by Peter Middleton
National Winner of the Resilient Australia Awards in 2014, the Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN for short) is an innovative “one size doesn’t fit all” approach to engaging with communities in the area of bushfire prevention, preparedness and response in Tasmania, Australia.
From 2009 to 2013, the Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods program piloted an action-research community development approach to “shared responsibility” — between individuals, emergency management agencies and communities.
Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) initiated the BRN pilot in 2009 following a clear gap in the research around “shared responsibility” and community led programs. Another catalyst for this project kicking off in the early stages was the devastating Victorian Black Saturday Bushfires in February 2009 where 173 lives were lost, 7,500 people were displaced, communities were catastrophically impacted and nature had demonstrated how unpredictable bushfires and human behavior can be.
The challenges that TFS in collaboration with the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authority Council (AFAC); Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) and the University of Tasmania (UTAS) came up against included:
- The BRN approach is continuing to flip a top down approach into taking a local/grass roots community led approach to “shared responsibility” in the bushfire prevention, preparedness and response space;
- Collaborating with the CRC, AFAC and UTAS, in terms of ensuring an action-research approach was taken, so that the research led into practice upon completion of the pilot;
- Community and organizational cultural change were and continue to be long-term challenges.
Identifying why people do not prepare and the social processes that influence people’s decisions to prepare have become essential questions in emergency management. The primary focus of the research was to work to determine what influences people to adopt household preparedness measures, and how this adoption can be promoted.
An action-research process took place with the aim of contributing to progressive problem solving in the “shared responsibility” space. Led by TFS with research bodies, collectively an evidence base was formed to guide our work on the ground with communities to make a real change in developing safer communities over the longer term.
Our findings from the research indicate that developing community bushfire preparedness programs based on community development principles results is a more effective, sustainable, and economical way of delivering preparedness education with communities. By utilising a community development approach, residents were more receptive of bushfire prevention and preparedness information and more likely to adopt these measures as information provided was more specific and contextualized, and communicated in a manner eliciting “shared responsibility.”
The findings support the complexity of human behavior, communities and the unpredictable nature of bushfires. In doing this they recommend that all emergency management agencies look to take a community development approach to build “shared responsibility”.
Commitment to recognize that the evidence base shows that for a community development approach to succeed we need all areas of emergency management agencies to lead the way by recognizing that we can’t take a”one size fits all” approach to bushfire prevention and preparedness. A targeted, resource to risk model is the way forward.
In continuing to drive a community development approach with individuals; emergency management agencies and communities, some areas to consider future discussion in are:
- Acknowledging the fact that bushfires more commonly occur during the summer months in Australia, which coincide with the main holiday period, targeting the transient population (e.g. holiday makers, tourists, shack owners) and determining how their bushfire safety can be promoted becomes an import future direction.
- Findings from the research showed that women were less prepared than men for bushfire, were more likely to decide to leave early, but less likely to adequately prepare to do so, and considerably less likely to attend and engage with current forms of bushfire education, highlights the dire need to focus research on this sample of the population.
- One of the key discussion points emanating from the research was that for the success of a community development approach to be truly realized, a more harmonious relationship between emergency management agencies and communities needs to be fostered.
- Looking at the use of technologies and creative ideas in taking a community development approach is also important to engaging with communities.
The BRN program is thinking outside the square, through taking an innovative approach to working towards long term organization and cultural change in bushfire prevention and preparedness with individuals; emergency management agencies and communities. An exciting example of how a community development approach can work with effecting behavioral change in communities, we are proud to see commitment for taking a community development approach to bushfire prevention and preparedness in Australia.
We all play a part.
For more information, contact Peter Middleton, Community Development Coordinator with the Tasmania Fire Service. Peter.Middleton@fire.tas.gov.au.