Most emergency management effort is focused on preparation for routine emergencies. But Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC research, through Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University and the Australian Natural University is going beyond the day-to-day to get Australia ready for catastrophic emergencies. What planning is needed? How do we collaborate with businesses and non-government (NGOs) organisations? How do we prioritise our capability needs? Such events are characterised by their large multi-faceted impacts that can overwhelm the planning and capability of emergency services.
The research to date, which has involved interviews and a survey questionnaire, has explored the views and perceptions of Australian and International emergency managers regarding how best to prepare for the inevitability of a truly catastrophic disaster.
The research has highlighted the importance of clearly defining what is meant by a catastrophic disaster. Emergency managers appear to struggle in their conceptualisation of a catastrophe being limited by the variety of different scenarios that can be imagined and the possible magnitude of their consequences.
Though many emergency managers agree that more needs to be done to prepare for catastrophic events, there are barriers to doing more. These include:
- confidence in the effectiveness of existing arrangements, capacity and capabilities
- the relative low probability of the occurrence of a catastrophe in Australia
- that little can be done to effectively plan for a catastrophe
- a response-orientated culture in which planning is undervalued
- a belief that emergency managers are not expected to plan for catastrophes.
It is unrealistic to resource the emergency management sector for truly catastrophic events due to the constraints of cost and relative benefit. More is needed than just simply scaling up existing emergency management arrangements. Different thinking is required.
In planning for catastrophe, it is necessary to consider how existing capabilities will be supplemented and how existing services may be delivered differently to cope with overwhelming increases in demand. Emergency managers, however, tend to be inwardly focused towards government organisations when considering plans and capability.
The research questions the efficacy of the traditional inwardly focused all-hazards, all-agencies approach, and instead proposes consideration of an all-hazards, whole-of-community, nationwide approach. Such an approach would see the emergency management sector embrace a wider number of collaborations across businesses, NGOs and communities, moving beyond a government centric model. Emphasis must be placed on the importance of arrangements that could enable rapid expansion of capabilities both nationally and internationally. One interviewee described this approach:
“The people who are running emergency management are like a conductor but they’re not understanding that they have got second strings and they have got the bass at the back and they’ve got the drums. It’s like you’ve got the first and second violin, violas and the cellos and that’s it when all the other parts of the orchestra are available to you — if you’ve helped get them up to speed a little bit in advance . . . we’re not understanding how to use the full orchestra. That’s the power of it if we get it right . . . it’s amazing and it’s completely transformative for everybody in the community because it’s really empowering for everyone . . . Part of it is about recognising the value of that skill base and giving it some prominence.”
Though such partnerships are viewed as valuable, it is well acknowledged that much more needs to be done to further build collaboration. As an example, engagement with the business sector was viewed to have been largely ad-hoc and emergency managers were uncertain as to how best to engage. Potential benefits identified by interviewees regarding engagement with the business sector included:
- the diversity of expertise
- the additional capacity offered
- the national and possible global coverage of certain large businesses
- community connections, sharing situational information
- agility of businesses
- and that businesses may bring different perspectives on problems.
NGOs were seen as largely already woven into different parts of government and already play significant roles. Levels of engagement though were said to vary across jurisdictions and the knowledge of the capabilities offered by NGOs could be improved.
Most emergency managers recognised the role of communities as first responders, however there was concern as to the extent that existing plans allowed for connections with spontaneous volunteers. In this sense there is a need to consider the changing role of emergency services during a catastrophe, from one that would typically undertake direct taskings to one which would be the facilitator of community led actions.
Collaboration does not just need to be encouraged between government and other sectors, but between businesses, NGOs and communities. Businesses and NGOs may be able to source further capabilities from their global networks separate from any offers by international governments.
To realise the value of the whole of community approach there is a need to challenge the existing command and control culture of emergency management to one that embraces wider collaboration and trust. Such collaboration must be focused on connecting the collective capabilities of many different organisations through a distributed leadership model which empowers organisations to show initiative in adapting to unforeseen circumstances.
For more information, go to bnhcrc.com.au/research/catastrophic