Tom Burton: there is no manual for fighting cyclones


Watching in comfort from afar, you have to be impressed how professional the emergency service response has been to cyclone Debbie in northern Queensland.

Well co-ordinated, focussed on human safety and community resilience — and a highly effective communications plan — for several days emergency services were preparing citizens and their property for the devastating cyclone.

The response has included multiple public agencies — a raft of local, state and federal organisations — and as an exhibition of Australia’s public institutions, it is has been impressive display of what is best about the public sector.

And while the storm surge and flooding is still wreaking havoc, touch wood, yet again we seemed to have avoided major human fatalities and injury.

The same professionalism was on show earlier this year in the NSW western plains fires, where the damage and fatalities from  potentially one of most dangerous fires in the state’s documented history — fuelled by record heat — was kept remarkably low.

I am no expert, but in both cases what is evident is how Australia’s emergency service agencies, as a group, have methodically taken the lessons from previous disasters and continued to adapt their responses. It’s an example to other agencies and sectors of how a determination to learn has led to sustained improvement.

Major inquiries, such as that after the Marysville fires in Victoria, have sometimes brutally made public the mistakes and learnings. But somewhere within the DNA of the emergency service regime is a determination to keep doing things better, and over many years it is obvious how much better we have become at building resilience against Australia’s major fire and cyclonic risks.

An example of this improvement has been the standardising of risk warnings so that it is clear to everyone what is the predicted risk, with responses co-ordinated accordingly. Another is the focus on continuous communications, with professional teams across agencies and jurisdictions — from the Bureau of Meteorology to the ABC, to state policing and emergency services, right down to local councils — all regularly updating on the risk, the various shelter plans and underlying weather. And with consistent messaging about evacuation and other key information.

At a time of widespread derision about the inefficiencies of our federal system, the emergency services sector is an example of making it work. While it is the state agencies that do the heavy lifting, there is well co-ordinated regime driven out of Emergency Management Australia, a division of Canberra’s Attorney General’s department. EMA houses the Crisis Coordination Centre that provides whole of government situational awareness and response coordination.

This is now supported by the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, which was formed two years ago to capture the learnings  across the country, as part of long term plan developed as the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. The centre acts as a national knowledge centre for disaster resilience and among various services offers an excellent podcast series about building resilience.

The strategy was developed six years ago out of COAG as a response to the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather event coming from global climate change. Traditionally disaster relief had focussed on response, with planning largely administrative and an emphasis on the documentation of roles, responsibilities and procedures. Under the strategy there has been a shift to “action-based” resilience with planning built around prevention, mitigation, preparedness and recovery.

This was on display Queensland this week, as a well oiled machine, led by Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, swung into action to prepare and mitigate against one of the most ferocious storms to hit Australia in a decade.

The other key change has been a focus on risk and understanding that disasters do not impact everyone in the same way, and it is often our vulnerable community members who are the hardest hit. This, combined with much stronger strategic co-ordination, has been a game changer, leading to resources being focussed on high risk communities and situations. Rather than spreading precious resources thinly and often on the actual fire or flood, efforts have focussed on mitigation and prevention for the most vulnerable.

This has been a great example of large scale behavioural change. For years the culture and focus of our disaster response had been around the undoubted heroism and efforts of the front line responders — the firies and coppers risking their lives for our safety. The media joined in this culture with the valiant actions of the large volunteer community that underpins much of the front line response given huge coverage.

But as honourable as the first responders are, this skewed public and community effort into response, rather than mitigation and strategic risk management across the wide scale of social, built economic and natural environments.

The patent improvement over the last decade is a great example of the “learning” culture that seems to make the emergency service sector so open to improvement. While many public institutions have retreated from the noisy and unpredictable world of 24/7 social and online media, the emergency services sector have been trailblazers for front-footed use of modern social channels to confidently communicate and engage with communities.

Engagement gives invaluable feedback and it is this feedback that leads to improvement. This willingness to play on the public playing field, rather than hiding behind rigid ministerial communication protocols and timid agency cultures, has built a confidence and an openness to take every disaster as an opportunity to build further resilience. It is a simple but important point that this constant development of resilience builds upon, rather than replaces, existing arrangements. Experience is being institutionally captured and fed back.

And all without a huge manual. Too many agencies still run risk management as a set of five by five matrixes of green, amber and red lights and a library of compliance reports, owned by the geeks in the governance unit, and treated with disdain by the rest of the organisation.

The poster child for an open learning operating system are the big US aircraft carriers where planes come and go in any weather and military situation, off the rooftop of a virtual city of some 5000 people, stuck in the middle of the ocean. On average there is a complete turnover of staff every four years, yet somehow these extraordinarily complex high performance operations are constantly maintained without a book of rules and administrative paraphernalia. Or a manual.

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