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Extreme weather. Extreme planning. Extremely necessary?

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In a piece published in the SMH yesterday Anthony Bergin, Director of Research Programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, argues that climate change will require greater preparedness for our emergency services. That doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

Better response? Or better mitigation?

If a bushfire or a flood or a cyclone happens in the middle of nowhere it’s not a disaster – it’s just weather. Disasters happen because we put our homes, businesses and infrastructure in harms way.

Risk is often expressed in terms of hazard x exposure x vulnerability. We know that the main drivers behind current increases in risk (for example as measured by insured losses) are exposure and vulnerability. The risk equation offers us solutions for risk reduction. Even if the hazard increases due to climate change, reducing our exposure and vulnerability will mean that disasters will have less of an impact.

Thus even under climate change, the need for greater emergency preparedness is far from a fait accompli. Mitigation offers us the greatest opportunity to deal with emergencies.

Bergin’s focus on response risks creating a self-fulfilling investment spiral as greater capacity promotes even greater demand at the expense of measures that would actually reduce disaster risks. Investment in better land-use planning, resistant buildings, infrastructure and systems can be a win-win for governments in today’s fiscally constrained environment.

FEMA Australia?

Many countries, notably the US, have large federal disaster response bureaucracies. The question is often asked why Australia doesn’t have a similar agency (or why Emergency Management Australia doesn’t have a similar role). Thing is, Australia’s emergency response system has evolved to be rather different. Unlike countries like the US we have a small number of relatively large emergency services (some of the largest in the world). This makes the intra-jurisdictional deployment and coordination of resources relatively easy and even the deployment of resources across borders straightforward. Due to these large emergency services the states and territories have built up extensive experience and capabilities in disaster response making a FEMA-style federal bureaucracy having to take over a jurisdiction’s response unlikely to ever be needed.

And Emergency Management Australia doesn’t just sit on its laurels waiting for jurisdictions to request assistance – they’re always maintaining situational awareness by receiving and requesting updates from disaster effected states and territories.

The Commonwealth has been taking an increased role in policy coordination, training and education – as it should, increasing the sharing of practices and more consistent policy (where practicable) is one of the key roles of the federal government in a paradigm of cooperative federalism. This has led to substantial advances in emergency warning, the availability of flood information and natural hazards research.

Extreme weather, crime and mental health

Very concerning are Bergin’s arguments that police will need to respond to greater levels of post-disaster mental health problems – rather than say improving the capacity of emergency mental health services. The links between crime and extreme weather are also not as clear as suggested. In very extreme temperatures crime might even fall. Despite increases in heatwave conditions crime in Australia in most categories is falling or stable.

Cases of looting in Australian disasters have been largely exaggerated. A greater focus on looting could have significant consequences as people refuse to evacuate their homes.

Domestic violence is a more insidious problem and studies have shown increases (that can last as long as one year after the event) in gender-based violence post-disaster. This demonstrates that it’s not just developing countries that need to implement gender approaches to disaster management – indeed the 2012 International Day for Disaster Reduction focussed on women and girls. The involvement of gender experts and women’s organisations needs a greater emphasis in our disaster management approaches.

However a reactionary approach to post-disaster family violence ignores the opportunities to improve the resilience of communities and at risk families and target specific family and mental health support in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. Anecdotally the additional psychological resources available after a disaster, especially in rural areas, can lead people to seek treatment for long standing mental health problems.

Army vs. Mud Army

Bergin also argues for a greater role for defence in responding to disasters – even going as far as saying that a dedicated disaster response capacity should be established in the regular or reserve forces.

State based emergency services have extensive experience and capacity in the management of natural and other disasters. This is quite clear when you compare the ADF strength of about 58,000 permanent forces and 22,000 active reservists (with about 3,300 on overseas deployment) with the roughly 32,000 fulltime fire, emergency and ambulance workers, 66,000 police, 280,000 fire and emergency volunteers and at least 22,000 in relief  organisations like the Red Cross, ADRA, Anglicare etc.* This makes for an emergency force somewhere in the vicinity of five times the size of the defence force.

You might argue that the ADF isn’t just people, they have a lot of materiel too. One of the common assets used in disasters are aircraft

The Australian Army has a total of 98 helicopters suitable for counter-disaster operations (35 Blackhawks, 5 Chinooks, 42 Kiowa Scouts and 16 MRH 90s). On the other hand there are nearly 2000 civilian helicopters in Australia, the 6th largest total in the world, with high rates of growth – 21% for twin engine and 8% for single engine. This provides a much larger resource base and stable leasing arrangements for emergency response activities compared to an asset that might be in use overseas. The Army does operate Australia’s largest heavy lift helicopter (the Chinook) with a payload that is just slightly larger than the Erickson Aircrane (aka Elvis – none of these aircraft are actually permanently in Australia, they are leased by the Federal Government during the summer fire season), however I can only find one instance of the Chinook actually being used in counter-disaster operations in Australia.

If Australia needs an increased disaster response capacity the logical place to be building that capacity is in the organisations with disaster response as their primary missions – the emergency services. The ADF has a primary mission of defending Australia against foreign military (and non-military) threats – adding a competing objective of disaster response could dilute both missions and create the risk that neither will be delivered well.

Climate change and a range of other drivers pose many challenges for our emergency management community. But if we can get mitigation right, an increased need for emergency response won’t be one of them.


*Employment figures from 2011 Census taking figures from those employed in the industries of Ambulance Services, Police Services and Fire Protection and Other Emergency Services. Volunteer figures from this paper. These figures don’t take into account people volunteering with multiple organisations, volunteering by emergency service workers or even emergency service workers who are also defence force reservists. The actual rate of this is not well understood by my experience would put it in the range 3-10%, though in some locations that could be much higher.


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