Would you like some steak knives with that?

Our thinking in preparedness is extending to approaching awareness in a whole different way to what has been done previously. Generally the approach has been to have someone up the front of a room, telling people what they should do, giving them a booklet and pamphlet, and then going away. Then, later, there is usually some finger wagging done, when “they” don’t or didn’t do what “we” told them what to do.

Behaviour change is complex and difficult. There are stages, and at each stage, people can regress. Think about road safety and behaviour change. It’s taken 40 years of seat belts and random breath testing for it to be not OK to drink and drive, and not wear a seatbelt for most of the population. And there are some pretty hefty sticks involved. In health promotion, it is similar. I think a lot of the changes in smoking behaviour (and we are down to 13% in Victoria) are to do with you need to now take out a bank loan to buy a packet of smokes, and when you do, then you are (rightly) a pariah (disclosure here, smoking killed both my parents. I have no sympathy for smokers who bleat about their rights).


In disaster preparedness, we have neither carrots nor sticks. Both carrot and stick are really abstract when stacked up against people’s day to day priorities. Why should I prepare, when it won’t happen to me, or if it does, it can’t really be that bad can it, or I guess someone else will fix that won’t they. These attitudes are in the face of research indicating that over a third of us will experience a natural disaster or the threat of one in their lifetime, and two thirds of us will experience a traumatic event over the course of our lives, and that we are adding a Canberra sized population each year, and they have to live somewhere, which is generally in places that are hazard prone. Not to mention that the climate is changing.


I understand why people could think that. In the past century we have been very good at reducing risk, and with that death and severe injury. Death is somewhat unusual to us. It wasn’t to our parent’s/grandparent’s generation, when siblings died of childhood illnesses, mothers died in child birth, fathers died in industrial accidents, and lots of people died on the roads. We now believe that we live (and we generally do) in safe environments.


Our perception of the impact and horror of disaster is not served well by popular culture. We all know about the horrors of war, and would never question that it isn’t really that bad. But this is what people who go through disasters have to deal with. It couldn’t really be that bad, could it (devaluing their experience with the questioning). Most of the depictions of disasters are the Hollywood blockbuster style, the misunderstood scientist/everyman/maverick official, bumbling government officials, the Dom Deluise like annoying neighbour who they have to band together with to fight against the forces of nature, the neighbour saves the dog/cat/bunny from being swept/sucked away/burnt, before being swept away himself, and then the sun comes up on a new day, and all is good. What we never see (unless you watch Treme) is what comes next, the exhaustion, the anger, the sadness etc etc. So how can people be sympathetic when we are conditioned to believe that the disaster ends when the sun shines on a new day, and they are lucky to be alive? It really can’t be that bad, can it?


And of course someone will fix it won’t they. Again, I understand this. Agencies and governments spend 99.9% of their time telling the public how great they are, and they are here to fix their every problem. Don’t believe me, just go to the newsroom of any government, and check out what they are saying. So when the big one comes along, and not even the big one, they say hold on fella, you didn’t read the fine print. One of the stark reflections I had on this was driving to one of the towns that I did a bit of work in, and passing just before the township sign, a sign that said “Emergency Services Volunteers Protect this town”  That’s a pretty definite, absolute and reassuring sign. When the firestorm came, they couldn’t. The town was razed.(this is no disrespect to the brave women and men in the services). The expectations that communities have of us all are not set by them, they are set by us.


So in all of this, disaster preparedness is a more abstract concept when our lives are increasingly busy; we are spending more time commuting to work, we are increasingly time poor, more of our disposable income is going on debt, not surprisingly, more of us, according to the APS are feeling stressed, and more than likely your football team lost on the weekend.

People with all of this white noise are not going to be too receptive to people like us, puffed up in our self importance, telling them what to do. They are receptive if they have been through something. This we know from experience, and the research that Joe Reser has done at Griffith University. We know the way to achieve this is through influencers, one conversation at a time, and get some leadership happening. People also tend to follow what the neighbours are doing. They don’t want to be left out.

Given there is soon to 23 million of us, we can’t do it all (no we can’t). So I spent a few days last week while laid up with torn ligaments in my ankle, doing a stakeholder analysis (how I hate that word, stakeholder, I take it literally, and feel like someone is holding up a lump of meat, and about to thrust some steak knives into my hand) looking for channels (not TV), helping to reach far and wide. I came up with a list of 214 government agencies, peak bodies, and professional associations; I’d to like to get to know. Some, like Onions Australia, and the Australian Contact Lens Society, didn’t make the cut. But others, I can see have real reach into the community; Convenience and Mixed Business Association Inc (CAMBA), Dog Walkers and Professional Pet Minders Association (DAPPA Inc.), Drycleaning Institute of Australia Ltd (DIA), Baking Association of Australia as examples of thinking not only outside the box, but well outside the room, and into the next street.

It’s kinda exciting, a bit like when cable TV came, all sorts of possibilities opened up that weren’t just the boring free to tv (not that I watch TV, actually or have cable!).


One thought on “Would you like some steak knives with that?

  1. Another brilliant post John.

    And timely. Our next Monash Disaster Resilience Initiative Forum theme is ‘behaviour change – what, how, when, why in the context of increasing community risk.’ (or words to that effect).



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