Cosmos correspondent Denise Cullen is reporting on the annual Australasian Fire Authorities Council conference in Brisbane this week.
The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters in our climate-changed world has highlighted how community and connection can help weather the storms.
Whether preparing for disasters, managing through them, or bouncing back afterwards, communities with strong social capital, high levels of inclusion, diversity of leadership and positive engagement with the emergency management system, were better placed to recover, according to research from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR).
FRRR’s Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lead Nina O’Brien told delegates at the Australian Disaster Resilience Conference, part of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) conference being held in Brisbane this week, that better balance in post-disaster spending was needed.
O’Brien argued that while investment in hard infrastructure such as roads, bridges and buildings was important to recovery, investments in soft infrastructure were just as critical.
“We believe in a truly balanced approach to investment in people and processes – by that, we mean social, cultural, political, and human capital,” O’Brien says.
O’Brien reported 80% of the most recent dispersal of investment from Victoria’s disaster recovery fund was directed towards hard infrastructure.
“The reality is, hard infrastructure alone will not get us to where we need to be in terms of being prepared for these future challenges, which will continue to emerge, and we will have to contend with,” she says.
Also disproportionate was funding directed towards recovery versus preparedness.
“At the time of the 2019-20 fires, the ratio federally was around 97 per cent recovery, and 3 per cent preparedness,” O’Brien says.
“But there’s evidence to say that for every dollar you spend on investment (in preparedness), there’s about a seven dollar return … (which represents) cost savings in the longer term.”
Established in 2000, FRRR provides funding and capacity-building support at the hyper-local level. It aligns its funding to community-led solutions that build resilience and long-term viability and vitality of smaller remote, rural, and regional communities across Australia.
O’Brien says FRRR last year delivered around 950 small grants of $150,000 each.
Hard infrastructure alone will not get us to where we need to be in terms of being prepared for these future challenges.Nina O’Brien
“We focus on bolstering the capability of small, not-for-profit grassroots organisations,” she says.
“We work from the bottom up (because) local people know what they want and sometimes they just need some investment to activate their ideas, and initiatives.”
However, last year almost two-thirds of FRRR’s annual distributions were disaster and climate-related.
“That gives you a quick snapshot of the massive impact that climate – both from a disaster recovery perspective, but also from preparedness perspective – has on regional communities,” O’Brien says.
Given that government plays a primary role in the short term, the organisation supports communities during the medium-to-long-term recovery process.
“We generally lean in and start taking a greater interest in communities once governments start to transition out, because we know that’s when the real need starts to emerge,” she says.
Since 2017, FRRR has worked with the University of Sydney to unpack why some communities respond more effectively to disasters, while others continue to experience challenges years and sometimes decades later.
“When communities lead and drive resilience building efforts, these efforts are sustained for longer [and] they have ongoing positive impacts across the community,” O’Brien says.
“[Community members] also build local districts that can adapt to a range of challenges over time, whether you’re talking about fire or flood or storms or droughts, or other significant community disruptions.”
In its submission to the Senate Select Committee on Australia’s Disaster Resilience, the University of Sydney’s Environment Institute offered preliminary findings from its ongoing bushfire and disaster risk reduction projects.
These research projects investigate both the Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20, and the east coast floods that occurred throughout Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria in 2021–23.
The submission explains that communities were often the first, and sometimes the only, emergency responders to these disasters, and that community-led recovery has been critical in the aftermath.
Researchers identified recurring forms of self-organised community responses to natural disasters including sharing critical information, organising house searches and welfare checks, rescuing stranded people, caring for animals, cleaning up, providing basic resources such as food, water, fuel, and machinery, and coordinating volunteers and donations from other communities.
“Informal community networks mostly undertook these efforts without the support of local, state, or federal government agencies,” the researchers noted in their submission.
“In fact, many interview participants explained that the failure of formal agencies to recognise and apply local knowledge impeded disaster response and recovery efforts.”
Across the ditch, a revitalised approach to fire prevention among adolescents in New Zealand is also putting individuals and the community at its core.
Tom Ronaldson, senior community engagement and education specialist with Fire and Emergency New Zealand, told the AFAC conference the Fire Awareness and Intervention Programme (FAIP) started in Auckland in 1992 to address the needs of fire-setting taiohi (young people) and reduce their risk of reoffending.
Participants explained that the failure of formal agencies to recognise and apply local knowledge impeded disaster response.Sydney Environment Institute to the Senate Select Committee on Australia’s Disaster Resilience
Over the next 30 years trained firefighters from Fire and Emergency New Zealand and its predecessors completed thousands of FAIP sessions with young people.
The program received global recognition for its innovation and proven results in reducing recidivism rates in taiohi who participated, Ronaldson said.
The program provides fire safety education to taiohi aged 2-17 years who have an expressed interest in fire, have engaged in inappropriate fire play, or have misused or lit fires.
The intervention comprises of at least two individual sessions typically delivered in the home, with specially trained practitioners.
“These sessions are tailored to the needs of the individual and their whanāu (family),” Ronaldson says.
At its peak, the program was receiving more than 400 referrals a year.
However, a sharp decline in referrals started five years ago.
After commissioning Victoria University, NZ, to conduct research into the reasons for the decline, Fire and Emergency New Zealand learned there were several barriers to engagement with the program.
According to the university’s research report, among them was perceived stigma around association in the program, outdated resources that were not culturally specific to Aotearoa New Zealand, nor suitable for older taiohi.
“Parents, teachers, principals [and] referrers thought that the program would result in them being associated with an arsonist; that their young person would be labelled an arsonist,” Ronaldson says.
Fire and Emergency New Zealand subsequently partnered with a creative agency to help them redesign the program and regain crucial buy in from stakeholders, firefighters, practitioners, communities and taiohi.
The one-on-one nature of the program was incredibly powerfulTom Ronaldson
The process revealed that the program was not about intervention – but education.
“It wasn’t about telling taiohi off for something bad they may have done, but more helping them to understand the repercussions of their actions through education,” Ronaldson explains.
“The one-on-one nature of the program was incredibly powerful and often resulted in our practitioners becoming a trusted adult in the lives of taiohi.”
Ronaldson says the program’s guiding principle was based on the need to nurture and care for each taiohi in their uniqueness and their wholeness.
It also acknowledged the importance of the work undertaken by practitioners and the importance of meeting people face to face.
“It speaks to the value of being a person that is known and seen within a community,” he says.
“Especially in small and rural communities, our people are known by face and are trusted members of the community.”