Practice Review - how are we Safer Together?

Bushfires have, and always will be, a feature of the Australian landscape, but the spectre of climate change and rapid population growth are exacerbating community fears and increasing the risk to life and property.

Risk reduction strategies, such as planned burns on public land and community education programs have been used by land and fire management agencies in Victoria for decades but intensified in the aftermath of the devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people and destroyed over 3,500 homes.

The Victorian Government incorporated the findings of the Black Saturday Royal Commission, as well as a 2015 review of bushfire fuel management on public land (led by the Victorian Inspector General for Emergency Management) to commence a significant program of change in 2016.

Safer Together

Called ‘Safer Together’, the program involves fire and land management agencies moving towards a more holistic risk reduction approach to bushfire management.

Safer Together includes multiple priorities for saving life and property and not only utilises local knowledge but the insights of experts from multiple agencies and academia.

The approach goes across public and private land and seeks to ‘combine stronger community partnerships with the latest science and information to more effectively target our actions to reduce bushfire risk’.

Community is central to the program and significant work is being undertaken through Safer Together’s Community First program to enable community-led risk reduction strategies.

The challenge:
Understand the drivers and barriers to bushfire preparedness and response
The multi-agency program of Safer Together - Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), Emergency Management Victoria (EMV), Country Fire Authority (CFA), Parks Victoria, Local Government and other agencies.

What did we do?

To gain a better understanding of the drivers and barriers to community preparedness and response to bushfire emergencies, Safer Together’s Community First team has been working with BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) over several months.

The BWA research team, Dr Julia Meis-Harris, PhD candidate Dominique McCollum Coy and Dr Bradley Jorgensen, began by conducting a Practice Review with representatives from DELWP, CFA, Local Government and researchers working in community engagement (i.e., education, communication, strategy and development).

Using a survey developed with the Safer Together team, the researchers identified the following drivers and barriers:

  • Physical and psychological exposure – whether communities had previous physical and psychological exposure.
  • Risk – a multifaceted concept that can be a motivator, but can also turn people off because it makes them feel overwhelmed.
  • Perceived possible outcome – weighing up the risks of staying or leaving.
  • Social influence – how community connectedness can have important implications for their motivations to prepare.

Key findings

The researchers found a wealth of knowledge in the sector and a general acknowledgement that, while some strategies have worked in the past, others had not.

The findings of the Practice Review indicate that community engagement programs can be an effective mechanism to achieve behaviour change.

In brief, the Practice Review highlighted four important findings:

  1. Communities don’t seem to differentiate between actions to do with bushfire preparedness and those to do with bushfire response.
  2. Only providing communities with information (about preparedness or response) is not enough.
  3. There is a growing enthusiasm for community development as a more holistic approach – as long as it is tailored to specific community contexts and the needs and values of those communities.
  4. There is a need to improve community-agency interactions around bushfire emergencies.

What conclusions can we draw?

The Practice Review points towards the potential strength of community-centred and community-led engagement programs as an opportunity to work with communities in local bushfire risk management and in strengthening agency/community interactions.

Where to from here?

The research team are now elaborating on the findings with a Rapid Review, which seeks to identify the characteristics of successful community-based programs in the area of bush and wildfire management around the world.

They are also exploring how some community-based programs operate in Victoria, using the Briagolong and Daylesford/Hepburn communities as case studies.

The team is planning to share the research with people working in the bushfire sector via a series of stakeholder workshops.

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