Today’s correspondent asks “Who is responsible for landslides/landslips within NSW?” They say:
When conducting a recent online training package with Resilience NSW, a scenario was provided with the answer that the NSW SES is responsible for the landslide response.
However, when this question was placed to some senior members of the NSW SES, the basic response is that as per the SERM Act and principles of Emergency Management Arrangements, earthquakes would be the responsibility of the EOCON (Emergency Operations Controller) be it a Local, Region or State operation. Their reasoning is that landslide is not mentioned in the SES Act nor the NSW Storm Plan and on that the basis, any emergency that does not have a dedicated combat agency would have to be managed by the EOCON, or even declared a State of Emergency to allow the Minister to appoint an agency.
When the question was raised at separate level of emergency management, external of the NSW SES, the opinion received back was a landslip without a storm/tempest as an antecedent is clearly the responsibility of an EOCON, and a landslip with a storm/tempest as an antecedent is a consequence of the primary event being the storm and tempest and the responsibility of the Combat Agency for that event (NSW SES).
Whilst looking at what a “landslide” or “landslip” is within NSW, there is very little reference in any emergency management documentation.
When looking at causes of landslides, they generally do result from a heavy rain or flood event. However, the initial cause of some landslides is often an engineering or design fault of the land where a human-made piece of land has failed. Small landslips of recent heavy rain activities I had seen were clearly because of land that was built up for the purpose of construction of a road or dwelling, it either had poor drainage or design was not prepared for the heavy rain we have experienced this year, and the retaining wall had failed. In the end, the repair would go back to the owner of the property where the slide commenced/land failed. The question though remains who is responsible for the initial response to an emergency situation.
It’s correct, there is no clear answer. The State Emergency Service Act 1989 (NSW) s 8(1) says that the functions of the SES are:
(aa) to protect persons from dangers to their safety and health, and to protect property from destruction or damage, arising from floods, storms and tsunamis,
(a) to act as the combat agency for dealing with floods (including the establishment of flood warning systems) and to co-ordinate the evacuation and welfare of affected communities,
(b) to act as the combat agency for damage control for storms and to co-ordinate the evacuation and welfare of affected communities,
(c) to act as the combat agency for dealing with tsunamis and to co-ordinate the evacuation and welfare of affected communities,
(d) as directed by the State Emergency Operations Controller, to deal with an emergency where no other agency has lawful authority to assume command of the emergency operation,
(e) to carry out, by accredited SES units, rescue operations allocated by the State Rescue Board,
(f) to assist the State Emergency Operations Controller to carry out emergency management functions relating to the prevention of, preparation for and response to, and to assist the State Emergency Recovery Controller to carry out emergency management functions relating to the recovery from, emergencies in accordance with the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 ,
(g) to assist, at their request, members of the NSW Police Force, Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Rural Fire Service or the Ambulance Service of NSW in dealing with any incident or emergency,
(h) to maintain effective liaison with all emergency services organisations,
(i) to carry out such other functions as may be assigned to it by or under this or any other Act, or by the State Emergency Operations Controller or the Minister.
The provision in s 8(1)(d) is not unique to the SES. It is equally a function of both Fire and Rescue NSW (Fire and Rescue NSW Act 1989 (NSW) s 5A(4)) and the Rural Fire Service (Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) s 9) to:
as directed by the State Emergency Operations Controller, deal with an emergency where no other agency has lawful authority to assume command of the emergency operation.
A local emergency operations controller is ‘responsible for controlling the response to an emergency’ but not ‘if there is a single combat agency primarily responsible under the State Emergency Management Plan for controlling the response … (State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW) s 31). Similar provisions also apply to the Regional (s 25) and State emergency operations controllers (s 19). Neither the term ‘landslip’ nor ‘landslide’ appear in the New South Wales State Emergency Management Plan (December 2018).
NSW Police are to coordinate rescues (State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW) s 50). General Land Rescue is “the capability and capacity to undertake all rescue activities involving the safe removal of persons or domestic animals from actual or threatened danger of physical harm” (NSW State Rescue Policy (4th ed, 2021, [1.23]) The State Rescue Policy says (at [2.17]):
A standard response to a General Land Rescue incident will include:
a) NSW Police Force – responsible for coordinating and determining the priorities of action of the agencies engaged in the rescue operation
b) NSW Ambulance – to provide pre-hospital triage, treatment and transport.
c) a rescue unit – closest available GLR to provide rescue skills.
Fire and Rescue NSW Is the ‘combat agency for major structure collapse operations’ (Major Structure Collapse Sup-Plan (2021) [7.1]). This Plan does mention landslip – it says (at [3.3]):
This plan recognises that there will be events that are not major structure collapses where the arrangements in this plan may be used e.g. landslip. In the case of any such event the arrangements in place for major structure collapse may be applied to the event.
Where do all of those references take us? It demonstrates it is an unclear picture and depends, ultimately on consequence management and the consequences of a landslip/landslide could vary from an inconvenience to a matter causing significant structural issues (eg where it has impacted a bridge or building that needs to be assessed and secured) to a matter where a large number of people are trapped in a situation akin to a major structural collapse.
If a storm or flood causes an engineering failure the damage is still a consequence of the storm or flood just as the damage to a house due to a poorly maintained roof or drainage is caused by flood or storm. At that point it is not for the emergency services to conduct a root cause analysis and identify that the true issue was engineering standards of the day or land use planning decisions any more than it is their job, at the time of the storm to ask whether the leaking roof would have occurred had it been maintained or to ask whether that really was a ‘storm’ or just ‘rain’ (see The NSW SES is the combat agency for floods and storms – but what is a flood? or a storm? (October 6, 2015)). One would expect a practical approach and take the view that if it’s the presence of water, from a river or out of the sky, that with whatever other factors were present that caused the land to move then the damage caused is damage due to a flood or storm (as the case may be).
If a landslip is a consequence of a flood or storm then the SES is the control agency (SES Act ss 8(1)(aa), (a), (b)). The NSW State Storm Plan (7 June 2018, at [2.3.1]) identifies possible consequences of storms, including loss of life, property damage, Infrastructure damage, Isolation of properties and impacts to the natural environment. A landslip caused by a storm is an impact on the natural environment and it may cause any of the listed effects. The response plan says (at [5.3.3] that:
NSW SES, supporting agencies and community volunteers will undertake storm damage tasks including:
h. Shoring-up damaged buildings against collapse (excluding properties damaged by coastal erosion);
i. Clearing debris, that directly interferes with operation response, or poses a direct threat to the public;
l. Limiting access to hazardous areas by the general public until they are deemed safe.
That’s relevant because of all of those tasks may be required post landslip. The issue is not whether it is specifically listed as a hazard, but whether it is a consequence or product of a storm.
An interesting parallel is coastal erosion that is a type of landslip albeit where the land slips into the ocean. Coastal erosion is defined (Storm Plan ) as “the loss of land along the shoreline due to the natural removal of beach and dune material in response to changing wave and water conditions.” The Storm Plan says (at [1.4.3])
Coastal erosion caused by storm activity is within the scope of this plan. Emergency management of coastal erosion that is not caused by storm activity will be controlled and coordinated by the Local Emergency Operations Controller (LEOCON).
Why coastal erosion, and not other forms of erosion are not mentioned is not explained or obvious.
If the landslip affects a building so that people are trapped the response becomes a matter of rescue, subject to the control of police but ultimately a matter for the relevant rescue squad which may be the local general land rescue unit. Where the impact is significant it may that it is appropriate to activate the Major Structure Collapse Sup-Plan and Fire and Rescue NSW will take the lead.
Where there is a dispute, or the land slip is due to an engineering failure or a natural movement of the earth then there is no ‘single combat agency primarily responsible under the State Emergency Management Plan for controlling the response’ and so the matter must fall to the LEOCON, REOCON or SEOCON as the scale requires.
Fundamentally I agree with the analysis that, like coastal erosion, “a landslip without a storm/tempest as an antecedent is clearly the responsibility of an EOCON, and a landslip with a storm/tempest as an antecedent is a consequence of the primary event being the storm and tempest and [at least should be] the responsibility of the Combat Agency for that event (NSW SES).” In that context it is not a unique hazard but a consequence of the identified hazard event ie the storm.
However, we can see that the allocation of control responsibilities is not as clear as one might think as a particular event – fire, flood, storm, tsunami – may give rise to any number of consequences – see Flood or hazmat? (July 18, 2017). In that post I said:
If the commanders on scene can’t work together so that the matter gets elevated to the LEOCON or worse, to the State Emergency Operations Controller (which would also involve both agencies’ headquarters staff) one would have to consider it a failure of leadership by everyone involved.
The simple answer should be the agency that takes the lead should be the agency best placed to take the lead in all the circumstances…
I would think the same would be true in the case of landslip or landslide. The cause – whether it’s storm, flood, tsunami, engineering failure or earthquake – is relevant but in an all hazards all agency response the critical question is who is best placed to manage the consequences.
This blog is made possible with generous financial support from the Australasian College of Paramedicine, the Australian Paramedics Association (NSW), Natural Hazards Research Australia, NSW Rural Fire Service Association and the NSW SES Volunteers Association. I am responsible for the content in this post including any errors or omissions. Any opinions expressed are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or understanding of the donors.