Learning from fires to respond in crisis

The 2019-20 Australian bushfire season made headlines globally as the country dealt with thousands of kilometres of active fire front and the devastating impacts of the subsequent smoke damage. Footage of firefighters trying to contain enormous blazes and the red sky over Sydney Harbour dominated the news.

Across Australia, more than 30 services deal with fire and emergency. The Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) works with these predominately state-based services to collaborate on rapid response, allocating resourcing and building disaster resilience in their teams and in the broader community.

I recently met up with AFAC CEO Stuart Ellis via video conference to discuss the similarities between fires and a pandemic, how his organisation will adapt for the upcoming fire season and learning to live with change. You can read our conversation below.

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Shayne Elliott: Sadly, to some extent it feels like the bushfires are almost ancient history now but they really weren't that long ago. The reason I say that is because obviously people are dealing with COVID-19 now and that's taken a lot of the attention away. But the bushfires were so devastating and we can't forget that. For many communities, it's still very much impacting their daily lives. From your perspective, what were the lessons and observations from that dreadful experience?

"It's the same for any disaster, really. We need strong community engagement and everyone needs to come along on that journey.” – Stuart Ellis

Stuart Ellis: Some of the things we did well included identifying that the season was going to be very severe. It was historically a very dry year for Australia so we knew it was going to be a high risk season. Our fire prediction capability is pretty advanced but it can always get better so knowing when fires have started and where they're going to go is critical. And that helped us in being able to warn the public and for them to respond to those warnings. The mobilisation of national and international resources also worked well.

But of course, not everything was perfect. Even before the full impact of the fires hit we saw major levels of smoke in many communities. I remember here in Melbourne, the Australian Open was in doubt at one stage, but earlier in Canberra and in Sydney, there were significant periods where very large communities and some of our largest cities were impacted by smoke. So we know smoke and smoke modelling is an area where we need to do a lot more work.

Another area where we can improve is communications. Although we put out good public advice, it's often state-based so in border towns, particularly between Victoria and New South Wales, some of the apps and other information stopped at the border.

Certainly also from a nature perspective there were huge losses. And so although there was a firm focus on human life which is extremely important, we've still got plenty to do in focusing on nature and animals.

Elliott: Many of those things you talk about eerily mirror the discussions around COVID-19. Viruses - just like fires - don't respect state borders and there can be issues around warnings. While it's slightly different warning people that a fire is coming to warning people that a virus is coming, the idea of preparation and mitigation is very similar. Do you think there are parallels and lessons we can learn when we think about natural disasters that we can take into dealing with a pandemic?

Ellis: There are a lot of similarities. In fire and emergency services, we have planning capabilities, operations, logistics and public affairs for fires or floods or cyclones. Now, all of those structures have been put in place for the COVID-19 response.

The importance of community engagement is also just as critical and I think we're seeing that play out particularly in Melbourne. And it's the same for any disaster, really. We need strong community engagement and everyone needs to come along on that journey.

Also where we can practice for certain events is where we respond better. And we probably hadn't done enough practicing of pandemic responses. So that means some of it’s new territory and we're learning on the on the run.

Elliott: One of the things we've been thinking about as a bank is the resilience of our own people. We're dealing with stress, change, turbulence – although not to the degree of being in the middle of a bushfire. Communities and individuals really need to consider their resilience, whether that's being physically safe and prepared, or mentally. How much of your efforts are given to preparedness and building people's resilience opposed to physical firefighting?

Ellis: That's a really critical element. Being aware of the risks is one of the most critical issues and hopefully everyone's aware of the risks of COVID-19 now. But over the summer, areas were being burnt where people aren't familiar with the risk of bushfires. So that contributed to people's lack of resilience because they weren't attuned to the bushfire risk.

In a first world country, we feel very in control of our situation so when that is challenged, we struggle. From a natural disaster perspective, we don't control mother nature and sometimes she reminds us of that. We need be prepared to adapt to the situation we find ourselves in. And yes, that may be less comfortable but that's the reality of our current situation.

Elliott: There's a fine line between wanting people to be aware, but not afraid. But what's really heartening is to see the value of community and people putting aside differences and trusting each other to do what's right. Collaborating in new and inventive ways, largely on the spur of the moment.

From a banking perspective, the impacts of both fires and the pandemic can be quite devastating to people's financial wellbeing. And while COVID-19 is absolutely front and centre in people's minds today, we're not that far away from another fire season and we've got to make sure people are prepared and thinking ahead to learn from the experiences of last year.

Shayne Elliott is CEO of ANZ.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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