Effective Risk Communication

Risk communication is an ongoing difficulty for fire and emergency services. Official reports continue to refer to the need for better, timely warnings and advice on safe action during fire events. This is because a significant proportion of the population in many communities fails to respond appropriately or adequately to fire weather and fire emergency warnings. The failure of pre-event safety messages, fire warnings, post-event communications and the associated action advice results in lower standards of safety and increased property, heritage or cultural, environmental and social losses.

This project provided a better understanding of community engagement with the media to facilitate better communication by agencies and more effective use of the media. A series of reports from La Trobe University researchers on better engagement between fire agencies and the media was used by agencies to better plan their media communications during bushfire incidents.

Work by project leader Professor Douglas Paton at the University of Tasmania identified ways in which communities and individuals respond to warnings and prepare in advance of a fire. Substantial research was undertaken around high fire risk areas in Canberra and Hobart to gauge how people interpret community safety messages from agencies.

For warning messages to be heeded, the community needs to recognise it is at risk.and this study found this is strongly influenced by community psychology and personal experiences and beliefs.

This data was used to construct a bushfire preparedness model for fire services to better deliver preparedness and warning messages to communities. These findings were also presented by Professor Paton to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

Damien Killalea, Director of Community Fire Safety at Tasmania Fire Service, said the research is now being applied: “This research identifies the essential need to understand the psychological motivations and other reasons behind an individual’s decision to act or not to act, sometimes despite their best intentions.”

Two postgraduate projects at the University of Tasmania reinforced this research. Tim Prior identified the key factors that most influenced residents when deciding whether or not to prepare their homes for bushfire. Tim’s work highlighted the importance of different information for different people, and that the notion of “preparedness” differed between agencies and residents.

Educating children about bushfire risk was the focus of a postgraduate study by University of Tasmania student Briony Towers. Her work looked at how children understand bushfire and how they can bring this understanding into their homes. Briony was selected as a top four finalist in the Early Career Scientist Award to present to the CRC Association Annual Conference in 2010 on how this work was taken up by fire agencies. The CFA in Victoria and Ettamogah Productions worked with Briony to develop a series of 30-second animated cartoons that were repeatedly shown on three free to air television networks across southern Australia over the 2009-10 bushfire season with plans to extend the series further.

Related News

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Fire Note 107 discusses an action research program that was developed around the Tasmania Fire Service’s Community Development Pilot. Findings from the pilot have facilitated the wider adoption and implementation of community engagement principals into broader Tasmania Fire Service community education programs.
Bushfire CRC PhD student Briony Towers was selected as a top four finalist in the Early Career Scientist Award to present to the CRC Association Annual Conference in May 2010 - the first social scientist to achieve that honor.
School-based bushfire education is one way of increasing bushfire awareness and preparedness in vulnerable communities. This research aims to develop a child focussed model of bushfire risk perception that fire agencies and educators can use to develop more effective education programs.

Publications from this Project

Book Chapter

Journal Article

E. Cohen; P. Hughes; P.B. White
D. Paton; G. Kelly; P.T. Burgelt; M. Doherty

Conference Paper


E. Cohen; P. Hughes; P.B. White