News from the CRC

Release date
15 Dec 2017
More information:
David Bruce
Communications Manager

Priorities to guide hazards research

By David Bruce. This article first appeared in Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia.

Last July, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC launched a set of priorities for national research into natural hazards. Now available online for broader discussion, the priorities arose from national workshops with the emergency management sector that led to their consideration by the peak Australia–New Zealand Emergency Management Committee.

This is the first time such a future-thinking exercise has been undertaken on natural hazards research in Australia. With the annual economic costs of disasters in Australia expected to increase from $9bn to $33bn by 2050, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC CEO Dr Richard Thornton believes that difficult and complex questions must be asked.

“As a nation, we have a moral and economic obligation to mitigate the impact of natural hazards,” Dr Thornton said.

“As members of the emergency management sector, we have a responsibility to identify the major issues that need to be addressed to build safer and more resilient communities.

“As members of the research community, we have a responsibility to apply our skills, knowledge and creativity to identifying potential solutions and bringing them to fruition.”

The CRC steered the extended process, which began with a review of its entire research agenda when it reached the halfway point in its funding life in late 2016.

“We did this to help people in the sector understand that if they are spending research money or commissioning research, then they can have a look at the priorities that the whole sector has said are important. That allows us all to work together to solve some of those issues rather than have competitive approaches,” explained Dr Thornton.

The CRC will now promote these priorities more broadly across the sector, and discuss their potential with funding groups such as the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council.

“One thing we did was go out to the broader sector around emergency management and come up with a list of the things critical to the sector from a research perspective,” Dr Thornton said.

“We did that by sitting down with about 16 different groups at workshops all around the country covering everything from mitigation, diversity, warnings [and] volunteering, through to the mechanics and physics and meteorology of hazards right through to recovery, picking up important sectors like insurance, urban planning and urban operations.

“We took a broad, whole-of-sector approach to come up with a set of research questions that spell out the most significant natural hazard emergency management issues Australia faces over the next decade.”

Four key themes came across consistently at the workshops:

  • shared responsibility and community engagement
  • communicating risk and understanding the benefits of mitigation
  • climate change
  • predicting hazards more accurately, leading to better warnings.

“The first one is around shared responsibility and community engagement,” explained Dr Thornton. “[For example], how does the government help communities manage their own risk or understand their own risk? How can government collaborate effectively with communities to break down the silos and build trust?”

“The second major area was about risk communication and understanding the benefits of mitigation. Agencies and governments often struggle with how to communicate risk in a way that is personalised by the community and the individual. The CRC has completed post-event analysis and one of the constant refrains we hear from the public is ‘we knew that this was a risky area to live in, but we didn’t believe it was a risk for us.’ It’s always going to be a risk for somebody else. So, we need to find ways to get beyond that.

“We also found that it is difficult to understand the economics that underpin the benefits of mitigation. We know that to avoid an event is instinctively better than to have to recover from it, but it’s actually a hard economic discussion to have with treasuries across all levels of government, because it means investing today in something that might not happen for 50 years or more. And you are counting saves and not impacts.

“The third major area was the impact of climate change and how it will change the hazard profiles across Australia. What mitigation should we be doing today and how do we consider potential increases in hazards from climate change? How do we incorporate future climates into operational decisions that includes things like cumulative disasters where hazards become more prevalent, such as two major flood events one after the other?

“And finally, how do we do predictive services and warnings better—better weather forecasts, flood forecasts, cyclone prediction and fire prediction. How do we then communicate these in ways that are effective as warnings?”

The publication of these priorities is the beginning of a process, not an end. A national discussion within the emergency management sector has identified themes for research priorities, but this is not intended as either a final or comprehensive list. As new themes and research priorities are identified in coming years, they will be included in the priorities document, and published on the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC website.

The CRC has developed a suite of three publications on national research priorities:

  1. National research priorities for natural hazards emergency management – issues, priorities, directions
  2. a summary of workshop outputs supporting the statement on national research priorities for natural hazards emergency management
  3. a series of information guides for future research activities, individually themed around a workshop topic.

“We can now say: here are a set of priorities agreed to by the sector. If you want to work on something that is going to make a difference to community safety and to disaster resilience, then here is a set of shared priorities that sets out some of the big questions that you might want to consider” said Dr Thornton.

Discover the National research priorities for natural hazards emergency management at:

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a look at two checklists that are helping emergency management teams when there's a breakdown in communication, the findings on community preparedness after three catastrophic bushfires swept across NSW in early 2017, four utilisation case studies that are helping agencies and incident management tools to enhance communication and capability
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, investigates what catastrophic flooding could look like in Sydney, asks if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels, highlights our research in incident management development and looks at predicting blow up bushfires.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
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.