Decision Making under stress - understanding community members survival related decision making in bushfire (Analysis of 2009 Victorian Bushfires)

Evidence presented to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission suggested that a significant number of casualties might have been averted if residents had made (and acted upon) decisions more appropriate to their situation. This research has found that a principal driver of residents’ actions under threat of a bushfire was what they intended to do beforehand.

Dr Jim McLennan of La Trobe University advanced the understanding of why community members might choose to leave, stay and defend or to wait and see what develops, upon receiving a bushfire warning. This could influence policies on evacuating, sheltering and defending in the face of hazards and disasters.

Relatively little research has been published about what drives residents’ initial decisions to leave, to stay, or to wait and see how a bushfire threat develops. Findings indicate that safety (family and individual) is the main driver for those who leave. Residents who stay and defend their property do so to protect their valued assets. Residents who wait and see do so because they fear making the wrong decision. Very few residents who stated they would either leave or wait and see indicated that they would leave early based on the predicted fire danger. Different psychological processes of individuals are responsible for these choices.

Most residents who intend to leave probably do not need general, fear-arousing messages about how dangerous bushfires are. Given the apparent importance for many of anxiety about losing the house and about danger when leaving, it may be more effective if messages emphasis:
(a) Low-cost actions (low cost in terms of money, time, effort, inconvenience) that mitigate the probability of their house being destroyed in their absence.
(b) How to plan and prepare for a safe evacuation.

It seems unlikely that general messages that focus on bushfire survival will greatly influence residents who are intent on staying and protecting their assets. It is probable that more effective ways of influencing these residents to do realistic risk assessments of their likely success under different fire danger conditions, and to engage in worst-case thinking in relation to their house, family and individual situations, are needed. This may allow vulnerabilities in the house–householder–defence system to be identified.

Most residents intending to ‘wait and see’ do so primarily because they perceive their risk to be low. They view both leaving unnecessarily and staying in a dangerous situation as unacceptable. Continually receiving messages that say ‘don’t wait and see when a bushfire threatens’ is unlikely to be effective in these situations. Perhaps a more achievable aim is to seek to convert them into ‘intending to leave’ based on certain conditions being met. For example, ‘don’t plan to wait and just hope for the best – decide your trigger to leave safely and prepare for this’.

Erin Doolan, PhD candidate at Victoria University, researched the risk factors in residential fire fatalities for the mentally ill and socially at risk. She identified social isolation as one of the specific risk factors that may increase the risk of death in a residential fire.

PhD student Mary Cadeddu (RMIT University) identified significant couple/marital judgment and decision making processes that influence survival related decision making in forming a bushfire plan.
 

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Yass fire - photo by the NSWRFS
Different psychological processes between individuals drives decision making. What does this mean for residents who are threatened by bushfire? Why do they decide to evacuate, stay and defend or wait and see?
The Bushfire CRC, in partnership with the Australian Science Media Centre, conducted an online background briefing on bushfires on current national bushfire research projects on 13 December 2012.
Task Force researchers in Strathewen
Fire Note 98 is a summary of the final report from the project: Decision making under stress: understanding community members survival-related decision making in bushfire.