News from the CRC

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Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service
Photo: NSW Rural Fire Service
Release date
31 Aug 2017
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Tony Jarrett
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The role of children in building bushfire-resilient communities

By Jacqueline Murphy. This article first appeared in Issue Three 2017 of Fire Australia.

“I learned a lot about bushfires in this process.... (This project) made me realise how dangerous bushfires can actually be... I never realised how close we are to the bush and how susceptible we are to having a bushfire close to us.”

-Chloe Huang, Year 6 student at St Ives North Public School

In the northern suburbs of Sydney at St Ives North Public School, Year 5 and 6 students have been presented with authentic bushfire-related scenarios and asked to come up with innovative solutions. The results have been remarkable for the students, the school and for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).

At an end-of-year showcase in November 2016, teams of 11 and 12-year-old students presented 70 remarkable solutions to bushfire problems. The NSW RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons AFSM, attended the showcase. 

“It was really wonderful,” Mr Fitzsimmons said. “It reminds me that our future is in safe hands when you see the work of these young people.”

The Commissioner described the students as “pretty powerful, emotionally driven, informed” agents of change for their community.

A curriculum update

A change to the curriculum has made the in-depth study of the impact of bushfires compulsory for NSW students in Year 5 and 6. For fire agencies in NSW, that means that around 195,000 students will be studying bushfire, every two years. In 2015, the national Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority revised how the study of hazards—either bushfires or floods—is reflected in the national curriculum for Year 5 and 6. The curriculum stipulates that students study the impact of bushfires or floods on environments and communities, and how people can respond. In NSW, the NSW Education Standards Authority provided greater focus by requesting that students investigate the impact of one contemporary bushfire hazard in Australia as part of the new geography syllabus. 

The students and teachers will use an inquiry-learning approach. This means the students themselves identify bushfire-related questions or problems and then research, investigate and present solutions. Students and teachers from more than 2,600 NSW primary schools will require resources and guidance to investigate fire. The opportunity for fire agencies to develop greater community resilience is therefore immense.

Mark Unsworth is captain of the Ku-ring-gai Rural Fire Brigade, located close to St Ives North Public School. He visited the school three times over the course of the project.

“It’s just brilliant,” Mr Unsworth said. “This project has shown up the kind of ideas, the enthusiasm and the taste for learning these kids have. Rather than our community engagement being focused on parents and adults, perhaps  we should spend more time focusing on kids.”

Generational change

The NSW RFS has always valued the role of children in building bushfireresilient communities. The opportunity to be engaged more deeply in building resilience within this specific age group is truly a once-in-a-generation chance to influence change and awareness of fire safety.

“I see this Stage 3 geography syllabus change being just really valuable for the Rural Fire Service for the longer term,” said NSW RFS Community Engagement Coordinator Tony Jarrett.

“There is a great opportunity for us to build the resilience of children to disasters and emergencies that may affect them. That is a generational change process ... there is evidence from around the world that children can be agents of change.

“As a fire service, we are now respecting that children can be active participants in dealing with bad events, particularly bushfires. They don’t need to be passive participants who rely on adult support. I think this is a really important shift for fire agencies around Australia.”

St Ives North Public School delivers a first

In 2016, the St Ives North Public School obtained a NSW Department of Education and Training Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) grant. The grant stipulated that the school design, implement and report the outcomes of an integrated STEM project structured as a project-based learning task. They chose to focus on bushfire as the brand-new requirement within the Year 5 and 6 geography curriculum. 

The students’ solutions ranged from building their own websites and software packages to prototyping robots, drones and other equipment. They presented ideas for preparing and planning for fire, detecting fire, dealing with fire, responding to fire, looking after firefighters,  ooking after homes, and complex programs for community recovery after large bushfires. 

St Ives is a bushfire-prone area with a history of destructive fires: in the late 1960s, 1994 and 2007. Sean Walsh, who is the IT and STEM coordinator at the school, was quick to see the long-term benefits in the program. 

“I think we underestimated from a teacher point of view just how little [the students] knew about bushfires in the local environment,” said Mr Walsh. “I would say fewer than five percent of families who live on the bush front had  fire plan that the children were aware of.

“The main thing that the students have learnt from my perspective is their role in preparation and survival and recovery from bushfire. [They have learnt] that they can be really active agents of change in their local community.”

How is the NSW RFS responding?

The NSW RFS has collaboratively developed two key tools of a scaled response to this educational change:

  • an effective, educationally focused schools education page on the NSW RFS website, reflecting inquiry-based learning principles, with information pathways for students and teachers
  • skills development for NSW RFS members to support Stage 3 students and teachers, including an RFS member’s pathway on the school’s education website landing page, workshops and written guides.

The RFS has also worked closely with the NSW Geography Teachers Association, education sectors, schools and interested teachers to develop tools that reflect an emphasis on educational values and outcomes. 

The STEM project outcomes, such as teaching models, are being shared across the education sector—including via the STEM network and at a formal STEM conference. 

There will be significant learnings about the methods of engagement with Year 5 and 6 students that can be shared with NSW RFS members to complement the approach of the Guide to Working with School Communities, which targets younger kindergarten to Year 4 students.

This work complements key  elements of the research utilisation roadmap 2016–21 for the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC Child-centred disaster risk reduction (CC-DRR) project.  It will help to create effective CC-DRR programs that can be sustainably implemented at scale, increasing resilience and reducing current and future disaster risk.

We had massive ideas is a short documentary created by the NSW RFS about the project. Watch it on the NSW RFS YouTube channel at: youtu.be/Z7vjeHef8xU.

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Index of Editions

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.
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.