Refuge: when artists and emergency agencies collaborate

By David Donaldson

October 27, 2017

Refuge project, City of Melbourne. Source: provided.

If someone asked who could best contribute to emergency planning, artists are probably not the first profession that would come to mind.

But a project currently underway in Melbourne has given a group of artists the task of coming up with creative responses to some of the problems the city could face during a serious heatwave.

“Heat can be a silent killer. It doesn’t get as much media attention as some other emergency situations.”

Refuge is a five year initiative, created as a collaboration between contemporary performance centre Arts House, the Resilient Melbourne project and the City of Melbourne, as part of its climate adaptation strategy. It aims to create stronger community resilience, awareness and preparedness for the imminent impacts of climate change.

Last year the first annual Refuge event took place, bringing members of the public together around the theme of flood

The approximately 700 attendees were able to both experience creative ideas about the potential emergency response and talk to emergency agencies about the more mainstream questions of what they can do when disaster strikes.

This year on November 11 Refuge will take place at North Melbourne Town Hall, one of the City of Melbourne’s designated emergency relief sites.

And while the involvement of a creative response might raise some eyebrows, you won’t be seeing interpretive dance — the artists engage with emergency and health services, scientists, First Nations elders and community while developing their ideas, discussing issues such as what the authorities would like the public to do to be prepared.

Each is given a particular aspect of the response to cover, including sleep, communications, energy, food, wellbeing and community connectedness.

For example, last year for the subject of food, members of the public were given some money and asked to go and buy food items appropriate for a relief centre, then some stayed there overnight and had to use the food others had bought.

“It is connected to what’s going on in the relief centre but it’s their interpretation,” explains City of Melbourne Emergency Management Coordinator Christine Drummond.

“Without wanting to give too much away, one of the artists this year is looking at an emergency phone tree, a communication tree. For energy, an artist might look at how much power is used by different household appliances.

“It gives the community a chance to have a think about what the effects of an emergency might mean to them.”

It’s about more than just outreach though — there are things the agencies can learn from the experience too. They get the chance to observe how people respond to different situations, and it can highlight aspects of the emergency experience that might have been neglected in the past.

“The takeaway from last year for what you might call the ‘traditional’ agencies is probably thinking a bit more broadly about what we can do in relief centres,” Drummond told The Mandarin.

“There’s no reason why we can’t partner with artists and do something fun. That might sound a bit morbid in an emergency context but when you’ve got kids and lots of people who are stressed all together it might be a good idea to have some entertainment to keep people occupied.”

And this year’s theme — a prolonged heatwave — is certainly topical, with recent research indicating Melbourne and Sydney will be facing 50 degree days by the end of this century.

But heatwaves are, of course, already a feature of Australia’s climate. It doesn’t even necessarily take temperatures above 40 degrees to have a serious impact on citizens’ health, says Drummond.

“People can think about what they can do to help themselves and those around. People need to be aware of their neighbours, especially elderly people. We suggest things like having checklist to give them a call and pop in to see if they’re okay when it’s really hot.

“Heat can be a silent killer. It doesn’t get as much media attention as some other emergency situations. And it doesn’t have to be heat in the 40s or high 30s — several days and nights of persistent heat can stop people sleeping, cause fatigue and exacerbate existing health problems.”

Images by Bryony Jackson.

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