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The SES has its origins with the Civil Defence Legion established during World War II.  Following the war, the Legion was phased out and it was not until the 1960s, with the threat of nuclear warfare, that Civil Defence became an issue again.  Major changes to the Civil Defence Organisation occurred following the 1967 Hobart bushfires.  As the threat of war receded, the emphasis changed from hostilities oriented training and readiness to natural disaster training and readiness.

Following the impact of Cyclone Tracey on Darwin in 1974, the Tasmanian government decided to re-develop the Civil Defence and Emergency Service organization as it was then called.  In 1976 The Tasmanian Parliament passed the Emergency Services Act which established the State Emergency Services as we know it today.

The Emergency Services, Act, 1976 described the emergency management arrangements for Tasmania.  The SES is allocated the responsibility of coordinating these arrangements.  The Act also defines the role of the State Emergency Service within Tasmania’s emergency management arrangements.  

Due to the increasing threat of terrorism in 2001, the powers and general provisions of the Emergency Services Act were reviewed and it was decided to replace the Act with the Emergency Management Act 2006. The new Act continued to provide for the State Emergency Service with updated functions, powers and associated volunteer unit support and miscellaneous provisions.