Well, 20 years ago, I walked into the Red Cross office on City Road Southbank, as the brand new Deputy Coordinator, Emergency Registration. You walked up the stairs, then up a hill and down a hill along a long corridor.(the building was that old and decrepit). I was to look after the State Inquiry Centre part of the National Registration and Inquiry System. I had no idea what either of those were when I applied for the job. I saw a job in emergency management, and thought “That looks interesting”. I was at a point where I was trying to move away from nursing, and my studies in environmental management had brought me little joy. The environment wasn’t much of a big deal in Australia in the 90s, so jobs were limited. A visit to the library at the national office of Red Cross in East Melbourne, helped immensely, and I went into the interview, while thinking they will want someone qualified, selling my skills as a nurse (balancing competing priorities, working well under pressure, organised, and compassionate), my university degree (I have a great understanding of hazards), and I know what the National Registration and Inquiry System is (apparently I was the only one who did), and so I was offered the job. I loved it, although thought that my career was almost over before it started when I decided to update the NRIS computers just before Christmas. The Police owned the computers, and maintained them, but it was hard work getting them down to do the upgrade. I thought, this can’t be that hard, just stick the floppy disc in and press run. The system melted down. So did I. I had to front my manager and my police counterparts. But not after staying to 2am to try to fix it. In the morning, dreading the call, I rang Leo Van Der Toorren, at police, and fessed up. He said, “John, they are computers, they are designed to fuck up, I’ll get it sorted”. It was a lesson in owning up, and pragmatism.
But like everything I had done up to then, I didn’t know how long I’d stay in it. Turn over was high at Red Cross, before long I was managing the team, but a move to Human Services, as the Assistant Manager, State Emergency Recovery Unit beckoned. It was a new area, and I wasn’t really sure about it (although I had just finished the legendary recovery course at Mt Macedon, run by the legendary Andrew Coghlan). Three interviews later, I landed the job, starting just after the surprise election of Bracks Government, and before Y2K, and the supposed end of the world. I learnt relatively quickly, that there were no hard and fast answers in recovery. My boss, Philip Buckle, standard response to questions was often “depends”. He taught me that you had to look, listen, smell, etc, and get an understanding of what was going on. It was complex, dynamic, and long term. I managed to bring some practical things into this mix, guidelines, forms, checklists, SOPs. One of the fascinating things (and this is going to sound like, “In my day…”) was there were only a handful of us working in Emergency Management at the state level; two in SERU at DHS, 2 at Vicpol, 3 over at the department of Justice, and one at SES. It was small, and tended to be shunted off in a corner, dusted off when needed.
Still, I wasn’t sure about it all. We were very hands off, as we were a central unit, and the regional offices did all the work. Not until the Bali Bombings, which I have written about here, that I felt like I belonged. This was my gig. And what an 18 months or so, an increase in the terrorism alert, the millennium drought, the Alpine Fires, chair lift collapses, floods, storms, airline collapses, more fires, the tsunami. It was a roller coaster ride. Good staff help, and I had them, and good advice as well, and we used to take a little bit of time to work out what was going on. I recall once asking everyone to stop answering phones, and tell me what was going on, and being forceful about “but, but, the calls have to be answered” “They can wait five minutes” And we took five minutes, and worked out what we needed to do. People could go forward with confidence in what they were doing, as could I.
Moments of wonder came and went. As I wrote in my Bali post, one of my enduring memories of that period was sitting in the bowl, taking a few minutes off after another meeting, before heading back to the office, to listen to Joe Camilleri and the Black Sorrows run through Dear Children at soundcheck. It was a moment of respite in the noise. It was wonderful, they were playing for me, and a young girl sitting not far from me. I said, ”Isn’t that fantastic” She said, “Yes, that’s my dad”
Because it was a small industry, reputations were made or broken. Mine was made as a practitioner, who thought about why, not just what. So increasingly I was invited along to things to give an opinion. I was once accused of wanting to have women chained to the kitchen sink. That I’d have to say surprised me, and hurt. This person didn’t know me at all. One of the things I noticed, was a lot of what we did was instinctual and not based on evidence. Mainly because there weren’t a lot of researchers in this space, apart from John Handmer, and David King’s team at James Cook University. I remember speaking at the 2003 Australian Disasters Conference, saying we need more research in this area, we need to know what we are doing is right, and so we can continue to get more money into the space. This really interested me.
In 2003, I had managed to have the National Disaster Recovery meeting moved from Perth to Melbourne, because my second child was due, and I was nervous about travelling. On the morning that it was due to start, I was meeting with one of my colleagues from Queensland. Jess, our fabulous assistant, came into the meeting, and said “Your wife is on the phone” I said “I’ll call her back in 20 mins when I’ve finished” . Jess came back a minute later, and said, “No, I think you need to take this call” 10.10 that night, Amy was born. For my troubles of missing that meeting, I became the chair of the committee as Peter Olney from NSW was retiring. Never leave the room, when those decisions are being made.
Being chair of this committee gave me new responsibilities. I spent time in Kobe (where my father was stationed during the Korean War) on behalf of the Australian government at the launch of the International Recovery Platform. Then to Washington, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which I have written about here. Amazing opportunities. Although Katrina always leads to awkward conversations. “I was sent to the US in the aftermath of Katrina to work out what we could offer””Wow that must have been really tough” Er, no, we were based in the Embassy and put up at the Hilton. We couldn’t get south, the place was closed up tight.” “Oh” the voice trails away… All along I would read more, and think more, and developed an ability to read bedtime stories and think through challenging problems, although I do recall once the story went “And PB Bear looked at Roscoe and said ‘You can’t pay a personal hardship grant for that”. Emily looked at me strangely.
Because I travelled a lot, bedtime stories were also read over the phone, in airport lounges, in hotel rooms, in offices, outside restaurants. It was hard being away from home.
We rewrote the State Recovery Plan, which hadn’t been touched for over a decade. And this was born out of the different government departments descending on communities after the 2003 bushfires, and saying, we’re looking after recovery what do you need, and the community saying, ah, no, the last department that was here said that. Steve Pascoe, who was helping us, said you know, this is just like environments for health framework, a public health framework that takes into account the determinants of health in a community: social, built, economic and natural environments. And so the Environments for recovery was born. The Kiwis got wind of it, and published it first, and have claimed it ever since, but we know that we came up with the idea (and pavlova, Split Enz, Phar Lap).
There were many times rules were bent. I’m a bleeding heart. Assessing applications for appeal assistance, I came across one where the applicant said, yeah I lost some of my fences, so I need some help with that, but really I would love to take my lovely lady for a weekend away, as things are not real good between us at the moment. Not really within the guidelines, but after a couple of glasses of red wine on a Saturday night, sifting through applications. APPROVED was scrawled over the application. I remember pulling the stock standard letter out and writing “make sure you two get away for a weekend”.
In talking about my role, as State Recovery Manager, i have described it to various groups as either Forrest Gump, or Mr Wolf (from Pulp Fiction). The Forrest Gump connection comes from where Forrest seems to insert himself into the background of every major historical event. I felt that for a while. Mr Winston Wolf. I solve problems. That was my job.
Not that I was looking to move, but fortune came my way and I was back at Red Cross, doing preparedness, as I described in my recent post on three litres of water. It was probably a good time to leave, as my then executive director said to me on my second last day, you are finally starting to think like a public servant, John. We had a little chuckle about that. And its been an amazing time, and as I described last post, also not without challenges. I am very, very passionate about what I do. Disasters are serious shit, and people don’t take them seriously. And the long term consequences are avoidable. I want people to take them seriously, so they are not so serious shit. So it means that I can be stubborn, and I butt heads a lot with people who don’t share the same passion. I do say, with some pride, I’ve also done some amazing things in the last ten years. We’ve changed preparedness. People are starting to focus on the long, long term. They are talking about preparing your mind, and the importance of neighbours. Spontaneous volunteers are no longer a dirty word. I recall a senior government official saying to us. We won’t be part of your spontaneous volunteers project, because they are not in our plan, they do not exist. And more recently, being able to demonstrate, through possibly world first research at University of Melbourne, that the reason why I started in emergency management, being the registration coordinator, actually has an evidence informed benefit, that separation causes long term mental health issues, so being able to reunite people will have a benefit. Getting social impacts costed, albeit in a rudimentary way, and getting it on the agenda as a topic of discussion, alongside the cost of bridges and roads has been important.
As I’ve also written elsewhere, being so close to people after the Black Saturday Fires was a privilege, be it working with Strathewen on their memorial, or co-facilitating a support group, or being part of the Surviving Traumatic Grief project, or contributing to the Post Traumatic Growth. This is the work where you know you are out there, at your limits, with Senses Working Overtime. Like catching a wave, or hurtling down a mountain, not knowing what will happen, but being exhilarating and scared. Sometimes I have been right at my limits, like when the helicopter was lifting off the ground on our assessment flight a few days after Black Saturday, and that was when I remembers I was terrified of flying! Being able to reduce the personal hurt is important to me, as a third generation nurse.
I realise in 20 years, I’ve gone from young buck to old goat. I’d like to think I am still open to new ideas, and what the young folk have to offer (Hell, I’m even thinking about the possibilities of AI and recovery). The worst thing for me when I started was the overweight males, mainly in uniform saying, that’ll never work, tried that in 1967, and didn’t work. What is pleasing is that there are more of us, full stop, in this sector, more people researching it, and more people taking it seriously. It has gone from being tucked in a cupboard somewhere, to be perched just outside the door. The sector has also gone from being concerned about getting forms right, and the layout of recovery centres, to complex system of systems thinking, datamining, and cascading events (although I had a smile when one of the generals at a conference talked about the great queensland innovation of getting all the services in one place, so people didn’t have to travel around. I think that’s called a recovery centre).
Hugely influential on me, have been Rob Gordon and Ruth Wraith, who have brought community into the centre of everything, and been extraordinary explainers. That is something that I have learned. People want to know that they are not crazy, and what they are up against. Ruth particularly taught me about being one step off the pace, leading from behind. Or in footy terms, the loose man in the backline. More recently, Anne Leadbeater and Steve Pascoe, both practitioners with the lived experience of the emergency. They will tell you if its bullshit and not going to work. You know it won’t work. Supportive of course, have been each of my managers, in particular Dudley McArdle and Andrew Coghlan. While I am not a rule breaker per se, I have unorthodox tendencies (some have said maverick, i don’t think its true maverick), and they have tolerated me while I think I have got the job done. And, of course, in the end Rhonda, Carol and Jill, people I have met through my work in Black Saturday, who have lost so much. I run a test in my mind. “what would they think of this”. We always have to keep this central.
I started this blog because I saw a gap. We were re-learning things over and over again. The knowledge was not staying in the system. I figured, it was incumbent on me to try to share my experiences with others so we didn’t have to relearn things, and provide a better experience for the people affected. I burst into tears of joy when my colleague and friend Catherine Gearing, who was one of the first people into Tacloban after typhoon Haiyan, said that before they left, she stopped everyone and made a plan, putting together what she thought they’d need, thinking “John would kill me if I don’t make a plan” I figure that is validation, big time.
We still have a long way to go. Understanding the cultural narrative around disasters will help us build resilience, and support communities use their own resilience after disasters. Linking preparedness measures to recovery outcomes, and costing them so we can demonstrate the benefit to funders. Getting people to think enough about disaster mitigation to change their vote at the ballot box will go a long way to increasing investment in disaster risk reduction. Ensuring that good programs, supported by peer reviewed evidence, and good practice, are put in place for all people affected by disasters, for an appropriate amount of time. Enabling communities to be supported to take control of their own preparedness and recovery activities, to build resilience, so the generals don’t have to be sent in. Given that, I can see myself around for the next 20 years!
I’ve learned a lot, there is a lot more to learn. I take inspiration from the great jazz guitarist, Bill Frisell. I went to one of his masterclasses at the Jazz festival in 2009 (i spent a lot of money on tickets late one night after coming home late from work. A lot). He came on stage with his guitar, and we all lent in and drew a large breath, and he looked at the crowd, nervously and said, “this is a masterclass, right”. “Yes”, we all intoned. “well, um, I’m still trying to master this thing, and we all play, right? Well I guess that makes us all “‘masters” He then proceeded to play something extraordinary, of course. There are so many people who make this happen, too many to thank. The Kick, school friends, old friends, new friends, family. But of course I need to thank my rocks, Hanna, Emily, Amy, and of course, Archie the wonder dog. Without them I wouldn’t have the strength to do what I do.