I want to begin by expressing my sympathy to all members of the community across the Eurobodalla who were directly impacted by the recent fires for their substantial losses, both personal and material, and note the extensive wider impacts of these disastrous bushfires on communities, ecosystems and landscapes across southeast Australia. I also wish to offer my thanks to all groups and individuals for the support and assistance provided in so many ways to so many people across these bushfire ravaged communities.
This morning I want to talk about lessons that can be learnt from the recent catastrophic bushfires. I feel it is important that the insights gained from these tragic events are captured and distilled while they are still clear, so that important issues are not forgotten or glossed over with the passage of time. Our community and environment has paid a heavy toll, and it will only compound the tragedy further if we do not make an effort to learn from these experiences.
Communications were a key issue during the recent emergency, and this was an area where there is room for great improvement in the Eurobodalla response. Council’s emergency communications were heavily dependent on Facebook, which meant that many people (particularly older community members) were unable to access information even if they were lucky enough to have retained internet access during the emergency. Council’s emergency webpage was largely unchanged during the bulk of the disaster period and of little practical use. Given the significantly impaired mobile phone, NBN and power networks outages during much of the emergency, broadcast radio was the best means of communication, as evidenced by many community members using car radios or old transistor radios to listen for regular updates. Under these trying circumstances, the neighbouring Bega Valley Council communications response really stood out with broadcasts on ABC emergency radio of regular live updates, including Q&A sessions with Ian Campbell, featuring Mayor Kristy McBain together with other emergency committee members. These radio sessions were also live-streamed to the web, affording an even greater audience reach. The Bega Valley Shire communications model is definitely a system worthy of emulation in the Eurobodalla.
It is also notable that Eurobodalla Council has demonstrated an inexplicable reluctance to formally engage with the community during the recent disaster period. Council delayed re-opening its offices until the 13th January, by which time the disaster had been running for several weeks, and refused moves to hold an extraordinary meeting or briefing session before the scheduled restart of routine Council meetings in February 2020. In contrast, the extensively bushfire impacted Shoalhaven Council to our immediate north organised an extraordinary Council meeting on the 20th January, which provided a wealth of useful information readily applicable both within and beyond the Shoalhaven LGA, and clearly demonstrated that Shoalhaven Council was actively seeking out lessons which could be learned from their emergency experience. In contrast, I was disappointed when I searched through today’s Council agenda papers and found not a single mention of the words “lesson” or “learnt”.
I want to share the recommendations from the Shoalhaven Mayoral Minute 20.1 drawn from the agenda papers for the Shoalhaven Council Extraordinary Meeting of 20th January 2020, as they are all readily applicable to the Eurobodalla experience..
1. Council prioritise the installation of Solar PV and back up battery systems to Council facilities that are used as neighbourhood safer places, or places for community to gather and exchange information in times of crisis such as community halls. In prioritising this list, extra weight be given to facilities that are in communities that have one road in/out.
2. Council audit identified possible evacuation centres to ensure that they have the electrical capacity to be connected to an emergency generator and if not rectify as required.
3. Council work with Office of Emergency Management to create an emergency response kit for each of these locations, such a kit could include a satellite phone for communications, guidance for communities who become isolated during a crisis etc.
4. Council request that the NSW State Government offer a funding package to assist in this type of ‘disaster proofing’ in the community.
5. Council also request that the NSW State Government fund any modifications that need to be made to public and private buildings that act as Evacuation Centres as a matter of priority.
6. Request that the State Government work with the State’s energy network providers to look at better ‘future proofing’ for small communities that are at the end of the line through micro grid solutions.
7. These representations be sent to the relevant Federal Ministers.
The Shoalhaven Council Extraordinary Meeting Agenda papers also include an item detailing Shoalhaven Council’s systematic efforts, including financial assistance, to successfully facilitate a BlazeAid station being set up within their LGA. For those not familiar with their activities, BlazeAid is a volunteer-based organisation that works with families and individuals in rural Australia after natural disasters such as fires and floods. Working alongside rural families, BlazeAid volunteers help to rebuild fences and other structures that have been damaged or destroyed. There are now BlazeAid camps located in both the Shoalhaven (Milton) and the Bega Valley (Cobargo). In contrast, Eurobodalla has no BlazeAid station located within our LGA, and today’s agenda papers make only passing reference to “liaising” with BlazeAid. This is certainly an aspect where the Eurobodalla recovery response could be improved, as a BlazeAid station within the Shire would be of significant benefit to rural families.
Eurobodalla Council’s reluctance to engage with the local community regarding their experiences during the bushfire emergency is all the more baffling in the light of the requirements for Recovery Committees specified in the Community Recovery Toolkit produced by the NSW Office of Emergency Management. The NSW Office of Emergency is the lead agency for disaster recovery in NSW, and auspices all local government recovery activities. The Community Recovery Toolkit begins by stating that “The Recovery Committee is the strategic decision making body for local recovery. It provides credible and strong leadership and has a key role in restoring confidence in the community”. It then goes on to highlight the importance of “engaging with your community”, and states that “Community development in the disaster recovery context is the empowerment of individuals and communities to manage their own recovery”. How can a Council that shies away from engaging with their own community about their disaster response experience have any credibility with their community? How can such behaviour engender a sense of “trust” or “empowerment” with in our community? The answer is that it cannot, and until Council systematically undertakes meaningful engagement with the community to harvest and distil the lessons learnt from the recent bushfire disaster, it is failing at the first vital step to create a robust and resilient recovery for the Eurobodalla.
The Community Recovery Toolkit provides a ready means to engage with the community via Community Reference Groups chosen to fully reflect the broad spectrum of activities, knowledge and experience from within our Shire. The omission of Community Reference Groups from the Eurobodalla recovery effort, or attempts to stack them with unrepresentative members, would be deeply counterproductive to the recovery program. The community will be keenly watching this space in the months, or even years, of recovery that lie ahead.
This morning I have talked about some useful lessons and information that have been gleaned from the community leadership responses by bushfire-affected LGAs to our south and north. This demonstrates that there are realistic and achievable improvements in emergency and recovery responses at the LGA level which can be delivered for the benefit of the whole Eurobodalla community.
I hope that Council will now begin to systematically and comprehensively seek similar feedback from the Eurobodalla community to ensure that the next Eurobodalla emergency response is an improvement on the last.