Crisis events are high consequence and hold significant stakes for all involved. For residents and those who are in the path of a fire, cyclone or flooding decisions made in the lead up and during an event can have life or death consequences and irrevocably impact on them. Equally for those in the emergency services, decisions taken on key issues such as how to attack a fire front, when to evacuate and the degree of resourcing required can have similar consequences. Finally, at the political level the successful management or the failure of a disaster response can have ramifications for years to follow and undeniably damage the reputations of responders and political leaders.
There is an increasing trend in the wake of major crisis events for there to be questions raised in the immediate aftermath of whether appropriate action was taken and whether there was cohesive coordination between the emergency response agencies. An example of such a trend can be found in the case of the Tathra bushfires which occurred in March this year. Tathra is a small coastal village 3 hours from the capital of Australia Canberra and 5 hours from our largest city in Sydney. During the bushfire event, 70 properties were lost in the face of a ferocious fire front which was fuelled by exceptionally high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. The fire front moved quickly and swept into the coastal village with minimal warning available to residents. As a result of its location and known issues with mobile phone reception, not all residents were able to be advised through the emergency warning system and this required a number of conventional means such as door to door evacuations to occur.
As a result of the sustained efforts of the emergency services there was no loss of life experienced in this fire, in contrast to other comparable events where loss of life has occurred. In the aftermath however, there was an almost immediate and forensic examination of what had happened and operational decisions which were made in the heat of the event. An example of this was the decision of the volunteer Rural Fire Service to reject offers of help from the professional NSW Fire Brigade on two occasions as the fire was escalating before accepting this assistance later in the day. The way this issue was reported was framed from an approach that did not look at the nuances of the issue but rather suggested that a lack of coordination or boundaries between agencies was the primary motivator for the rejection of the support request. If we look at this issue in detail, it is evident that there are a number of reasons why the volunteer Rural Fire Service may not have chosen to engage the support of their colleagues at the NSW Fire Brigade. In the first instance let’s think about how decisions are made on the scale and nature of an event. In hindsight it is easy to look at the loss of property in Tathra and understand that this was a major event. Even with advances in technology and the use of things such as drones it is not always apparent as an event is unfolding what this will actually look like as times passes and so there may have been legitimate operational grounds on which to make this decision.
Secondly we need to think about the operational requirements and the assessment of the feasibility of an urban firefighting unit being deployed in remote or difficult terrain as was the case in Tathra. One of the primary reasons which has been cited for the decision not to uptake the assistance of the NSW Fire Brigade was based on the assessment that the equipment and vehicles available were not suitable to be deployed in complex terrain. This may then prompt the need to understand this and assess whether these represented valid concerns and considerations at the time or whether improvements to coordination across agencies should occur. In conceptualising alternatives to the current blame game and scrutiny over disaster management, this doesn’t mean that there should not be appropriate scrutiny on events that take place. Where things have gone wrong there is a need to identify the source of these issues. However, there must be a more nuanced and mature conversation which seeks a balanced discussion aimed at resolution rather than sensationalism.
So if immediate blame attribution and scapegoating don’t represent the most appropriate ways to translate lessons from the past to future events what does?
There are a number of possible options which appear feasible in order to capture learning at the time, build this into scenario planning and help the community plan for events that may occur again in the future.
The first approach is to encourage the media and other groups to take a perspective on post-crisis evaluation which identifies key issues and allows for careful consideration of these. This may be difficult in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and 60 second television grabs for nightly news but with a variety of mediums available could proactively be developed as part of the social media engagement strategy of the emergency services i.e. taking the lead on these issues rather than allowing them to be subject to mainstream media critique. The benefit of a more nuanced approach is that it serves to empower those making decisions in the heat of an event. This encourages them to make informed decisions rather than fearing the consequence of scrutiny if they are held to account for decisions but not allowed appropriate recourse to explain their decisions. This is particularly important with regard to post-event inquiries. In a number of instances these have served to ‘try’ the guilty and find scapegoats which is far easier to do with the benefit of hindsight than in the heat of an event itself and easier than instigating real change.
Another of the key items relates to the way that lessons arising from events are captured and retained for future use. We have seen an increasing tendency for judicial or royal commissions to be used as the preferred learning and capture mechanism in the wake of major disaster events. These are long-term and substantial commitments that often produce large volumes of information. The question is whether they represent an appropriate way to succinctly capture the key learnings from events shortly thereafter or whether they are actually more politically oriented. An alternative approach would be to look at learnings, reflections and evaluations of events in a much shorter time frame which also seeks to produce a more succinct set of recommendations. Given the growth of social media and digital technologies we should also consider how to distil these into different mediums which can be used as part of training and post-event evaluation learning.
Finally, the third approach broadly relates to the resilience of communities and the degree of preparation that they have as well as the expectations they hold of government in the lead up, response and recovery phase of a major emergency. This represents an important way to test the gaps that may exist between expectations around delivery and response capacity to clearly articulate these. This helps to clarify the support that a community may receive against what they could be reasonably expected to be able to provide for themselves during crises. The aim of which is to build more disaster resilient communities.
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