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Why are we always playing catch up after a disaster?

Sitting in another meeting dealing with the aftermath of another fire that has killed many. This time it’s flammable cladding.

There have been many meetings I have attended over the years, and it has me thinking why are we always playing catch up? This meeting and many others are full of people that knew there was a problem before the event occurred. I don’t hold these people accountable, I see the frustration in their faces and know how their voices are not heard or heeded.

Let me step back and use another example outside the fire industry, road safety. We have a culture of waiting until there are accidents at an intersection and then it is declared a “Black spot” intersection, then we wait until there are a number of deaths and the following public out cry before remedial action is taken. There are many potential problems we know about and many we don’t.

Donald Rumsfeld summed it up perfectly, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Let’s put the unknown unknowns aside as they need a crystal ball, these are events that surprise, and we have to deal with after the event. It’s the other two fields that we should be looking at and taking preventative action. What is the process that allows high risk, no event problems to be addressed?

In a perfect world any high risk problem would be addressed. Let us consider, as an extreme, construction in cyclone prone areas. We know what damage a Category 5 cyclone can do. Therefore, we should build all buildings within the risk area to a cyclone construction standard, do you see this happening on Pacific islands, all Asian countries and regional Australia? No! We have a number of other factors above and beyond the known risk and the risk appetite. The first is can the risk be mitigated and the second is having the wherewithal, can the community afford to mitigate the risk? I will not go through all the issues in this short editorial, but you get the point. So, we work on the principle of best endeavours to do what we can within our means.

This takes me back to the above meeting that started me thinking about risk mitigation, it appears that those with the knowledge of the problem, know how to deal with the problem and have the wherewithal to take action are the last to act. Let me list some examples of dangerous practices, flammable cladding on buildings; no sprinklers in aged care homes, building safety maintenance ignored, protecting firefighters from solar panel electrocution and fires caused by above ground power cables. All these can be mitigated, some are modified after disasters whilst others are still waiting for a disaster to happen.

We are all intelligent people so let us find a risk diagnostic tool that gives enough information to predict a disaster before it happens, so we can mandate a solution and we are not again having knee jerk reactions after a disaster and promising the dead that they did not die in vain.

For more information, email neil.bibby@mdmpublishing.com

Top image for illustration purposes only and supplied by Photo by Kasuma

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Asia Pacific Fire, Editor

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