Public messaging during the height of Canberra's summer fire emergency "overstated the situation" and helped to create "more panic than there should have been", according to volunteer firefighters.
The Emergency Services Agency, led by Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, received public praise for their communication with the community during the crisis, which included almost daily media conferences and constant updates on social media.
As the Orroral Valley fire threatened to burn into Canberra's southern suburbs in late January, the agency held community briefings and coordinated the door-knocking of homes in Tuggeranong.
Commissioner Whelan pushed the message of "be alert, not alarmed" throughout January, helping to reassure a community still scared by the horror 2003 bushfires.
But in their feedback to the agency's "after action review" of the bushfire season, ACT Rural Fire Service brigade representatives said the messaging heightened the public's anxiety.
The presence of Defence personnel in Canberra's southern suburbs created stress, according to the volunteers, who claimed that people were evacuating their homes unnecessarily.
"Public communication caused panic and overstated the situation in some circumstances," they told the review.
"Generally there was more panic than there should have been."
Rural Fire Service staff told the review that public messaging during the ACT fires was good overall.
But staff recalled mixed-messages regarding evacuations. They told the review that had there been "complete messaging saturation" on social media. The same level of attention was not given to the elderly or other vulnerable groups who didn't use social media, they said.
The Rural Fire Service raised concerns about the handling of communications when Chief Minister Andrew Barr declared the "state of alert" on January 2.
There was "no official script to inform and update the public", staff said, nor any "alignment" between internal and external communication.
In an interview with The Canberra Times earlier this year, Commissioner Whelan said the agency had struck the right balance in its approach to public messaging during the summer emergencies.
"I do think we got the balance right," she said.
"When you start to look at the history, and understanding what the needs of the community are and being attuned to the environment and the fire behaviour, we would be crazy not to bring the community on a journey.
"I carefully framed my messaging: 'I do not want to catastrophise the situation, I do not want to paralyse you with fear. But I do want to keep you informed'."