Well, its 25 years since I started work in disaster management. Like most things I’ve done, I didn’t think I would last this long. But it has been a cool ride. I realised that I have written about this journey a couple of times before, when I reached 20 years, and this keynote I did to a conference in Iceland. Best to not reinvent the wheel.
What can I add? Well you know, the last 5 years has seen a tragic event in the Melbourne CBD, being one of the first on scene to a woman who jumped to her death next to our office, a drought, an out of the box fire season and summer, a global pandemic which we had planned for, next level flooding, finally getting more funding into disaster risk reduction, getting our research study extended to 10 years and and finding that significant numbers of people are still affected at 10 years, demonstrating a link between preparedness and recovery. Oh, and travel bookings, reconciling credit card statements, team meetings, performance reviews, and mandatory training. Just an ordinary work day.
My role is a nebulous one “National Resilience Adviser.” I provide the our program with technical advice on preparedness, disaster resilience etc. It allows me to read, to listen, to write, to talk with people, and importantly, to make sense of shit. This is what I enjoy most, making sense of patterns, and then trying to explain it in simple terms. I don’t really deliver tangible things, and that can make me vulnerable, but as we heard in the conference yesterday, knowledge is power. And I was so, so heartened by the reception for that the work i do from our recovery team in Western Australia, when I was there last week. These are wonderful, no nonsense, community outcomes focused people who wanted to know the evidence for what we are doing. This is what makes my job special. It is also the change over the course of the 25 years. When I started, people just wanted to get shit done. They still do, but they want to know why.
I no longer manage staff, and this suits me. I like working in a team, but equally being a lone ranger allows me a lot of flexibility, so I can pick things up and run with them. There are often too many things to pick up and run with, and I say yes to way too many things (everything is interesting, everything) and I feel like I let people down by not giving my full attention.
Disasters are pretty shit. They mess with people’s lives, for years. They can’t live the lives they want to live, their hopes, goals and aspirations are changed (some will say, after a lot of pain, for the better). This is the story, this is what we are protecting, not houses (but the meaning of them), not bridges (but what they allow us to do). This is what keeps me motivated, to change the narrative about what we are protecting. Putting people at the centre of it all. And we are seeing this. The session yesterday on Resilient Infrastructure spoke mostly about people. Wasn’t a concrete or powerline in sight
We live in grim times, with the realisation that climate change is real and here now, that global conflict is possible, that the gap between poor and rich is growing. I get quite emotional when talking about climate change, because my generation knew. I was in a climatology subject in 1985, and my lecturer said, “we now know the climate is changing, and it will get warmer, we are not sure what this means, but we are concerned” We couldn’t convince people about this, until now, leaving the burden of fixing it to the next generations. But, I have hope. I think we will fix it. It won’t be comfortable, and will take a huge effort, and we may live different lives into the future, but I do have hope. I’m seeing the dial change, we are starting to do more and invest more with reducing disaster risk.
I’m proud of building a ground-breaking, unique approach to preparedness, taking avoiding recovery impacts as our focus, elevating the power of social connection as the key element for resilience, and bringing the idea that if you manage your stress during the emergency, things will go better for you. I’m proud of doing research that actually provides evidence for things we have taken for granted. Some of this we think is world first. I’m also proud of using a bit of my political interest and smarts to help secure $50million for disaster mitigation. That was fun. But I am also proud of working intimately with people who have experienced the greatest loss one can in disaster. The trust instilled in you is nerve-wracking and rewarding, and reminds you exactly what this is all about. Exactly. When a mother tells you the story of saying goodbye to her son on the phone, and the lines go dead, this brings everything into sharp focus and doubles your determination to do better.
What also motivates me, and my job allows me to do this, is to help the next generation of doers, thinkers and leaders develop. I didn’t have that when I navigated my way through the system. I want to be a sounding board, a card index, street directory, so that my colleagues, who will have greater challenges, can meet them with the best available tools and knowledge.
You can’t pretend this is not a physically and mentally challenging gig. Even as I am largely a desk jockey now. I hold many stories, and images, and situations in my head. Many of these I can never talk about, so as to not breach trust that has been invested in me. Or the images don’t go away. Along with the joy, laughter, moments of wonder, moments of pride, I have had episodes of burn out, exhaustion, depression. Its part of the territory. But I manage this because I have purpose, and I have support. A wonderful family, my wife Hanna, and daughters Emily and Amy, my sisters Maureen and Mary, and brother Owen. Our wonder dog, Archie, who is nearing the end of his life, but still provides us with joy. My friends, particularly the closer friendships that intensified through the pandemic. Text messaging has enabled a new form of schoolyard banter. My team are fabulous, my boss, Andrew COghlan, you couldn’t want for a better boss, knowing the true meaning of humanity. Those teammates who have been on the long journey or a short one with me. I want to come to work each day because of you. I can still kick a football. I paddle the waters of Narrm, or I swim them year round to bring nature into sharp (and bloody cold) relief. The wonder of reading novels, that take you into a whole other dimension. And of course, music. What can’t be said about its supportive, inspirational, calming, motivational presence in my life.
Thank you to everyone who reads, listens, laughs and cries with me. Its what makes it worth it.
Here’s a bunch of songs from this blog