Information processing under stress

A person facing a threat has two competing tasks: To manage the threat itself, perhaps by acting. And to manage the emotional response to the threat, referred to as fear control. The relationship between heightened psychological stimulation and decision-making quality is not direct and nor is it directly linked to action. The perception of threat can motivate a person to act. Without that perception of danger, the person may not otherwise take action.

This project's approach to understanding community members’ reactions to information comprised two streams. The first stream, 'Turning good intentions into action', focused on how community members process information in the lead up to, and during, the bushfire season. The second stream, 'Warnings and their interpretations during emergencies', focused on how community members process information during bushfire emergencies.

Professor Timothy Skinner, of Charles Darwin University, and Professor David Morrison, of Murdoch University, led the project team, which comprised researchers Dr Illy McNeill and Dr Patrick Dunlop at the University of Western Australia,

The project included major studies that provided significant insights into the reasons behind people's responses to bushfire threat and, for the first time, defined and measured 'bushfire preparedness' in ways that can be broadly and usefully applied.

Defend or evacuate? Why residents delay deciding
This study showed that householders experience extreme difficulty in making the decision to defend or evacuate their homes. This can, in some cases, help to explain why they delay their ultimate decision until the day of a bushfire – they put off deciding, out of two hard decisions, which to choose.

Householders who delay their decision are not necessarily unmotivated to think about bushfire, nor are they trying to hide from the reality of bushfire threat. They are just as aware of the risks as those who intend to respond to a fire threat with a concrete action: either defending or evacuating. They also feel just as responsible for the outcome (e.g. losing their house or being injured). What this study shows is that the extreme difficulty in making the decision paralysing indecision. During a fire, they will therefore spend more time deciding what to do, which increases the chances of making a poor-quality decision.

The most important solution to this dilemma is for fire agencies to advise residents on how to identify appropriate triggers and, therefore, appropriate actions to take under a variety of conditions. Over the longer term, agencies could eventually reduce the community’s reliance on the agencies’ advice by establishing better links with the community and increasing community-driven education. Community members could then use this knowledge to help individual households to develop good contingency plans.

Developing multi-dimensional measures of community bushfire preparedness
This study pioneered a new way of thinking about bushfire preparedness and how to measure it.

It defined bushfire preparedness in terms of three goals:
(1) Preparing to safely and successfully stay and defend the property throughout a fire.
(2) Preparing to safely evacuate a property.
(3) Preparing a property so as to improve its chances of surviving a fire, in the residents' absence.

The researcher team combined the judgements of an expert panel of emergency service professionals, together with questionnaire data from bushfire-prone residents, to develop a new measure for these three types of bushfire preparedness.

To date there had been little agreement on how household bushfire preparedness had been defined and measured in research studies and in practice. This research has enabled the development of a new formal definition of household bushfire preparedness.

The measures of preparedness developed in this study have already been used by other teams of Bushfire CRC researchers in their research into community preparedness. It is hoped that the measure will become the standard for other community preparedness researchers, both nationally and internationally.

Predicting bushfire preparedness from bushfire expectations
This study investigated community preparedness in the wake of bushfires in the Perth Hills in February 2011. Surveys were mailed out to affected communities two weeks after the fire, examining the link between several potential predictors of why residents prepare for a bushfire: perceptions of risk, safety responsibility, reliance on an official warning, and the ongoing availability of essential services. It also examined four types of bushfire preparedness activities: defence preparation, evacuation preparation, general resilience of the house and psychological planning.

Results showed that all predictors had baseline relationships with all types of preparedness activities. However, some predictors were shown to be more important than others. Perceiving the threat of bushfire to be more severe was a more important predictor of higher levels of all types of preparation than perceiving the threat as more likely, which did not uniquely predict any type of preparedness behaviour. Residents who felt they would be able to rely on an official bushfire warning and residents who expected to lose electricity were both important in predicting general resilience of the house. The former predicted lower resilience, and the latter predicted higher resilience. Expecting to lose water services was also important in predicting higher levels of psychological planning.

A postgraduate study by the University of Western Australia’s Cathy Yinghui Cao was connected to this project. Cathy investigated effective communication of household bushfire risk through web-based geo-visualisation considerations. The WebGIS-based model can be used to present household specific bushfire risk information and corresponding action during bushfires.

Related News

AFAC 2013 Conference Logo
The formal proceedings of the Research Forum, held as part of the 2013 Bushfire CRC and AFAC Conference in Melbourne are now available.
Bushfire Preparedness Research
It is a critical choice that could have devastating repercussions for residents in bushfire-prone areas. Yet it’s a decision that many will delay until the day of a fire. Why do residents delay their decision to defend or evacuate, and what can be done to help them make more timely, appropriate choices?
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Why do many residents of bushfire prone areas delay their decision to defend or evacuate in response to a bushfire until the day of a fire?
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Fire Note 108 outlines community preparedness research conducted into the bushfires that occurred in the Perth Hills in February 2011. It examines the link between several potential predictors of why residents prepare for a bushfire and different types of bushfire preparedness activities.

External References

Professor Tim Skinner talks about his Bushfire CRC project "Information Processing Under Stress - Community Reactions." Tim was interviewed at the 2010 Bushfire CRC annual conference in Darwin.