This project examined the role, scope and limits of Australian bushfire and community safety communication in preparing householders for bushfire.
Professor Peter Fairbrother led the research team, which was based at RMIT University, and comprised Dr Bernard Mees, Dr Meagan Tyler, Dr Richard Phillips, Dr Yoko Akama, Dr Susan Chaplinand Dr Keith Toh.
The project explored the ways in which residents perceive and understand community in the context of communication and bushfire preparedness.The team conducted 249 face-to-face individual interviews, joint and telephone interviews with 265 participants and ran 13 focus groups involving 71 participants. This process included speaking to 46 fire and other agency personnel responsible for bushfire management and communication. The research took place in 12 localities across New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.
Among their key findings, they conclude that a more strategic, interactive and tailored approach is needed to build resilience and have a lasting and measurable impact in risk areas.
Professor Fairbrother says the threat of bushfire is a practical reality of everyday life for increasing numbers of people living at the rural/urban fringe and beyond.
“As that threat intensifies, due to factors such as changing climate conditions and shifting populations, the challenge lies in engaging and ‘tooling up’ these vulnerable communities with education and information resources that hit the mark,” he said.
“We know that effective communication is critical to bushfire preparedness and response. But the reality is that there continues to be a mismatch between the information given and what people do before and during a bushfire.
“Our research examined that puzzle, identifying what really happens within these communities and highlights the implications for community safety educators and agencies.”
The project encompassed a range of studies, which included the following:
The Social Network Study aimed to understand the quality and characteristics of a social network that could aid bushfire preparedness. It involved a case study in the Kingborough and Huon Valley municipalities in south east Tasmania, close to Hobart.
The researchers explored issues such as whom people seek advice from in relation to bushfire preparedness and the various types and credibility for the individual of communication exchanges. The study provided a basis to understand when and how information from fire agencies and other formal institutions might be passed along the social networks.
The study revealed that people with insular, bonding networks could be potentially more vulnerable to a bushfire or other emergency. This was particularly apparent when there was little or no connection to others in the community or information avenues for fire agencies.
While community leaders play important roles in communication and bushfire preparation, this study points to a range of formal and informal roles by individuals who are ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘community champions’. Some of these members self-identify (i.e. pro-actively volunteer), while others may not recognise their importance to their networks. Examining people’s roles based on their influence to transform relationships or stimulate reciprocal assistance helped the research team provide key insights as to how adaptive capacities can be built.
The Bushfire Communication Grid is a repository of catalogued bushfire communication products gathered from a variety of agencies across Australia. Dubbed 'the Grid', it achieved one of the project's goals of investigating and potentially shaping communication strategies, as well as educational programs, key messages and delivery modes to help increase bushfire preparedness.
Through a content and knowledge management system, the Grid enables agencies to effectively manage their communication products, which are significant assets.
Knowledge and content management tools, such as the Grid, provide access to information about what is in circulation and what has been produced. This is useful as a basis for building further communication strategies for bushfire preparedness.
Gender has been largely ignored as a factor in bushfire preparedness and response in Australia. The study highlighted the need to recognise gender as a crucial element in communicating about bushfires.
This study found that males and females respond in different ways to bushfire, and the most common example of this was a bushfire plan that involves a female partner evacuating and a male partner staying to defend. This was seen as the gendered expectation of behaviour. This shows that the social construction of gender is a critical factor in determining what course of action may appeal to residents and how they determine, or attempt to determine, an agreed course of action within a household.
Recognising this, and taking it into account with communications around preparation, response and recovery, is crucial.
Three postgraduate studies extend the work of the overall project. Brenda Mackie’s (University of Canterbury) PhD thesis examined the role that warning fatigue plays in the risk perceptions, warning response and decision-making processes of people living in bushfire-prone areas. Her study showed that warning fatigue reduced attention to bushfire warnings, changing the way those surveyed thought about their bushfire risk and affecting their response to warnings. Unexpectedly, it was found that warning fatigue was highest at the beginning of the fire season, and decreased during the season. This was connected to ‘unofficial’ warnings, such as media reports during winter of the upcoming bushfire season – when official warnings were issued at the beginning of the fire season, the public were already tired of the message. Brenda proposed that if emergency and disaster agencies differentiate between rapid-onset and prolonged lead-time disasters, understand the complexities of warning fatigue and design their warnings accordingly, then disaster risk communication will become more effective, thereby increasing public engagement and improving disaster response. This new understanding of warning fatigue can help disaster-response agencies to improve their risk communications to communities, thereby better protecting lives and property.
Ben Reynolds, RMIT University, reviewed how the Victorian State Government, Country Fire Authority and the community each contribute to fire preparedness within Victoria. As part of the study, he explored case studies of fire management in Greece and America to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Victorian approaches, recommending opportunities for improvement.
David Barton, also from, RMIT University, examined the concept of loss, from definitional stages through to the stages of recovery. His thesis draws on his personal insights of his experiences into the Black Saturday fires, as well as the experiences of his Marysville community.