Kate Riddell and Michelle Dunscombe wrote the following for The Emerald Messenger – Hills Community Journal in February 2019.

For the full article visit http://www.emeraldmessenger.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Em_FEB19.pdf

What are the top three lessons have you learned that you would like to pass on to the Dandenong Ranges regarding preparing for disasters and coping with traumatic events?

At the time of Black Saturday, we were caught under prepared, we had limited communication, didn’t really know what would assist our town to recover. The bushfires raised a large number of leadership issues. Agencies had never responded in a combined effort of this magnitude and complexity. There was ‘behind the scenes’ political manoeuvring that the public will never be privy to that had far reaching implications in the lives of thousands of people.

There has been huge growth in the area of emergency response and recovery since 2009, valuable lessons learnt, research completed, necessary documentation and implementation of systems and processes and much more.

One leadership question to emerge from our experience is– ‘How can we better work with communities to prepare for and respond to disasters?’

Here are our Top 3 Lessons:

  1. Community education is critical.
    • Know what emergency warnings mean
    • Conduct regular community forums with emergency services, local groups and residents to learn from each other
  2. Have an emergency plan – For your household and for your community
    • Know what your family and community are going to do to prepare for an emergency, during the event and what will happen during recovery
    • Know your neighbours
    • Know your community
    • Looking after your physical and mental health is so important and often something we overlook
  3. Work together and be kind to each other
    • It can be easy for us to experience anger and frustration, which makes it so important to be respectful of each other and work collaboratively when preparing for an event.

What advice would you give in working with the government before, during and after a disaster?

Without a doubt we need to ensure that before and after an emergency, that the planning and recovery is community driven, inclusive and transparent. Communities need to part of any planning processes undertaken by local government in developing Municipal Emergency Management and Recovery Plans – why produce plans in isolation of the residents that will/are affected?, it doesn’t make sense.  During an event we need to ensure that government, emergency services and the local community work together share information and meet at the table as equals.

There is no denying that communities require assistance to plan for, during a disaster and in recovery. Local government, Emergency Management Victoria and local (place-based) organisations require adequate training and funding to support strong community engagement to plan for local disasters.

After a natural disaster, aid agencies and Government Departments are usually the first to step in.

Ironically, in their sincere effort to help the community, many do a disservice. Their offices are typically located far from the disaster zone and open limited hours. Government processes are often slow and rarely transparent. Staff change frequently with inadequate filtering down of recently established practices. Governments have a top-down approach meaning access to decision makers requires an exorbitant amount of form filling out and going through ‘gatekeepers’ who speak a specialized (often inaccessible) language!

Bureaucracies tend to operate in silos, limiting community involvement in the bigger picture (e.g. public safety, parks, recreation, human services, public health, housing, economic development, transportation, arts and culture, etc.) is associated with a different department, each with its own staff, meetings, plans and programs.

Governments impose their own agenda which distracts the community from its priorities. They don’t sufficiently value the time and contributions of the individuals who do get involved rending them less likely to participate in the future.

Whether is before, during or after a disaster there is a tendency to ‘do to’ rather than ‘do with’.

With these things in mind, we must ask ‘How can communities be empowered to reach their participatory potential and their voices be heard authentically, before, during and after a disaster event’?

Government can’t address all of the needs of a community (especially a traumatised one) in isolation. Governments are better served recognizing that their communities have untapped resources as well as unmet needs. Diers reflects -“Building true partnerships between government and community isn’t easy. Before they can empower the community, agencies must first cease the harm that they inflict on community and begin removing their own obstacles to engagement”.

Local residents who understand local needs, often have more creative, holistic and appropriate solutions. By empowering and partnering with communities, Government not only address their own resource-based shortfalls, but also (through partnerships) better address increasingly complex, newly emerging social and environmental issues.

What is an important role that women can and do play in disaster events?

In the months after the fires, the women in our community exhibited exceptional strength and resilience, keeping families together, supporting communities and advocating for resources. So much good was happening and women certainly led the way.

Supporting women to step up into leadership roles is extremely important from our local emergency services through to local government Municipal Emergency Management committees.

We formed a group called FIREFOXES which aimed to encourage disaster affected women to create a ‘new normal’ and realise their dreams. FIREFOXES met regularly for meals, special events and time away. We skied, rode horses, cooked, went to the theatre, listened to guest speakers, ran leadership retreats, indulged in chocolate therapy and much more. Whilst every gathering was different, the messages around resilience, validity and connectedness were fundamentally the same. Together we laughed, shared, supported, indulged, reflected, listened, motivated, educated, empowered and inspired. We acknowledge and address the barriers to people, particularly women, participating in community activities and decision making. Minority voices are now heard and the community are richer for their input. In almost 10 years, we have worked with around 6000 members of disaster affected communities across Australia, resulting in improved mental health outcomes, reduced isolation, increased morale and positive networks.

Other women from fire affected communities were doing incredible things including being involved in developing a community leadership program to support development of community leaders to better cope with future events and Rivers and Ranges Community Leadership was born with a vision of “developing leadership to build resilient, connected and thriving communities.”