This is as Bad as It Gets

Says the fire services commissioner. I am in Sydney, helping out with some of the planning around the Blue Mountains Bushfires. It is somewhat surreal, being in an airconditioned office, dealing with bushfires. Even the weather conditions yesterday in Sydney were mild. Despite the NSW Chief Health Officer’s warning, I ran in the morning. It all feels normal, people are going about their daily business.

That is all likely to change today, with worsening of conditions. The last time we heard words used to that effect was February 6, 2009. The rest is history. Anywhere up to 90,000 people may be on the move. The State Government has declared a State of Emergency, which gives the power to order a mandatory evacuation and force people to leave. There is this notion with mandatory evacuation that everyone leaves. IT is done with the best intentions. But we know that not everyone leaves. There will be people left behind (as in New Orleans), there will be people who refuse to go, and the police will not order them to leave at gunpoint. Thomas Drabek in his book Human Face of Disaster talks about this. One police officer in a town that had a evacuation order came across people who would not leave, he simply said OK then, give me the names and addresses of your next of kin, so I can tell them where to pick your bodies up from. IT had the desired effect. Some people will not know about it. Hard to fathom, because we are all obsessed by this. But there are plenty of people out there who don’t watch or listen to news, may not be well connected to their community, or may be unwell and not go out.

Some people will say they weren’t warned. The authorities will say they were. The challenge is that yes warnings were issued, in many different ways. But they may not have been received, and if they were, did people know what to do. But think about it. Put up your hand if you know of a 100% foolproof system that does what it does, everytime? IN disasters, understandably because of the life and death scenario, we expect 100%. We also expect that in the days of the mobile age, that we should be able to reach everyone. Who ever has forgotten to charge their phone at night, or left the house without their phone.

When they do receive that message, what do they do with it. Some will act and know what to do because they have planned for it. Some will be sceptical (can’t be that bad can it?). Others will fly into a mad rush, quickly grabbing their things together, maybe missing some of the things that are important to them. Some people will look to validate it. The importance of neighbours and trust, and what others are doing comes in here. Getting the warning, or feeling a sense of uncertainty, people may seek to validate it with their neighbours. What do you know? What are you going to do? IF the neighbours are packing up and leaving, there is more chance that they will as well. We also know that people will ring people that they trust. The young woman in Black Saturday who rang her father in Perth to ask him what to do. He advised to check with the CFA and get out. This is why our messaging needs to be to the whole population, not just to the potentially affected areas. If I were the Fire Commissioner, I would be including messages to people outside the area. They have a role to validate and reinforce the message. Others of course might do nothing at all.

IF it doesn’t go the way of the pear today, then the challenge will be not to appear as though it was a cry wolf scenario. As an esteemed colleague, Joe REser told me we heighten people’s arousal with these warnings, and if the bullet is dodged, then we don’t bring them back down in the same way. We just say phew, missed that one as you were. A lot more thought needs to be given in this area, so it doesn’t become a cry  wolf situation.

A large evacuation centre is being set up in Penrith, out of the Blue Mountains. We were talking last night about what we would brief the volunteers. Remember, you will be dealing with people who have kissed goodbye to their homes, to all that is special to them, to their communities, the beautiful landscapes that they choose to live (with its attendant fire risk, not often thought about). They do not know what they will return to. It might be nothing. Or it might be everything. There will be uncertainty, anger, sadness, frustration. But, the most important thing, on this worst of days, is that they will be safe.



A great band out of the Blue Mountains, Cloud Control

2 thoughts on “This is as Bad as It Gets

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