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Anatomy of a crisis

by Trevor Moore

Fire ravaged property in Batemans Bay

I suppose that several members of our local Council who decided in August last year that there was not a climate emergency are now feeling pretty silly. Perhaps they aren’t feeling silly and if they aren’t then they are even sillier than we might have supposed. The events of the last two or three weeks were and remain an emergency: they are the components of a crisis. The response to these events has depended upon the dedication and commitment of many people, young and old, who fight the fires and run the emergency and evacuation centres, who provide counselling and support and who show that they care. They are too many to name, but they should not go unsung. But it seems that, in Eurobodalla, these people were acting in a vacuum of leadership and planning.

We have heard much about leadership over the last couple of weeks. The ABC this morning ran a story about three young people who were born in 2000 and are now 20. One of them said "Leadership is no longer about empowering the people to lead a better society, but rather pandering to a specific audience to keep power intact.” What an interesting and thought-provoking observation. We can dispose of Scott Morrison’s leadership (which well fits this description) by referencing yesterday’s (13 January 2020) Essential Poll (his disapproval rating has risen 9 points from 43% in December to 52%). His performance in Cobargo was nothing less than shocking and I was stunned to read in these pages that following this our own Mayor, Liz Innes, had taken it upon herself to apologise to Morrison for the behaviour of the Cobargo residents. It might have been better to focus on one’s own constituency.

On the other hand, Andrew Constance showed a remarkable ability to communicate in a crisis. His interview for 9news (6 January 2020) was very good. He answered questions directly and he showed empathy for people affected in a way that Morrison seemed to be unable to do. But the finest leadership came from the NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons (below). Here is a man who speaks in plain English. Here is a man who answers questions and provides information clearly and in language that we can understand.

When people are worried, and let’s face it we were worried on the night of 4 / 5 January 2020, they want succinct information that is delivered in a way that they can understand and act upon. Which brings me to the purpose of this article.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of people’s actions or inactions or their political views, a crisis is an opportunity to reflect on and learn from what happened. This will not be the last time that we, or some other community, is threatened by a natural disaster. This will not be the last time that we see fires of this magnitude. Even our Council must be aware of that. One key lesson is that communication is the king. In fact, the top three things that a crisis response team needs to get right are communication, communication and communication. Communication is about information and it’s about accurate, timely and up-to-date information. The firefighters need that. The people working in evacuation centres need that. And so too does the humble punter who has no electrical power and no telecommunications. Admittedly we have been spoiled by ease of access to information: our expectations are higher than they were, say, 20 years ago.

On 5 January 2020 the power came back on in Tuross. I was told, it matters not by whom, but it was a shopkeeper, that the power would be going off again that evening. In vain I searched for information about a planned outage on Essential Energy’s website. In the end I called them and spoke to the finest customer service representative I have ever had the pleasure to deal with. There was no planned outage. Perhaps, I thought, I will be able to find stuff out on the Council’s website. It had a link entitled “Eurobodalla bushfire update” dated 1 January 2020: no point in clicking that, it was 3 days out of date. It’s possible that had I done so I would have found that Facebook was the place to go. I don’t do Facebook. It is the evil empire. It is hardly a neutral platform. No matter: there were some updates there although they weren’t always timely. Updates were supposed to be at 1000 and 1800. On the second difficult night (last Friday) the 1800 update came at least an hour late at the same time as the data feed to Fires Near Me became corrupted. An 1800 update that said “we’re going to be late” would at least have provided some reassurance to worried folks.

Of course, when power and telecommunications are down and roads are closed getting information out is difficult. I decided that I would see what the Council’s planning documents said about how they would handle a local disaster. After all disaster recovery is a central part of any good management approach. After some messing around I discovered I should search for "local emergency management plan”. This came up (on 13 January 2020) with a link entitled "NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION" (their capitals). Of course, you have to see the funny side of this – except that emergencies generally are not funny. In some trepidation I clicked the link and I found a document called "Eurobodalla Local Emergency Management Plan 2019". This document is 28 pages long and I looked through it. I looked through it a second time. There are no actions in this document. It is not a plan. It does however contain references to 5 other documents one of which is the RFS’ "Bush Fire Risk Management Plan" which was approved on 7 September 2011.

Mmm … so why is it publicly available?

There are two things about this. The first is that the risk management plan is almost 10 years old (by comparison Shoalhaven’s and Bega’s are both dated 2019). The second thing is that it’s a risk management plan. Its purpose is to inform emergency planners about what would need to be done in an emergency taking account of other areas of risk. The scope of an RFS document is firefighting. It is not, or not primarily, about humanitarian response. Because it is almost ten years old its communication strategy depends upon “paper, ABC radio, local brigade.” So, there is no mention of Fires Near Me or Live Traffic. I should note that the Tuross Head Rural Fire Brigade Facebook page was good and informative.

So, what are the lessons to be learned from all this? The lessons to be learned might fall into several categories, including:

1. communications and leadership: how do we ensure that people get up-to-date, timely and accurate information even when the power and telecommunications are out

2. integration of efforts: what do we need locally from other organisations? how do these resources get brought to bear?

3. up-to-date plans: how do we implement a dynamic planning process that builds and maintains flexible and workable plans

4. people: what do we need to do about organisation and training?

Identifying those lessons and working out how to learn from them starts locally: as they say “think global, act local”. The one thing that our Council must not say is that they cannot do something because it is the State or the Federal Government’s responsibility. Leadership is about saying what you need. Relief efforts happen on the ground and that’s where the planning needs to bite when it’s needed.

Our Council needs to get on with identifying these lessons and acting on what we’ve learned. We should expect an initial assessment within 3 months: any longer and we will know that feet are being dragged.

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