Recriminations follow natural disasters

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

More info

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.

Journal article – Scapegoats, villians, and disasters

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

What is this?

Drabeck, T., & Quarantelli, E. L. (1967). Scapegoats, villains, and disasters. Society, 4(4), 12-17.

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)

Introducing Be Ready Warrandyte

October 22, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Try this out! An online, interactive game from Volunteering Queensland – Disasters Know Your Role

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Not only informative but fun! Congratulations to Volunteering Queensland and partners for developing a great resource.


It’s Resilience Week in Queensland!

October 17, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

Is it time to talk about media accountability yet?

October 16, 2012 Leave a comment

What is this?

Muller, Dennis (2005). Media Accountability in a Liberal Democracy: An Examination of the Harlot’s Prerogative. PhD Thesis. Dept of Political Science, University of Melbourne.

Why is it interesting?

This thesis examines a fundamental and compelling question – one that warrants greater attention in the area of disaster resilience and community safety:

“How can the media most effectively be made accountable for meeting their obligations to society without violating the core democratic value of free speech?”

This topic cuts to the heart of the media’s responsibility to society – ethically and professionally. A couple of quotes from a 16 page synopsis of the thesis give us an idea of why this topic is so important in relation to sharing responsibility for disaster resilience:

“The case for media accountability rests on three broad justifications.

  • “First, the media have been entrusted to discharge certain public-interest functions essential to a democratic society and, by conferring this trust, society is entitled to judge whether it is being honoured. …
  • “The second broad justification for demanding media accountability concerns the nature of the media’s work. The literature on professional ethics and accountability reveals that in addition to two overarching considerations – the social contract and the advancement of the public interest – it is the existence of three characteristics within a profession that creates the circumstances in which society demands accountability: power, privilege and potential for harm. …
  • “The third broad justification is that the media should confront an uncomfortable truth:
    • ‘Lots of people are in the accountability-holding business – either because their jobs give them this responsibility or because they have simply assumed it. Of course, journalists believe it is their constitutional mission to hold everyone accountable.’1” (synopsis, p.1-2)

(1 Robert D. Behn, Rethinking Democratic Accountability, Washington DC, Brookings Institution Press, 2001, p.3.)

“The quest for media accountability is entirely consistent with contemporary democratic development. Increasingly in democratic societies, those who wield power are expected to account for the way they use it, and the political science literature is replete with works devoted to the subject. Public demand for accountability has been described as “an unquenchable thirst” that cuts across the political spectrum.2 The research for this thesis shows clearly that accountability by the media to the public in Australia falls well short of slaking the “unquenchable thirst”. Media performance is poorly regarded, and on questions of ethics the media and the public are significantly out of step with each other. At the same time, the mechanisms of accountability are not only weak and fragmented, but virtually invisible to the public eye” (p.3).

(2 Mark H. Moore and Margaret Jane Gates, Inspectors-General: Junkyard Dogs or Man’s Best Friend? Russell Sage Foundation, 1986, pp.2, 1.)

[The final chapter of this thesis] sets out a new normative theory of the media. This theory – a social contract theory – proposes that the media should be held accountable to specific public institutions for specific dimensions of their performance. These dimensions relate to functions and behaviours. The social contract theory goes beyond traditional social responsibility theory by stating that in a modern democracy it is not enough simply to recognise that the media have social responsibilities. There is a right on the part of society to see that those responsibilities are discharged and to hold the media to account for any abrogation of them.” (synopsis, p. 12).

Although the idea of sharing responsibility for disaster resilience is most often used in Australia to refer to relations between  governments and ‘communities’ (or more accurately citizens and civil society), the media’s involvement in shaping or mediating aspects of these relations is critical and warrants much greater attention than it has yet received in Australian disaster management/emergency management circles.

More info

The full version of the thesis is available here.

The transcript of a 2005 interview with Dennis Muller about this topic is also available on ABC National Radio’s Media Report.

Thanks to Dr Holly Foster (Office of the Fires Services Commissioner Victoria) for bringing this work to my attention.

It’s a people thing – introducing a written account of a stakeholder workshop

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.

Ethical Principles on Disaster Risk Reduction and People’s Resilience

May 28, 2012 1 comment

What is this?

Prieur, M. (2012). Ethical principles on disaster risk reduction and people’s resilience. European and Mediterranean Major Hazards Agreement (EUR-OPA).

The aim of this document is to establish what moral obligations various parties have with respect to disaster management in light of international law.

Why is it interesting?

The general principle of ‘joint responsibility’ in this document reflects a similar idea as the ‘shared responsibility” principle in Australia. It is specifically targeted to preparedness and  “efficient contribution” during emergencies.

Thanks to Karyn Bosomworth at RMIT University for passing this on.

This document deals with the ethical principles of the whole disaster cycle: from prevention to reconstruction via the emergency phase, irrespective of the duration of the disaster (sudden or progressive) or its context (simple or complex emergency). It concerns both natural and technological disasters. It is intended to deal both with the direct victims of disasters and with the other parties involved, such as public civil defence organisations, public servants of states affected by disasters and of assisting states, and humanitarian NGOs.

This document is the response of the Executive Secretariat of the European and Mediterranean Major Hazards Agreement (EUR-OPA) to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s invitation to it, in Recommendation 1862 (2009), to prepare an ethical charter on resilience to disasters.

It includes:

General principles: (i) Solidarity; (ii) Joint responsibility; (iii) Non-discrimination; (iv) Humanity; (v) Impartiality; (vi) Neutrality; (vii) Co-operation; (viii) Territorial sovereignty; (ix) Prevention; and (x) Role of the media.

Ethical principles applied prior to disasters: (i) Introduction of prevention measures; (ii) The importance of a good quality healthy environment; (iii) Education, training and awareness-raising about resilience to disasters; (iv) Prior information; (v) Participation; (vi) Freedom of expression; (vii) Access to justice; (viii) Disaster prevention at the workplace; (ix) Disaster prevention in recreation and tourist areas; (x) Disaster prevention in public places, particularly schools and hospitals; (xi) Special prevention measures for the most vulnerable groups; (xii) Organisation of and participation in emergency drills; (xiii) Preventive evacuation of populations.

The ethical principles applied during disasters: (i) Humanitarian assistance; (ii) Information and participation during disasters; (iii) Compulsory evacuation of populations; (iv) Respect of dignity; (v) Respect of persons; (vi) Emergency assistance for the most vulnerable persons; (vii) The importance of rescue workers; (viii) Measures to safeguard and rehabilitate the environment; and (ix) Necessary measures to safeguard and restore social ties.

The ethical principles applied after disasters: (i) Strengthening resilience to the effects of disasters; (ii) Necessary measures; (iii) Protection of economic, social and cultural rights; and (iv) Protection of civil and political rights.


Documentary – Creating a New Normal

Firefoxes Australia is a grassroots support group that emerged in the Kinglake Ranges in 2009 following the Black Saturday bushfires.

“Firefoxes Australia in conjunction with Black Saturday survivors, filmmaker Helen Newman and the Victorian Women’s Trust, launch a new documentary “Creating a New Normal”.

Creating a New Normal follows the extraordinary story of Firefoxes as they try to rebuild their community from a grassroots level. Featuring candid interviews about the rollercoaster ride of recovery it’s a story of passion, vision, hope, love and leadership.

Founding Firefoxes, Jemima Richards and Kate Riddell, say the documentary gives a voice to women’s stories and promotes the leadership roles they can fulfill in disaster recovery.

“We hope the wisdom shared in this documentary will help other survivors recover from the trauma of disasters and inspire them to recognise the incredible power in simple things like women gathering to share and support each other” says Kate. Creating a new normal highlights what women can do and achieve when they work together to build stronger, more resilient and prepared communities for whatever may happen in the future.” (Source:

You can view a sneak preview of the documentary below. The full documentary is also available for viewing on Youtube.

Sharing responsibility, sharing control? Thinking about self-directed care and the National Disaster Resilience Program (NDRP)

For me, a basic tenet within the sharing responsibility idea that was revealed through discussions at our March workshop was this: the role of governments is more about enabling and empowering communities to build their disaster resilience ‘from the ground-up’ than about directing and providing disaster resilience through traditional ‘top-down’ program delivery.

A related question that was debated at some length in open discussion at the workshop was this: how far might this idea extend to sharing control of public resources for resilience-building with communities? In short: are governments willing and able to share more control of the money with communities?

The discussion reminded me of the little bit I’ve read about ‘self-directed care’, also called ‘self-managed risk’. Self-directed care is a model for social care delivery that emphasises the choice and rights of social care recipients such as people with disabilities and the elderly. A key part of this model is that recipients manage their own social care budget. Rather than having people from government agencies 1) decide how this social care should be delivered, and 2) control the funding of that care, recipients receive direct payments and make their own decisions about what to do with it. With support and within certain guidelines, recipients thus have greater control over how their own care needs are fulfilled.

Read more…