On the beat of bushfire resilience

Want to improve your community’s chances of surviving what’s promising to be another summer of disastrous fires? Invite your local police officer over for morning tea. No, really!

There’s scientific evidence to prove it.

Associate Professor Jarrett Blaustein of the Australian National University (ANU) recently completed a study of how regional Victorian communities in East Gippsland were able to react to the disastrous bushfires that swept through the region during the 2019-2020 “Black Summer” crisis.

The fires were intense and fast. Amid dark red skies and black ash, thousands were driven to the coast. Hundreds had to be rescued by the navy.

After 2 months of unrelenting firestorms, 4 people were dead, hundreds of houses destroyed and 1.4 million hectares burnt.

It could have been much worse.

“Part of what we saw in these East Gippsland towns was that police officers had made the time for, and prioritised, disaster preparation work because they recognised how critical it was,” Blaustein says.

And when it was put to the test, survival often came down to what the local police knew, who they knew, and who they knew knew, and what they didn’t know.

“Police need to be involved with all stages of the emergency management planning cycle,” says Blaustein. “Not just response, but also prevention, preparedness, and – ultimately – recovery. That’s a fairly significant mentality shift for police organisations, given all the competing demands they face.”

Climate-related disasters are happening with increasing frequency and severity. And that’s yet another burden being heaped on the shoulders of country police officers.

“From a police officer’s point of view, though, they are involved in an enormous variety of incidents on a daily basis,” says Blaustein. “They’re generally very dynamic. One of the capabilities of police is to regularly adapt to new situations or crises that they haven’t necessarily received specific training for.”

And they don’t need to be experts, he adds. They just need to be the right person.

“The police we spoke to recognised that they didn’t necessarily have the technical knowledge or skills to make substantive decisions about what should be done,” says Blaustein, “but they did have the organisational skills and leadership abilities to kind of help steer this process in the right direction.”

Country communities like East Gippsland are generally proactive. However, residents are often reluctant to step up to leadership or coordination roles.

And that’s where local police can step in.

“They have that local presence,” says Blaustein. “They’re supposed to be responsive to local community interests and concerns. At the same time, they’re part of a ‘command and control’ structure that can be mobilised to create and coordinate action.”

The East Gippsland community police involved in the study had proactively involved themselves with regional disaster resilience and response planning efforts.

Then came the devastating Black Summer fires on the East Coast.

“Even looking at that one local community, the officers did an amazing job of providing support and getting involved,” says Blaustein. “I wouldn’t say it was a police-led process. But the police were integral.”

The local communities had a degree of preparation. And that enabled police to be responsive and adaptable.

“But they worked incredibly long shifts,” he adds. “And, at the end of the day, they weren’t just able to clock out and have a beer. They had to return to their own homes and families and confront the crisis on their own personal level.”

Sending in relief crews from the city isn’t enough, Blaustein adds. They don’t have that crucial local knowledge and community recognition.

“Having to put all this on one or two officers is, I think, unrealistic and unfair,” he adds.

But until Australia’s federal and state governments come up with a long-term solution, smaller adaptive measures need to be put in place to help police confront these challenges.

“We really need to kind of move beyond the idea of thinking of emergency management policing as kind of a discrete and exceptional kind of aspect of police work to thinking about it as being core’ business as usual’ policing,” Blaustein concludes.

The study has been published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.

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The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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