In the land of bushfires we need a national plan
In the land of bushfires we need a national plan
22 October 2013
published by www.theage.com.au
Australia — The current fires raging around Sydney bring into focus, as happens almost every year, the bravery, the tragedy and the loss caused by bushfires and natural disasters. Nightly on the news we watch with shock and awe the flames, the smoke, the devastation and the selfless efforts of the response and recovery teams. What we rarely see is the prequel, the lead-up, the prevention and preparation work of governments, councils, communities and individuals. That may be because there isn’t that much to see.
PPRR (prevention, preparation, response, recovery) is the traditional acronym for disaster management. Response and recovery are the ones that grab the headlines; action, fire, smoke and tragedy are great media subjects, whereas prevention and preparation are done quietly and out of sight, so no one notices if they’re not done at all, but the more PP, the less RR we need, so pre-disaster planning is essential and lack of it can be as culpable as arson.
Most states require residents in fire-prone areas to have a fire plan, often involving a simple ”fight or flee” decision based on very little information. Building design, traffic management, available firefighting infrastructure, water availability, emergency power, communications when phones and radio are down, firebreaks, types of trees – all these go into the mix of readiness. Who is co-ordinating all this and providing ongoing advice, information, education and facilitating workable readiness strategies? Nobody. Governments devolve to their agencies and each agency has its patch and that’s as far as they go. They do their bit and anything else is not their responsibility.
Some of the recent major fires are: Canberra fires (2003), four dead, 490 injured, 500 homes destroyed; Victorian alpine fires (2003), 41 homes destroyed; Black Saturday, Victoria (2009) 173 dead, 414 injured, 2000 homes destroyed; Tasmanian fires (2012-13,) one dead, 100 homes destroyed; Sydney fires (2013) one dead, 200-plus homes destroyed so far. Where next this summer?
All major fires have been followed by royal commissions or high-powered inquiries with long lists of recommendations and policy advice, mostly implemented only in the area affected. Few lessons go beyond state boundaries. In all these events, people on the ground said, ”It all happened so quickly.” It’s no discredit to them to say they were not properly prepared. The discredit is with state, federal and local government in focusing on response and recovery rather than the less media-friendly prevention and preparation domain where education, research, information sharing and policy development are the major tools.
The final report of the McLeod inquiry into the Canberra fires of 2003 contains the statement: ”A much stronger emphasis on working with the community in building together a much more robust set of prevention and mitigation strategies and practices is strongly recommended.” Had this and other recommendations been implemented elsewhere they may have prevented some of the widespread destruction in NSW over the past few days, and may have mitigated both the Tasmania and Black Saturday events. Lessons learnt from Black Saturday have not been applied outside Victoria.
How many more royal commissions or inquiries do we have to have?
How many of the lessons of commissions have been properly learnt?
No lesson is learnt without being taught and we need a national targeted approach, urgently.
Better disaster preparedness at all levels is becoming essential as we deal with climate change (whether human-caused or not) and population growth. Australia’s history is full of bushfires, floods, droughts and cyclones. If these were not so serious in the past it’s partly because there were not so many people. A disaster is only a disaster when there are people involved. Thirty years ago the current Sydney fires would have destroyed about 10 homes, because that’s all that were there. The leafy outer fringes of the major cities are now heavily populated with houses unsuitable for the threat they face.
Currently there is no national organisation to push information-sharing at a national level or to co-ordinate, integrate and promote the work of universities and co-operative research centres. State silo mentalities work against national adoption of recommendations out of each inquiry.
There used to be such an organisation. Forty years ago Gough Whitlam set up the Natural Disasters Organisation as a national front-line independent agency to co-ordinate and manage multi-jurisdictional and large-scale events beyond the resources of any one state and to ensure the lessons learnt from each event were highlighted and shared.
This organisation (as Emergency Management Australia) went on to radically change emergency management – from the traditional top-down command and control of civil defence to a transparent and co-operative, community-centred knowledge base, sharing and educative, and developed the founding principles of modern emergency management in Australia. It also managed many national projects. A further role was training emergency management professionals in managing events and people in highly stressful time-critical situations.
After 9/11, when John Howard moved Emergency Management Australia from Defence to the Attorney-General’s Department, much of the work done on community-centred emergency management was lost, as it quickly came under national security management with strong secrecy and command and control structures. It rapidly went backwards into irrelevance and in 2009 ceased to exist as a stand-alone entity. Now it has virtually ceased to exist and has no role in addressing natural disaster issues.
There’s bipartisan agreement that the severity and frequency of natural disasters are increasing. We are told to expect more violent and extreme weather events. Summers will be hotter. Winds stronger. Fires, floods and drought will occur more often, be more damaging and last longer. At the same time the cost of response and recovery is also increasing rapidly. It’s almost 40 years since the Natural Disasters Organisation was founded, to cut its teeth almost immediately on cyclone Tracy and it’s now time to reinvent it, independent, properly funded, focusing solely on natural disasters, community-centred and away from national security, to provide national leadership in prevention and preparation, research and education to meet threats from our changing environment and growing population.