Bushfire Royal Commission: NSW RFS says emergency warning system will change

Emergency warning system will change, but commissioner says 'hurry up'

Backlash over the confusing wording of emergency messages in a bushfire - including the meaning of the ambiguous "watch and act" - has prompted plans to change to the country's warning systems.

But it is not scheduled to happen until 2022, which commissioners at the National Natural Disaster Arrangements Royal Commission have forcefully told the NSW Rural Fire Service is too long.

Witnesses have given evidence during hearings that they were confused by terminology and the differences in colours and icons on the NSW and Victorian emergency mobile phone apps.

They have been unsure if "watch and act" means stay and watch, or act and go.

RFS communications director Anthony Clarke has revealed that the warning system overhaul is 95 per cent completed, with the exception of a replacement for the "watch and act" wording.

He said another round of research would be conducted in the coming weeks.


"We've recognised there is an opportunity now to get the community's views on the warnings framework and the icons and the terminology," he said.

"It is something we wish could happen much faster ... but we want to get it right and we need to get it right."

Commissioner Annabelle Bennett fired up in response, asking why it was taking so long.

"My understanding is that this work to fix this up started in 2016 and it is not anticipated to be brought into play until 2022. We know that there is a lot of confusion out there in the community as to what these mean and what they're seeking to convey," she said.

What I don't understand is how anybody nationally can say this can wait until 2022.

Commissioner Annabelle Bennett

"I find it breathtaking that it takes that many years to come up with something where you know there's confusion, you know that.

"And yet year after year people are being exposed to natural disasters and fires in particular where they have no idea what they're meant to do under this system."

She said there should be a sense of urgency to get it done quickly.

RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers added it was a complex task because it was not just a warning for fire, but floods and other emergencies as well.

"We are talking about something that is really reasonably straightforward," Ms Bennett said.

"What I don't understand is how anybody nationally can say this can wait until 2022."