Today’s correspondent asks:

Who is responsible for the management of Major Evacuation Centres or Mass Care facilities?

As I understand the outcome at Lismore during the recent floods, the arrangements for managing evacuees was confusing and differences in opinions occurred. As I read it, the Welfare Services Functional Area is responsible for the coordination of evacuation centres staffed by Department of Communities and Justice, however there are SEMC endorsed guidelines that have different arrangements for Major Evacuation Centres with over 250 evacuees. 

Given these differences, who should have been in charge for these Major evacuation centres such as the ones in Lismore?

The State Emergency Management Plan (annexure 9) says that the Welfare Services Functional Area:

… is responsible for the setting up and management of Evacuation Centres to provide welfare services for those affected by a disaster.

The functional area may coordinate the provision of immediate assistance (food and emergency accommodation) from an evacuation centre.

The Welfare Services Functional Area Supporting Plan says (at [113]):

Key Welfare Services may be delivered through:

a. Evacuation Centres –The centre has a range of agencies (both government and non-government) present to provide support to people (including stranded travellers) and their companion animals who have evacuated from an area. As part of the planning process, Local Emergency Management Committees, in close consultation with combat agencies, are responsible for the identification and evaluation of potential evacuation centres, and the development of strategies for the activation of these venues.   The centre is identified and activated by the Combat Agency / Incident Controller or an Emergency Operations Controller, on behalf of the Combat Agency / Incident Controller, and established and managed by FACS during the response phase of an emergency…

The Welfare Services Functional Area Supporting Plan refers to the Department of Family and Community Services but that is now part of the Department of Communities and Justice (see The Plan says (at [204]):

FACS is responsible for:…

c. delivering welfare services to individuals and families in times of emergencies at the district and local level, including establishing and managing evacuation centres or disaster welfare assistance points and participating in appropriate recovery activities 

The State Emergency Management Plan Evacuation Management Guidelines (March 2014) says (at [12.4]):

Once identified and activated by the Combat Agency and/or Emergency Operations Centre, the establishment and management of evacuation centres is the responsibility of the Welfare Services Functional Area.

That is consistent with the State Emergency Management Plan and the Welfare Services Functional Area Supporting Plan discussed above. The Guidelines go on to discuss Major Evacuation Centres. They say (at [12.6]):

The impact of some emergencies may be of a scale and complexity that exceeds the capability of existing local evacuation centre arrangements, thus requiring the establishment of a Major Evacuation Centre (MEC).   

Major Evacuation Centres are defined as “large scale evacuation centres that require multi agency co-ordination and response to deliver basic services to individuals and their companion animals affected by an emergency.  

MECs are established to provide emergency accommodation when the scale and duration of the emergency are beyond the capability and capacity of the established local/regional emergency management arrangements for evacuation centres.”

The need for a MEC will be determined through a rigorous assessment of the expected number of people and companion animals presenting at the centre, size of the facility and the length of time it will need to operate.  Such needs may be pre-identified and documented within individual sub plans.

The following principles are applied when considering the establishment of a MEC:

1.         Preservation of life will always be the primary consideration;

2.         A MEC may be required when a decision has been made to evacuate significant numbers of people, their pets and companion animals from an area at risk; 

3.         Evacuation of significant numbers of people is determined only once a balanced assessment  has been made by the Combat Agency and SEOCON, in consultation with the Welfare, Animal & Agriculture, Health and Transport Services Functional Areas as to whether the benefit of moving the population affords better protection compared to having the population remain in situ; 

4.         MECs will be under the co-ordination of the SEOCON.  Following a decision to evacuate, MECs will be established when local/district resources are not sufficient to manage the emergency accommodation requirements due to the scale and duration of the emergency; and

5.         MECs will be established with the view of accommodating a large number of individuals and their companion animals to provide basic needs including shelter, food, water and sanitation.

Additional information relating to public health considerations can be found within the ‘Major Evacuations Centres: Public Health Considerations guideline: 13 [now rescinded – see].

The NSW 2022 Flood Inquiry noted (Volume Two, Full Report, 29 July 2022) has a significant discussion on evacuation centres at [3.11]. They note that of course not everything goes to plan. At p. 148 it is reported that:

Similar to the role that community performed in rescue operations, unofficial centres (run by community) developed through a need to fill the gap in official centres (run by government agency).

And (at p. 150) ‘A common theme in submissions was that it was unclear who was in charge at evacuation centres’.

The only reference to a major evacuation centre is at p. 96 where the authors says (emphasis added):

The relevant EOCON will assist the SES (as the combat agency in a flood emergency) by monitoring flood operations, considering requests for other state or Australian Government assistance, coordinating the establishment of a Major Evacuation Centre and, if requested, coordinating support to the SES and/or other agencies.

The inference is that there was no establishment of a formal ‘major’ evacuation centre during the 2002 floods.


I cannot say who should have been in charge of the major evacuation centres during the 2022 floods.  The answer to that question depends on much more than law.

I can say is that the planning instruments say that it should be the Department of Communities and Justice unless ‘the scale and duration of the emergency are beyond the capability and capacity of the established local/regional emergency management arrangements for evacuation centres’ in which case the relevant EOCON (ie the Local, Regional or State Emergency Coordinator) will take charge.  No doubt if one has a flexible approach to these matters, given that local resources are overwhelmed, the EOCON will put in charge whoever is available and best qualified to take on the role, regardless of the agency they work for and regardless of whether they work in the government, private or not-for-profit/charitable sector.

Regardless of the planning, community or spontaneous evacuation centres will also spring up. These may be invaluable and effective and may be best managed by the community or organisations – either established organisations or those that are created in response to the perceived need.

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.