Written on the 13 May 2014
Debate resumed from 5 February;
Motion of Ms HARTLAND (Western Metropolitan):That this house --
(1) notes that from 14 to 17 January 2014, Victoria experienced an unprecedented heatwave with the hottest four-day period on record for both maximum and daily mean temperatures;
(2) acknowledges with great sadness the loss of life due to this heatwave that engulfed Victoria and offers our sincere condolences to those families;
(3) highly commends the hard work and dedication of staff and volunteers of emergency services, community-based health services, local governments and community organisations who responded to the heatwave emergency in extremely difficult conditions;
(4) recognises that 2013 was Australia's hottest year on record and that climate change is increasing and will continue to increase the frequency, duration and intensity of heatwaves in Victoria;(5) refers to the Legal and Social Issues References Committee for inquiry, consideration and report by 19 August 2014 the heatwave planning, response and recovery with reference to --
- the adequacy of the heatwave plan for Victoria to address the threat to health and life posed by the January 2014 heatwave;- the adequacy of emergency services, local government and other key community agencies' heatwave action plans and how effectively they were able to be implemented;
- how effectively Victorians who are most vulnerable to heatwaves were protected and supported to manage the heat health threat; and
- opportunities for improvement, including considering a whole-of-government integrated approach, similar to that taken for bushfire emergencies.
Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) -- I am pleased to rise this afternoon to contribute to debate on Ms Hartland's motion on the referral of heatwave planning, response and recovery to the Legal and Social Issues References Committee for consideration.
I note that this motion has been on the notice paper for some months and that it has a number of elements to it. They include noting that Victoria experienced a heatwave in January, acknowledging the various individuals who sadly lost their lives during that time, commending the hard work and dedication of the staff and volunteers of emergency services who had to deal with various heatwave emergencies at that time, recognising climate change and the increasing frequency of heatwaves in Victoria, and various elements in relation to heatwave planning and response and recovery. I want to put these elements in context and take a look at what has actually been done to date.Following the 2009 bushfires the Department of Health developed the Heatwave Plan for Victoria, which guides the statewide response to heatwaves. It was implemented by the coalition in January 2011, soon after it came to government. One of the components of the heatwave plan is the heat health alert system.
This alert is based on a calculation of forecast temperatures supplied by the Bureau of Meteorology. The threshold for issuing the alert is a combination of the forecast maximum for a day with an overnight forecast minimum, which is based on evidence of increased health effects and increased mortality.Different thresholds are used for different areas of the state to take into account the acclimatisation of the community living in the northern parts of Victoria. Generally the southern parts of Victoria have a cooler climate than areas in the north. As the summer months pass the northern and western parts of Victoria experience significant heat. I grew up in far western Victoria, where I experienced very hot days. This was not unusual in the summer months. We also experienced very cold periods in the winter months during which we would often see the puddles freeze over and various other indicators that told us we were in the heart of the winter season.
The Bureau of Meteorology uses different thresholds across Victoria because of the different localities and geographic regions.When you are in the high country there are also going to be different temperature thresholds.
A statewide alert of imminent heat conditions which will pose a danger to health is issued by the chief health officer. The state health emergency response plan, or SHERP as it is commonly known, was issued on 19 November 2013. The plan identifies hospitals and health services as playing a critical role in the Victorian health response in an emergency. It aims to reduce preventable death and disability or other adverse health outcomes that might be attributable to heat exposure.The state health emergency response plan outlines the arrangements for coordinating the health response to emergency incidents that go beyond day-to-day business arrangements. It is a subplan of the state emergency response plan.
It is an all-hazard, scalable plan and now includes detailed arrangements for regional and state health responses.SHERP ensures a safe, effective and coordinated health and medical response to emergencies by clarifying who is accountable for command and coordination of the health response, outlining the arrangements for escalating the health response, describing how available clinical resources are organised and describing how the health emergency response connects with the broader state and national emergency management response and recovery arrangements.
For the first time SHERP also includes hospital code brown planning alongside the response of ambulance, first aid and medical responders. It has been upgraded and reviewed and is widely known amongst health responders across the state.SHERP is used by all people involved in our emergency services, incident control agencies, Ambulance Victoria, the Department of Health, first aid providers, medical providers, health services, both public and private hospitals, residential and aged-care services, relief agencies, local government authorities and organisers of major events.
Obviously in the summer months when we experience heatwaves or sustained heat events a lot of activities and large events are going on. We need to be aware of those large events and crowd management, and that is why they are also included in the list.I note a response from the CEO of Ambulance Victoria, Greg Sassella, who in a SHERP plan was quoted as saying:
Ambulance Victoria is pleased that SHERP now recognises the key role that members of the community play as first responders to health emergencies. The new edition also describes the role of AV in providing health commanders at incident, regional and state level. Anyone who is involved in emergency response should read SHERP.
Fire services commissioner Craig Lapsley was likewise quoted as saying:
Fire and emergency services personnel are the incident controllers on most occasions. This edition of SHERP more clearly states how to get health and medical specialists, such as paramedics, first aid and medical teams, on scene. All incident controllers need to be familiar with SHERP.
Chief Commissioner of Police Ken Lay was also quoted as saying:
Victoria Police has a range of roles in emergency management and the third edition of SHERP clearly sets out how we interact with the health sector in times of emergency. I would urge all members of Victoria Police to read the new edition and become familiar with its contents.
Paragraph 1 of Ms Hartland's motion states that this house:(1) notes that from 14 to 17 January 2014 Victoria experienced an unprecedented heatwave with the hottest four-day period on record for both maximum and daily mean temperatures ...
That was five months ago or thereabouts. The season has changed and I am certainly feeling the cold, but to refresh the memory of members about that four-day period, the Bureau of Meteorology reported that Victoria had its hottest four-day period on record between 13 and 18 January 2014, surpassing records for maximum daily average temperatures set in 2009. Although peak temperatures were below those recorded in 2009, the duration of the 2014 heatwave -- the days I just described -- was longer. In January the heatwave continued for six days, with the temperature above 45 degrees on three consecutive days. It is not unusual for temperatures to be sustained at above 45 degrees in other parts of the country, but certainly in relation to that six-day period it was very uncomfortable for Melburnians and Victorians.The monitoring of Bureau of Meteorology forecast conditions led to the issuing of a series of heat health alerts for multiple districts within Victoria. Members might recall that at the time a number of alerts were issued. The first alert was issued on 9 January, and additional alerts were issued as forecasts became available. The heat health alerts were forwarded under SHERP as first-wave communications on 13 January and 16 January 2014. First-wave communications are issued as level 2 and 3 incidents. I did some background reading on level 2 and 3 incidents from Ambulance Victoria. Its response level is escalated at a level 2 or 3 incident, and it has various actions to undertake during its operations. The first-wave communications, however, were distributed to all public health services, all private hospitals, all public sector residential aged-care services and the commonwealth Department of Social Services and Department of Veterans' Affairs.
At the time, significant information was given out in that communication distribution to agencies and organisations that needed to understand that communication from the heat health alert system.Prior to that communication going out, it was known that we had had significant warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology. A range of proactive measures were taken in preparation for the predicted heatwave. This was perhaps a little different from previous occasions where we had not had that extensive warning, and I remind members just how significant that warning was. There was numerous communications from the Bureau of Meteorology talking about the heatwave, when it was coming and that it was predicted to be of some days duration. There was significant coverage on the news, and there was general discussion -- everybody was talking about the heatwave -- so it was not as if it came as a complete surprise.
On 14 January 2014 confirmation was sought and received from health services, hospitals and local governments that heatwave plans had been implemented. That forewarning gave the department and the agencies plenty of warning to get their communiques out to the various organisations and health services in preparation for what was to come. Health services and hospitals were also able to confirm their preparedness for a surge in emergency care and the possibility of interruptions to essential services. Of course we know that when there is a great demand for cooling and other energy requirements sometimes our electricity systems go down, causing disruptions to the electricity supply. Air conditioners are then disrupted. We knew there was the potential for that to occur with the surge of energy required to run air conditioners during that heatwave. Fortunately that did not arise, but nevertheless hospital services, other organisations and aged-care facilities were warning of those potential interruptions.
The state level health incident management team was activated under SHERP for the very first time, and the health and human services state emergency management centre was activated to support the health incident management team.
The ambulance emergency operations centre is currently located with the state emergency management centre to facilitate the coordination of strategic operations of the departments of health and human services. Bringing the emergency services together to get a response and for the services to be able to act together on a broadscale incident, whether it be a heatwave, a bushfire, a flood or any other natural disaster, is a very sensible measure. Having people in those agencies able to discuss in a strategic fashion the potential of what could happen so that they can get their workforces prepared is also very important.
In January there were daily communications between the emergency services and the regions of the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services across the state. They communicated also with their various health and community service providers and advised them of any issues that may impact on their ability to deliver services. There was extensive communication between the various agencies so that they could prepare for the heatwave that was coming in January and have the resources in place to deliver the services that would be required during that period.
Following the 2009 heatwave, Ambulance Victoria had already developed its heatwave plan, which, as I said, is a sub-plan of the Ambulance Victoria emergency response plan. The aim of the plan is to ensure the maintenance of the normal operational response and to manage the increased demand or potential increased demand on Ambulance Victoria during a heatwave. Understandably in many instances Ambulance Victoria is the first emergency service to be called if an individual collapses at an event, in a nursing home or at home.
At the time, Ambulance Victoria escalated its emergency response plan, and during the period of intense heat it activated both its heatwave and bushfire sub-plans. As part of these arrangements, Ambulance Victoria increased the number of communications staff, referral service call takers, emergency ambulance crews and non-emergency patient transport crews, along with making alterations in the criteria for dispatch of non-emergency patients.Ambulance Victoria was supported by additional emergency medical response crews from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
It is true that Ambulance Victoria experienced two days of record-breaking emergency demand on Thursday, 16 January, and Friday, 17 January 2014, including a 700 per cent increase in cardiac arrest calls on 17 January. The most heavily affected area was metropolitan Melbourne, which makes sense. We have the greatest population, so we would have the highest incidence of callouts. A 700 per cent increase in cardiac arrest calls is obviously significant and creates quite a demand. We should commend Ambulance Victoria on its ability to manage such incidents and the crisis at the time, given that it was so well prepared that it was able to manage and cater for a demand of such significance.The state control centre was activated to coordinate a whole-of-government response to the heatwave and to prepare for and respond to fires.
Members will recall that at the time there was great concern about the potential for another catastrophic bushfire event across the state. Craig Lapsley, the fire services commissioner, did a magnificent job in coordinating the response by getting the various fire services -- the Country Fire Authority and Metropolitan Fire Brigade -- prepared for such an incident. What he did in his role as fire services commissioner and working with the Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay, was truly commendable. Ambulance Victoria was part of that emergency response strategy team that really had things in hand. All Victorians were relieved about and confident in the ability of those services to manage such a crisis. Thankfully we did not have another catastrophic bushfire event such as we experienced in 2009. Nevertheless, it was a very tense time for all Victorians, and we were all relieved after that intense heat period had passed.As I said, the chief health officer, the state health coordinator and the state health commander actively participated in daily state emergency management team meetings with the heads of the agencies, Craig Lapsley, Ken Lay and Greg Sassella from Ambulance Victoria, and their respective agencies. They worked together to ensure that we had a very effective management plan in place.
What we needed to do was communicate to members of the public what they needed to do to stay healthy in such a heatwave. Heat messages were delivered in multiple ways, including through social media and the internet. Seniors Online had a number of communiques to its various organisations and individuals who could go online. There were advertisements in the print media, and media conferences were held. An enormous amount of communication was required throughout that period. Members of the general public were well informed of the potential of a heatwave, as was indicated by the Bureau of Meteorology.
We had plenty of warning about the heatwave, and the communications strategy undertaken to get out to as many people as possible information about staying healthy in the heatwave was very well executed.
In the media conferences the working-as-one principle was used, with the chief health officer, the fire services commissioner and the state health commander speaking sequentially. Again the message was firm and was delivered seriously, as it needed to be for the public to understand the seriousness of what Victorians were to experience. The media conferences were supported also by the commissioner for senior Victorians, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. We had a range of agencies and senior people supporting the very important message that was being delivered to as many people across the state as possible. Sadly not everybody could be reached.
It is fair to say that not everybody had read the papers or been online to get the message, but an enormous amount of information went out through the print media, online, over the airways or on television. There was significant publication of the event that was to occur during that January period.
I refer to another point in Ms Hartland's motion in which she refers to the increase in the frequency, duration and intensity of heatwaves in Victoria. I put on the record that when looking at heatwave occurrences we know that the long-term trends are important. A short four-week period is not a long-term climate trend, but it is an excellent opportunity to create hype and scaremongering in the media. Unfortunately on a number of occasions that actually happened. A lot of people said that the heatwave was part of climate change and that it was going to occur on a regular basis.Indeed there were media reports and people out there talking about this and saying this was going to happen frequently. There was scaremongering. Heatwaves have been going on in this state and in this country for a very long period. Natural climate cycles work on scales of 11 years, 60 years, 200 years, 1500 years and 100 000 years. We have had ice ages. We have had droughts in this country for as long as the country has been established. We know that from records, from our own history and from the history of Indigenous communities before white man settled in this country.
Decent temperature records for many locations only cover 50 years, which is a challenge in itself for some communities and for our record keeping. Even though there is data, it is pretty poor data -- it includes thermometer records for 150 years. You cannot really talk about record-breaking heat in a 50-year cycle of recording; in any case, I do not think any credible scientist or commentator would want to undertake that. There is too much noise among members of the public, and there is too little data to support contentions about heatwaves being due to climate change. We need to be looking at this in the context of long-term trends. As I said, this is nothing new. We have had heatwaves in the past and we will have heatwaves into the future. There was significant scaremongering within the community at the time of that January heatwave, and I think that is seriously unfortunate.Australians have recorded temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius since 1828 right across the country.
In certain parts of the country it is not unusual to have temperatures of 45-plus degrees and 46-plus degrees on subsequent days. I note that for weeks in 1896 the heat was so bad that people fled on emergency trains to escape it. In January of that year a savage blast described as being like a furnace stretched across Australia from east to west and lasted for weeks, and the death toll reached 437 people in the eastern states. We are talking about a little over 100 years ago. That just goes to the point that this weather is not unusual. Heatwaves have occurred right across our country in the past, and they will continue to do so. It is not a new phenomenon that has just appeared in the last 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. Our meteorological bureau records show that since 1890 there have been many clusters of five hot days in Sydney and Melbourne.As I said, there has been a degree of scaremongering about this issue. At the time of the January heatwave emergency services and the department had a very good plan in place to prepare members of the community as best they could.
Mr D. D. O'BRIEN (Eastern Victoria) -- I am pleased to rise to speak on this important motion, which raises serious concerns among the members of the community. The Greens are keen to have a discussion about this and of course government members want to have their say about this motion, and we look forward to a vote at some point on this motion. It is very important that we discuss the heatwave plan fully. It is important to note that it was the coalition government that implemented a Victorian heatwave plan, and it is pleasing to note that the Greens have noticed that and put this on the notice paper. There was no heatwave plan under the previous government. Climate change is a difficult topic and one the community is very concerned about, and the coalition government has acknowledged the impacts of climate change.Ms Hartland -- No, it hasn't. It denies it.
As I said, the heatwave itself killed 374 people -- I think that is the correct number -- but at that stage the Labor government did not have any sort of heatwave plan, and I am pleased this government has noticed that the community needs to be prepared for heatwaves and is making sure this issue is addressed.
In relation to the heatwaves we have had in recent years, the chief health officer has put out advisories across the state, and press conferences were held jointly with other agencies. The Minister for Health was involved in a number of those. aged-care services and the seniors commissioner made a number of public comments and statements to communicate directly with seniors across the state. That was an important process. The community needed to see a response. People were able to help to look after their neighbours, which, of course, is what all of these communities do.
As I mentioned, the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan has a section on heatwaves. I draw the attention of members to this section. There is also a section on bushfires and one on floods and storms. This is an important document in terms of outlining the ways in which the coalition government is helping Victorians to adapt to climate change.
In its section on heatwaves, the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan states:
CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology projections for future climate indicate that the average number of days over 35 degrees in Melbourne may increase from 9 days in 1990, to 11-13 days per year by 2030, and to 15-26 days by 2070.
I have seen those problems with energy infrastructure in my home area.
When we get these heatwaves, we get much greater use of air conditioning, and that has an impact on the baseload power stations in the Latrobe Valley. Those stations are able to step up, but between the power stations and the distribution systems that run right across Gippsland and around the rest of Victoria heatwaves place pressure on our infrastructure. We have seen that as air conditioning has been progressively installed by more and more Victorians. On those peak days when we experience heatwaves we have seen a big increase in energy demand. It does have an impact on essential infrastructure. Our public transport services and health services are also affected by heatwaves. Heatwaves cause problems particularly for the elderly and infirm.The Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan states:
The 2009 heatwave had well documented health impacts, contributing to an estimated 374 excess deaths over the period -- which was around the time of the Black Saturday bushfires -- as well as disrupting critical infrastructure in metropolitan Melbourne. Obviously those bushfires affected many parts of regional Victoria too.
The plan continues:State government, local government and the community all have a role to play in protecting health and reducing harm from heatwaves.
In its Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan the Victorian government has proposed a specific heatwave plan for Victoria. While the Greens want us to look into the adequacy of the plan, the plan outlines some of the things we are already providing. The plan states:
Heatwave plan for Victoria: provides a coordinated and integrated response to heatwaves across state and local government, involving emergency management and the health and community service sectors. The plan aims to:
ensure heat health information and support is readily available to the community, at-risk groups and their carers;
- develop partnerships and collaborative arrangements to better respond to heatwaves;
We need to work through these things together.
The plan also aims to:
- increase understanding of the health impacts of heatwaves on communities and their capacity to respond during heatwaves;
This is an important point. Earlier Ms Crozier made the point that we have always had heatwaves -- we have had them since day dot. The climate is always changing, but heatwaves are certainly not a new thing. It can annoy people that every time there is a heatwave, a cyclone, a flood or an unusual weather event others will say it must be because of climate change. These things do happen. It is very difficult to attribute particular events to climate change. However, we need to be prepared for heatwaves. The plan also aims to:
- manage public health emergencies during heatwaves more effectively; anddevelop long-term and sustainable behavioural change to minimise the impacts of heatwaves on health and wellbeing.
It is critical to look at how the community will achieve that sustainable behavioural change. As I said, we have seen significant increases in the use of air conditioners.
As I heard one of my colleagues say only yesterday, we have the ridiculous situation sometimes in households where it may be cold outside but people inside are walking around in shorts and T-shirts with their heaters turned up to 36 degrees. People need to learn to change their behaviour when it is hot and ensure they are doing things to cool themselves down that do not necessarily involve turning on the air conditioner. That may involve people doing simple things like closing the blinds and keeping themselves hydrated. Building houses with eaves would also help. We have certainly seen plenty of developments in recent years that do not do that. It is important that we continue to look at sustainable behavioural change so that people do not simply rely on technological activity to manage heatwaves.In outlining the government's response to heatwaves the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan refers to the heat health alert system, which:
- notifies of forecast heatwave conditions which are likely to impact on human health
- allows state and local governments, hospitals and statewide or major metropolitan health and community service providers to better prepare for heatwave events.
As mentioned in the heatwave plan, we are better able to notify members of the community and explain to them the things that need to be done to ensure that heatwaves are managed better and that people take actions in their own households to ensure that they remain cool.
When we have heatwaves and the temperature reaches up to 44 degrees, as a former journalist I never cease to be amazed by the number of people who flock to the beach. The beach is one of the hottest places you could be on a hot day. On those days, the beaches at St Kilda, Port Melbourne and Williamstown become absolutely chockers with people in the middle of the day. The government is assisting people by providing them with information in relation to how to manage heatwaves, and that will ensure they keep themselves cool and look after themselves. The heat health alert system will assist the state and local governments, hospitals and our emergency services to manage what will be a greater workload when heatwaves occur.The plan refers to research and capacity building, which is the responsibility of the Department of Health. The plan states that:
The heatwave planning guide assists local government with heatwave planning at the community level and draws on experiences of 13 pilot projects and the 2009 heatwave, as well as international knowledge.
Research projects allow us to develop a better understanding of heatwaves and other extreme events and show us how to mitigate the impact on the community. For example, we can look at how to reduce the harm caused to older persons by extreme heat because that is the section of the community that is most at risk. Along with the very young and the infirm, the elderly are most at risk when extreme heat occurs. It is important that we look after the community. The research and capacity building the government is doing will help the elderly to deal with levels of extreme heat.
We will continue to research temperature thresholds for Melbourne and for rural Victoria, noting of course that there are differences in temperature between the two, as anyone who has lived in both Melbourne and rural Victoria will tell you. A large major city can create a heat island effect because it has lots of people, lots of industrial activity, lots of cars and, more particularly, lots of asphalt and concrete. This can lead to temperatures rising to above the levels that would otherwise naturally occur. The rural areas can be cooler. I am proud to live in a rural area and sometimes cannot understand why more people do not. Often the perception is that in the Mallee and Wimmera regions it is baking. Although the ambient temperatures may be higher, our rural green areas are often cooler than in the city, given that heat island effect.
The final government response in the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan under the heading 'Strengthening policy frameworks to support climate resilience' states that:
Measures being implemented through the Office of Living Victoria contribute to supporting more liveable urban spaces (for example, greener spaces with improved urban amenity) through integrating water into the landscape.
These are some of the Victorian government's responses to heatwave planning. The Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan highlights the government's plans for managing heatwaves, which of course have such a significant effect. As I said, devastating as the Black Saturday bushfires were, there were another 374 people who died as a result of the heat, which is above and beyond what would normally be the case.I understand the thinking behind the motion, but it needs to be understood that heatwaves have occurred for a long time and people have got better at managing them. We need to be careful about overstating the impact of climate change when it comes to our variable temperatures. I certainly understand where this motion is coming from, but the government will not be supporting it.
Ms HARTLAND (Western Metropolitan) -- I will just make a few brief remarks.
In response to Ms Crozier, yes, it has been on the notice paper for months, and that is because the government talked it out last time and refused to allow a vote to occur.
It is not the Greens talking about climate change and the effect of heatwaves; it is the CSIRO which projects that heatwave deaths across Australia will more than double by 2020. The number is presently around 1100 per year, it will increase to around 2500 by 2020 and will quadruple by 2050. That information is coming from scientists. It is the CSIRO talking about climate change and how it will affect heatwaves.I believe the emergency services did an amazing job during the last heatwave, but by sending the plan to the committee for review I think we can do even better.
I have no queries or concerns about the way various agencies dealt with the heatwave, but I believe we need a coordinated, across-government response to heatwaves, and one of the ways to see how that could work effectively is by using the upper house committee system. I know the government is not all that fond of the committee system and does not ever want to have to have its work scrutinised. It is extremely disappointing that yet again the government has refused this referral.House divided on motion:
Ayes, 18 - Noes, 20