Studies of Incident Command Systems’ Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 19 (6): 895-915.
  • Newman, C 2013 ‘Premier Campbell Newman warns there’s worse to come’ Courier-Mail January 28:
  • NCCARF., (2012) National Climate Change Adaptation Research Plan, Emergency Management, Update 2012
  • PACRS, 2013 ‘Sustaining the Unsustainable, Policy and Community Safety Review’ http:
  • QFCOI Interim Report 2011
  • The Brookings Institution., (2012) The Year that shook the rick: A review of Natural Disasters in 2011, London School of Economics, Project on Internal Displacement, March, 2012.
  • Waugh, W & G. Streib 2006 ‘Collaboration and Leadership for Effective Emergency Management’ Public Administration Review 66: 131-140.
  • World Bank., (2011) in Queensland Media Statements, ‘Queensland disasters recovery recognised on world stage’ 16 June 2011 at . 
Follow us
New from Jon Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed: ACT Public Hospitals Hit by Predicted Health Tsunami?
Signs of an Unsafe ACT Hospital System for Patients as well as Practitioners Part of our Ca?
Le Brexit? Bof! French attitudes to the UK's departure - by @NathalieVDuclos #Brexit
New: Lessons from the 2018-19 Suburban Land Agency annual report by Khalid Ahmed @UCIGPA?
Today: "Why Should I Go to School if You Won't Listen to the Educated" - why letting ignorance trump knowledge is a?
Canberra Conversation: 'Land Supply and Demand: Wrong to declare land supply meets demand' by Jon Stanhope and Khal?