News from the CRC

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Panelists at 2016's International Day for Disaster Reduction.
Panelists at 2016's International Day for Disaster Reduction.

Live to tell - surviving a natural disaster

What does it mean to survive a natural disaster? To mark the International Day for Disaster Reduction, the CRC hosted a public event to provide a platform for a range of perspectives on disaster risk reduction.

Every year on 13 October communities around the world discuss what they are doing to reduce their disaster risk. The International Day for Disaster Reduction, an initiative from the United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction, is recognised globally, and focuses on a different theme annually. This year communities, organisations, government and individuals reflected on the theme, Live to Tell, discussing fatalities and the survivors of disasters.

In Australia the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and RMIT University held a free public forum on the research and policies targeted at preventing deaths in natural disasters. The CRC hosts an annual event in association with the day, featuring a variety of speakers tackling the theme from different angles including policy and practice, research and the human side. This year’s event considered what it means to survive a disaster and how we can enable communities to live to tell the story.

Speakers at the forum in Melbourne were from across the emergency management sector: Mark Crosweller AFSM, Emergency Management Australia (EMA); John Schauble, Emergency Management Victoria (EMV); Dr Katharine Haynes (Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and Risk Frontiers); Dr Martine Woolf (Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and Geoscience Australia); and John Richardson (Australian Red Cross).

Dr Richard Thornton, CEO of the CRC told the audience that the day was a significant step in bringing leaders in emergency management together.

“The day provides an opportunity for all of government, local and state government, NGO’s, civil society groups, academics, and science and business communities to demonstrate support for the implementation of the Sendai Framework for action on disaster risk reduction,” he said.

Policy and practice

In his role as Director-General of EMA, Mark Crosweller is responsible for the coordination of Australia’s response to crises including natural disasters, terrorist or security-related incidents.

Mr Crosweller framed the topic from a federal perspective and addressed a seemingly simple but ultimately complex question, “Are we prepared for catastrophic disasters?”

Mr Crosweller argued that we need to accept the inevitability of unimaginable, catastrophic disasters in order to prepare for them. He argued that when we reach that level of disaster severity the impact and consequences begin to exceed our capability because often we have never experienced them.

“Understanding our point of limitation is very important. One of the points of limit in the human mind is the limits of knowledge, skills, experience and imagination,” he said.

Mr Crosweller reflected on how events like the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires or the 2003 Canberra fires had tested the limits of those responding to them.

“When you hit extreme and catastrophic, the event and its manifestation goes way past the capability. When you talk to Commissioners and Chief Officers, two things come out of the conversations. One is ‘we dodged a bullet’, they say that it could have been worse, and the second thing they’ll often say is ‘we were stretched to our limit’.”

Following Mr Crosweller, EMV’s Director for Emergency Management and Resilience, John Schauble, spoke about the state policy side of disaster risk reduction and the importance of the language used to frame policies.

“The emphasis here in Victoria has shifted very much from managing risk to managing consequence,” he said.

Rather than focusing all the efforts on what agencies and government can do in the wake of disasters, the focus has turned to building resilient communities. He explains that EMV are in the process of developing a risk resilience framework to help empower communities to make decisions.

Reflecting on the 2009 Black Saturday fires that claimed 173 lives, Mr Schauble spoke about the shift in policy and language in Victoria.

“The immediate aftermath of significant disasters is the worst possible time to develop public policy, yet this is often the political cycle in which public policy is made.”

In the aftermath of Black Saturday ‘Primacy of Life’ emerged as the principle policy.

“It’s interesting because I’m sure no one in government or fire industries, certainly not firefighters, ever doubted that primacy of life was the key objective.”

The ‘Stay or Go’ policy which was active at the time of the fires, was seen to place too high a premium on the idea that property ranked equally with preservation of life, Mr Schauble explained.

“The policy shift was one of emphasis. The message became ‘leave early’ and the defence of property became secondary.”

The shift in bushfire policy was put to the test in Victoria during the 2015 Christmas Day bushfire in Wye River. Mr Schauble reflected that the change worked well and resulted in zero fatalities.

“There was a clear message. There was a community that was primed for action and they took action.”

“As a sector we’re accepting that we can’t actually eliminate risk but we can increase the capacity of communities to bounce back afterwards,” he said.

Disaster research

Dr Katharine Haynes’ research with the CRC and Risk Frontiers investigated human fatalities from natural hazards, in particular floods, and created a dataset of information to determine trends around each fatality.

Dr Haynes explained that the data shows that most flood fatalities are men, making up 80% of all recorded flood fatalities since 1900. However, this is trend is shown to be shifting over time.

“Although there are still statistically more men dying in floods, from the 1960s onwards we’re seeing more women fatalities.”

So why are people dying in floods and how can we change their behaviour? The research has shown that often people simply underestimate the danger.

“The highest proportions of men and women are dying while they are attempting to cross a bridge or flooded road. Where the information is available we can see that most of those people are trying to make their way home,” said Dr Haynes.

The research also considered people’s capacity to make decisions during the event. “For most people they are aware of the flood but the speed and depth took them by surprise.”

Most of the vehicle deaths are occurring at night or during twilight when visibility is poor, which could suggest that drivers are unaware of the exact danger of the situation, explained Dr Haynes.

The research poses many questions as to whether the messages are getting through to people, whether we need to invest more in improving infrastructure and whether we are accurately evaluating our risk reduction strategies.

Dr Martine Woolf’s research for Geoscience Australia and the CRC focuses on the impact of natural disasters, in particular earthquakes.

Dr Woolf used contrasting examples of the 6.2 magnitude earthquake which struck central Italy in August 2016 and killed 250 people, and a similar magnitude earthquake in the Petermann Ranges in Australia which killed no one. The difference of course was the location - the earthquake in Italy struck in a densely populated and built environment, while the Petermann Ranges in the remote Northern Territory are a largely unpopulated area.

Dr Woolf’s research uses realistic disaster scenario analysis to model potential disasters in urban cities in Australia and gain a greater understanding of their effects. She provided an example scenario involving a 4.3 magnitude earthquake in greater Sydney. A scenario that might seem unimaginable to most of us, but one that is very possible, she explained.

“With the work we are doing modelling disaster scenarios we are asking, what can we do to try and prevent some of these impacts from happening; specifically when it comes to injuries and fatalities?”

Dr Woolf’s scenario analysis also looked at how we could mitigate the effects of the Sydney earthquake scenario through retrofitting houses. When modelling the same magnitude earthquake on retrofitted housing, the damage was significantly lessened.

The answer could be in improving the resilience of existing structures explains Dr Woolf.

“We can understand elements of the puzzle that we can actually control to improve the outcome, in terms of fatalities and injuries,” she said.

“In the case of earthquakes and many other hazards, all the housing and infrastructure legacy assets are vulnerable to hazards. We think about modern building codes but forget that they are not applicable to many of the structures you see around you.”

The human side of disasters

John Richardson, National Coordinator for Preparedness, Australian Red Cross, gave a different perspective to disaster resilience and what it means to survive a disaster. Drawing on his experience as a registered nurse working in bereavement and trauma, he focused on the human side of fatalities.

“Death is an increasingly foreign concept for us in modern society…when death happens now it’s unusual, it is a surprise so our societal reactions are quite overt,” he said.

Mr Richardson spoke about the meaning that deaths give to disasters and the way we interpret them.

“We tend to categories disasters by death tolls, not by those who have been left behind to deal with the aftermath, or those that survive.”

The ingrained attitudes we place on survivors in telling them they are lucky and to think of those who didn’t survive are potentially harmful.

“Your experience as a survivor is actually diminished,” explained Mr Richardson.

Another human inclination is our tendency to feel collective ownership over disasters, which can be damaging to the survivors and families and friends of those who died, said Mr Richardson.

“After a disaster your grief is not your own. You mourn in the view of the public, including the mourners in chief, the inquisition.”

The forum closed with a panel discussion where speakers answered questions from the audience. The day was an important opportunity for a range of voices and perspectives on disaster risk reduction to be heard.

The forum was filmed and can be viewed below.

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News archives

All the resources from our 2016 conference

Research program in detail

Where, why and how are Australians dying in floods?

2015-2016 year in review

Bushfire planning with kids ebook

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.
Community resilience in the remote north, how NSW RFS used research to change their approach to engagement around bushfire survival planning, and case studies on CRC research impact.
How extreme water levels could impact Australia's coasts and what can be done to mitigate the risks, the gulf in earthquake risk reduction, and a look at the milestone UN Sendai conference on risk reduction.
The vital elements of operational fire modelling and retrofitting older homes for severe wind events.
How a rural fire brigade used national research findings on community safety, comparing disasters today to those of 100 years ago, and preparing children for disasters can have positive impacts on entire communities.