Community Level Influence on Individual Behaviours - final project report

Classify & Cross-ref
Alerts and Warnings
Basic Wildfire Awareness
Community Safety
Health and Safety
Risk Management
TitleCommunity Level Influence on Individual Behaviours - final project report
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsMorrison, D, Lawrence, C, Oehmen, R
Date Published11/2014
InstitutionBushfire CRC

When bushfires occur, many of the people who confront them are ill prepared to take actions which would mitigate risk to life and property; others are well prepared. There also appear to be large differences between communities in their preparedness, as well as in other characteristics which may be important in determining property owners' perceptions of risk and their subsequent preparedness. As yet, there appears to be no systematic account of the nature of these community differences and what effect they have on individual preparedness.  Nor has there been any concerted effort to disentangle individual characteristics from community influences.

The studies described in this report were designed to fill this gap and to identify those community characteristics which influence fire preparedness and danger management. By preparedness, we refer to actions undertaken by householders prior to the occurrence of a bushfire (i.e. where bushfire poses a distal, rather than immediate threat). In particular, we sought to examine the extent to which individuals are influenced by their local communities in their perceptions of risk and their judgments about their capacity to influence outcomes, as well as the subsequent impact this has on individual action.

The first study was a commissioned survey of residents’ responses following bushfires in Western Australia in 2011. This assisted us in identifying community level variables related to people’s preparation for bushfires as well as in refining our measures of fire preparedness. The second, qualitative, small-sample pilot study was designed to provide an in-depth study into how people think about bushfires and bushfire risk as well as how they prepare for such events. It also provided material to inform the design of the measures used in subsequent phases of the project. Two large-scale, quantitative studies of community and individual level predictors of fire preparedness were then conducted: one based in fire-prone communities in Western Australia; the other sampling similar at risk communities in three additional states: Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia. Both community and individual characteristics were measured using self-report questionnaires comprised of some standard measures (e.g. Social Capital and Place Attachment) and some devised specifically for this research project (e.g. perceptions of risk, fire preparedness).

Our approach was designed to enable us to study behaviour from a multilevel perspective (i.e. individuals embedded within communities) with a view to measuring the amount of variance in individual behaviour that is affected by community level variables.  We employed a statistical technique (Hierachical Linear Modelling) which allowed us to untangle the relative importance of community and individual influences on household preparedness.

Three main questions were addressed in the four studies which constitute this project:

  • To what extent do community characteristics influence individual perceptions of risk and fire preparedness?
  • How much variation in fire preparedness at the individual level can be explained by community characteristics as opposed to individual level characteristics?
  • What combination of community level and individual characteristics best predicts preparedness?

Although our results showed clear differences between communities in all the samples and on many variables, the HLM analysis of data from the fire-prone Western Australian communities indicated that the actual contribution of community level variables to individual preparedness, although significant, was small; only the aggregated perceptions of the bushfire risk in the respondents’ town was a significant community level predictor. Most of the differences between respondents in their preparedness were related to individual characteristics such as the location of their property, home ownership, employment status, previous experience with fire and involvement with bushfire related organisations.

The second survey of 18 additional communities from Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania produced similar results. Again, HLM analysis revealed that community level influences were significant, but small in magnitude and that individual level characteristics predicted most of the variation in preparedness. Being retired, being involved in community preparedness activities and living on rural blocks were significant predictors. When individual-level variables derived from the Theory of Planned Behaviour were added, results showed that the better prepared were those who had favourable attitudes to controlled burning and those who reported stronger social norms to undertake bushfire preparation. Those who felt more capable of undertaking bushfire preparedness actions were also more likely to take them. Only one community-level variable, the ‘Proportion of Respondents Involved in a Community Preparedness Activity’ was a significant predictor: the greater the proportion of the community involved in community preparedness activities, the greater the overall level of preparedness.

The results from Western Australia suggest that communities may develop shared perceptions of risk which, when high, predict the amount of preparation undertaken. In addition, the national data show that a high degree of community involvement in preparedness activities like community meetings, information sessions and the volunteer bushfire brigades also generate higher levels of  preparation in any community. They also confirm that individual preparedness is influenced by greater levels of participation in community organisations, like bushfire ready groups, an experience which seems to induce people to better prepare their own properties as well as taking part in community actions (Shiralipour, Monroe, Nelson, & Payton, 2006). These findings are consistent with research which shows that local knowledge of bushfires and a history of bushfire experience within communities influence both risk perception and trust that preventive measures make a difference (Blanchard & Ryan, 2003; Bushnell & Cottrell, 2007b). The results also show that where community members are aware of social norms which highlight the importance of preparedness, they are more likely to prepare. 

Bushfire mitigation policies based on these findings should incorporate strategies which facilitate participation in community bushfire organisations, elevate perceptions of fire risk within communities and reinforce social expectations (norms) that preparedness actions will be and should be carried out.