Check out this article in the Australian newspaper from March this year, written by Michael Eburn from the Australian National University and Anthony Bergin, Deputy Director of the Australia Strategic Policy Institute.
[Note: if you can’t access the whole article via the above link you can ‘google’ “recriminations follow natural disasters” and clink on the link to the site for the Australian newspaper article. This work-around returns the whole text].
The article discusses the public inquiries that follow natural hazard events in Australia, personal attribution of blame and the possibly negative impact of intense scrutiny of individuals on the ability (of emergency managers firstly, but perhaps more widely of all of us) to collectively learn from experiences with these events.
These authors describe how disaster inquiries “are getting longer and more personal”. Whereas earlier inquiries “focused on the causes of disasters and social conditions that led to vulnerability”, the more recent inquiries have “focused on the response and have made personal comments and judgments about the conduct of individuals.” They argue that this is not a positive change as it leads us to overlook other, less easily targeted, aspects that contribute to creating the conditions for disasters to occur. One of these aspects is the thorny issue of understanding and accepting the personal responsibilities that all people have when they live in places where there is a risk of a natural hazard event occurring:
Seeing heads roll may give the community some satisfaction and a belief that any problems are now solved.
But the problems in emergency management are generally not caused by inadequate response or lack of inter-agency co-operation.
They are the product of earlier policy decisions: where and how we live, how we balance competing objectives in areas like land use planning, and how we take responsibility for our own welfare.
The public sometimes asks why our emergency services have not learned the lessons from disaster inquiries. Indeed, there is now a community expectation that nothing much will go wrong.
But a legal process that places individuals under extreme scrutiny for the actions they take in a crisis may not identify the lessons that must be learned after disasters, without also sacrificing Australia’s emergency managers and putting at risk our volunteer emergency services.
Michael has a recent article in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management that examines the issue of how we measure the success of emergency management. He also has a blog dedicated to Australian Emergency Law.
Anthony has written a number of policy reports on the theme of disaster resilience, available via the APSI website here. (Search for “Resilience” in the publication list)
Similar themes are also discussed in a classic 1967 article on “scapegoats, villains, and disasters” by Thomas Drabeck and Enrico Quarantelli.
What is this?
Why is it interesting?
Writing in the context of the USA in the 1960s, this paper is a classic piece on the personalization of blame following disasters. It argues that “the need to blame someone for a catastrophe can hamper the search for what caused it” (p.12), particularly structural causes rooted in the nature of our social systems.
Here are a few notable quotes:
As we see it, personal blame assignment in American society cannot be avoided; it is rooted in the institutional framework. Investigative agencies are bound by laws that force them “to point the finger” only at persons who are potentially legally prosecutable. The grand jury might think the system to blame; but under the law it could only bring legal charges against human beings. Only individuals can be indicted and brought to trial-not social structures. (p.15)
Personalizing fault-blaming our problems on the inadequacies or guilt of individuals rather than on systems or institutions-is not confined to disasters. (p.17)
If the individual is the source of all difficulties, why raise questions about the society? (p.17)
What is this?
On its new web page Be Ready Warrandyte is described as a “self-help, community-led project to develop tools and resources to help our community to be safer and more able to deal with the risk of bushfires. The project’s goal is to have more Warrandyte households with effective bushfire plans.”
The “Be Ready Warrandyte” project is a call to action to the Warrandyte community and our neighbours to be informed, supported and well prepared for the everyday reality of living with bushfire risk.
The Warrandyte Community Association successfully applied for a ‘Fire Ready Communities Grant’ from the Victorian State Government to undertake the project. It has also received supplementary funds from the Warrandyte Community Bank, Manningham City Council, the Shire of Nillumbik and the Warrandyte Community Market Committee.
Why is it interesting?
Listen to Warrandyte Community Association president Dick Davies and project manager Jodi Clark (from the Good Work Group) explain what the project is all about:
The executive committee that oversees the project is a great example of ‘shared responsibility’ in practice. It is headed by the president of the Warrandyte Community Association and involves a number of Warrandyte Community Association members, local Community Fireguard Leaders, representatives from the two local councils in the area, Country Fire Authority brigade captains, a representative from the Communities and Communication team of the Country Fire Authority, a Victorian State Government representative and myself as representative of RMIT University and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.
The project is in its early days. A major activity undertaken so far include a community survey that was completed by 25% of the households in the Greater Warrandyte area. The survey results are being analysed by the project manager as I type. The project team engaged with local businesses, community leaders, the local market, radio, and local councils to gather support for the survey and the project. It’s great to see the combined skills, networks and energy of people from across Warrandyte come together for such a good cause.
I’m excited to see what this collaborative approach can do to support this community to prepare itself to live with bushfire risk.
Not only informative but fun! Congratulations to Volunteering Queensland and partners for developing a great resource.
Volunteering Queensland are running ‘Resilience Week‘ from 15-19th October.
Resilience Week is about helping you realise how prepared you and your loved ones are for disasters, and encouraging you to act. During 15-19 Oct 2012 we’ll be showcasing resilience and encouraging you to bring this discussion to the table in your own lives
Particularly interesting when it come to the idea of sharing responsibility is the launch – today! – of an online, interactive resource ‘Disasters: Know Your Role’. The Volunteering Queensland website describes Disasters: Know Your Role as “an everyday language version of the Queensland Disaster Management Arrangements.”
I’ll post a link to it once its available later today, but in the meantime here’s a short teaser:
Another great and simple resource produced by Volunteering Queensland is the Disaster Readiness Index. This is a short check list to focus people’s attention on how prepared they really are for a possible disaster.
Some months have passed since a wide range of stakeholders came together in a workshop at RMIT University in March to talk about shared responsibility and disaster resilience.
The ideas and opinions voiced at that workshop have stayed with me and continue to shape how I think about the research I’m doing. In particular, the workshop helped me to see how crucial it is to examine connections between responsibility, control and agency. It also helped me to understand more deeply that sharing responsibility is also very much about sharing control.
This is a theme that I want to explore in a presentation I’m giving at the AFAC/Bushfire CRC annual conference at the end of this month in Perth. I’m still preparing it now but a central point will be the need for public agencies to ‘make space for community’, or more accurately civil society, if a philosophy of sharing responsibility is really going to underpin the way we ‘do’ emergency management. This implies that significant change may lie ahead in the way that public agencies do some of their core business.
As Andrew Wilson (Manager Fire Knowledge and Learning, Fire Division at the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment) reminded us at the March workshop, ‘government’ and ‘community’ are abstract entities. It is not these abstract entities but people who ultimately share responsibility and control. Thus, at one level ‘making space for communities’ is really about the people who work in and around emergency management considering how they might personally embody a philosophy of sharing responsibility (and control) in their own practices, relationships and areas of influence. I count myself and other disaster management researchers amongst this group. Of course, structures and institutions shape practice: but again it is people who collectively bring change to even the largest structures and institutions.
This entry is a rather long winded way of introducing a written account of the March workshop. The account shows a rich, diverse and healthy discussion around central issues like control and agency. What is most compelling for me is that the face-to-face nature of the discussion energized the exchange and brought the issues down to the ground. Woven into the discourse were case studies and personal accounts by ‘real’ people from across a spectrum of stakeholders. I was pleased to hear one of the speakers – John Schauble, Manager Policy & Planning with the Victorian Office of the Fire Services Commissioner – remind us that he stood in front of us as an individual, a CFA volunteer and a community member as well as a ‘government official’.
The face-to-face discussion at the workshop helped me to realize that while the much-talked-about principle of ‘Shared Responsibility’ comes to us from high level inquiry reports and policy statements, ‘sharing responsibility’ – that is, the process of putting such a principle into practice is much more personal. It is really all about how we – the people who live and work with risk – work together.