Australia’s reworked systems of fire danger signs has a peculiar and inconsistent colour code which could obfuscate its life-saving message.
The brutal fires that terrorised Australia in late 2019 and early 2020 brought the climate crisis to a staggering crescendo that reverberated around the world. But Australians are quick to point out that bushfires (as they call them there, rather than wildfires or forest fires) are nothing new in themselves; they’re just not normally so destructive.
When I was growing up in Australia we’d pass roadside fire danger signs on the highway which echoed the temperature and conditions of the day. A ’summer scorcher’ would be marked as ‘high fire danger’ on the signs and sure enough, on those crazy hot days, you would see plumes of smoke across the landscape. I remember driving with fire on both sides of the road on at least one occasion and it was pretty terrifying.
But there’s no question about it, things have got worse – as they have in California, Alaska, Europe and, incredibly, the Amazon Rainforest. It’s a global problem affecting all of us but the Australian government decided to add a new category at the end of the warning (danger) scale which had previously ended in merely Extreme. This happened back in 2009 following the tragic ‘Black Saturday’ fires in the state of Victoria when nearly 200 people lost their lives, and thousands their homes, more than doubling the previous grizzly record of the ‘Ash Wednesday’ fires of 1983.
The new category is marked in the same fire-engine red (pardon) as Extreme but adds in the oblique lines we associate with danger in construction and mining. Fair enough. It’s called Catastrophic but also goes by ‘Code Red’, at least in Victoria. As then-Victorian Premier, John Brumby said at the time “The new fire warning system will provide the community with a better understanding of the level of bushfire threat on any given day based on the forecast weather conditions. The Black Saturday bushfires on February 7  were an example of the types of fires that may be experienced under the Catastrophic or Code Red rating.”
Now perhaps the Australian authorities had bigger fish to barbecue at the time but the colours of the new signs are, well, wrong. A photograph of the earlier signage (from a sign in NSW) is shown below left and the new version (a graphic in this case) added beside it. The original was at least logical, but we now have a slightly ridiculous scale showing High as the second-lowest option presented in cool blue and the Low-Moderate in tranquil green. Something here is out of step.
Roadside fire danger sign in NSW (late 1990s), left, and current fire danger signage (Australian Broadcasting Commission)
But looking at the fire danger forecast published on the news pages of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) website, the colours in the table appear to be wrong too – both out of step with common colour associations of warm and cool colours, and considerably different to those of the roadside signs. The ABC gets the information from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) so we could lay the blame at their feet (not that we’re apportioning blame here at all) but at least part of the confusion is because when the extra level was added, the wording of the less-dramatic levels also changed but without changing the colours!
Digging a little deeper, it seems that a National Framework for Scaled Advice and Warnings to the Community (for bushfire) was developed after the tragic fires of 2009 and adopted by the Australian Emergency Management Committee. I don’t think they exist any more but you can read their report if you’re keen. The take-home is the recommended warning scale. It looks like this…
National Framework for Scaled Advice and Warnings to the Community (for bushfire) report graphic
Personally, I have problems with this Code Red business. It appears to be borrowed from some kind of American military slang by way of Hollywood as far as I can tell (the etymological trail is a little cold) but more importantly, it’s not helpful considering the solid red level is Extreme and ‘Code Red’ is in-fact red and black. But note the colours: the mysterious blue is still there but nothing like either the darker blue of either sign above, nor the cyan-blue of the BoM website. Likewise the green is pale and bears no resemblance to the others. Ditto the yellow.
I’m pretty sure the report was written in Microsoft Word which is not big on colour features so it seems likely that the consultants didn’t spend a lot of time on the colour scheme. Indeed, there appears to be no official colours noted at all so presumably someone at the BoM whipped up the semi-circular graph and chose the colours based on what they liked. Job done.
Here is the scale according to the BoM’s website. Interestingly, they include a ‘None’ category which is absent elsewhere.
And below is the BoM infographic warning for South Australia as published on the ABC website on November 19, 2019 along with the RGB values of the colours sampled in Adobe Photoshop.
Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Australian Broadcasting Commission
The scheme above is high-contrast and no-doubt scores well on points of visibility and qccessibility but the idea that the High level should be rendered in bright blue seems odd, if not, downright misleading. Blue, by any measure, is a cool colour and not likely to be associated with the ‘get ready to run’ or maybe the ‘get ready to get ready’ status of the danger level. And besides, the blues of the sign and that of the website are not even similar.
Severe is orange which makes sense – and the web version is close enough, although the roadside version is more of a burnt orange (pardon). But Very High is a pure RGB yellow which is not only different to the sign but its high luminance value makes it much more prominent than the orange of Severe. Then we pretty-much take the complimentary value of the yellow (almost the opposite, both mathematically and psychological) to arrive at cyan-ish RGB blue to indicate High. Followed by bright green for Low Moderate – as opposed to the ‘unburnt leaf’ green of the signs. Note that I’ve included the RGB numbers above (if you can read them).
Now, Australia is a ‘federation’ of states (in more-or-less the same way that the USA is a union) and fire services are governed at the state level so we could understand some inconsistency between states but the BoM is a national body as is the ABC which reports on such matters, and as are many of the highways that have the warnings. And anyway, there is inconsistency not just between states but within the state fire services themselves. On the website of the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA), for example, they have this scale:
Victorian Country Fire Authority Website
In fairness, this is not just about bushfires. It could presumably be called on for a bomb scare or terror attack (or an ‘airborne toxic event’ as Don DeLillo puts it in White Noise) but either way, it’s just three levels and with a different colour scale (albeit a more logical one) to both the national roadside signs and that of the BoM.
Things get even more interesting in New South Wales (NSW). Look at this still from a video published by the NSW Rural Fire Service. It explains the ratings from the roadside-inspired semicircle but uses different colours to do so! These colours ring true for me in terms of their apparent ‘heat’ but they bear no resemblance to those of the chart.
NSW Rural Fire Service video
Politics and governance aside (if that’s possible) we have some critical problems here that could, arguably, affect peoples lives. The way I see it:
- When the additional warning level was added, it was in the same colour as Extreme but with thick black lines added. The other warning levels all moved down the line but the original colours were maintained. The colours (really the whole scale) now makes little sense.
- There is gross inconsistency between the warnings and advice offered by the national BoM and the state-level fire services.
- There is just as much inconsistency between how those same states ‘market’ their warning system, and the system itself.
- The RGB (web) colours differ completely from those of the roadside signs.
This last point is at least partly due to the perennial problem of moving from the red-green-blue (RGB) world of illumination to the red-yellow-blue (or more commonly, cyan-magenta-yellow-black or CMYK) world of paints and pigments but I think the bigger issue is there appears to be no consistent use of warning colours at all.
The fires in Australia have had an awful impact on the air quality as well. Indeed, at the time of writing, the air over Sydney resembles Beijing or Delhi more than the clear blue we normally associate with the ‘Emerald City’. The pollution levels are monitored by state-level environmental agencies which issue warnings and recommendations at times of increased risk. Here’s the NSW government’s Air Quality Index (measured as a percentage of acceptable air quality).
NSW Government website
There’s that pesky blue again but this time it’s at the bottom of the scale. OK the violet of Very Poor appears to advance more than its siblings either side but now we’re being picky. This scale is surely more logical than that of the fire warnings so credit where due but it does beg the question of who decides the colour schemes in the first place?
You have to dig hard to find it but there is an ISO standard for hazard warning colours. ISO 22324:2015 describes standards for ‘Societal security — Emergency management — Guidelines for colour-coded alerts’ but it’s pretty light on details. Still, their suggestions are at least logical: red for ‘danger – take appropriate safety action immediately’; black for ‘fatal danger’; blue for ‘Informational purposes – should not be used to indicate level of severity’. Interesting…
Clearly there’s a gap here in terms of standard colours for warnings and hazards, or at least their practical implementation. Australia’s fire warning system is a particularly strange case but it’s unlikely to be isolated. We’ll keep you posted…