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Chapter 10: Community education


10.1 Preparing for natural disasters is not the sole domain of governments and agencies. Individuals and communities also have an important role in ensuring that, if a disaster were to strike, they are prepared to manage the consequences.

10.2 While we heard that some individuals and communities were well prepared for the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, this was not always the case. For other individuals and communities, although they did prepare, the intensity of the bushfires meant that no level of preparation would have been sufficient. For others, they were seemingly unprepared for what confronted them.

10.3 In encouraging individual and community preparedness for natural disasters, governments have a critically important role in providing information on disaster risks via community education and engagement programs. These education and engagement programs are key to informing and empowering individuals and communities, and they should be fit for purpose – accounting for changing risk profiles and community demographics.

10.4 We encourage efforts by governments to deliver, evaluate, and improve these programs, to ensure that individuals and communities are resilient to natural disasters.

Learning to survive natural disasters

10.5 Increasingly, Australians are living in areas at risk of natural disasters. Individuals and communities, particularly those in high-risk areas, have a responsibility to be prepared for natural disasters. For individuals and communities, planning and preparing for a natural disaster can minimise injury and damage to property or possessions while reducing harm and trauma. Most importantly, it can be the difference between life and death.

In significant emergencies and disasters, emergency management personnel do not, and never will, have the capability and capacity to solve the emergency threat for every individual at risk. [1156]

10.6 Although governments have a role in communicating and mitigating disaster risks, their ability to protect individuals and communities during a natural disaster is limited. Fire and emergency services only have finite resources, which means that individuals, particularly in natural disaster prone areas, need to plan and act on the basis that help might not arrive during a disaster. [1157] Clearly, the risks to which an individual or community is exposed will depend on their circumstances and location. For example, exposure to risk might be increased for someone who is a ‘vulnerable person’ or for someone who lives in a flood or bushfire-prone area. Individuals and communities, if given the right information about the risks to which they are exposed, have the opportunity to act and take meaningful action to prepare for natural disasters.

10.7 Experiences of the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, as well as experiences of other natural disasters, illustrate a continuing need to promote and encourage disaster‑resilient communities. A disaster-resilient community, according to the National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, is one where people in that community have (among other elements):

  • an awareness of the hazards and risks that affect them in their local area, including an awareness of who is most vulnerable, and understand what actions they need to take in order to prepare for and mitigate these risks
  • taken action to anticipate disasters and protect themselves, their assets, their livelihoods and their possessions, and to commit the necessary resources to organise themselves before, during and after a disaster, and
  • an understanding of the mechanisms and processes through which recovery assistance may be made available. [1158]

People were thinking that having a garden hose and two buckets [meant being] prepared. We need to educate people on what being prepared is. [1159]

10.8 Community education and engagement programs have an important role in educating and engaging communities. Governments, emergency service agencies and non-government organisations must continue to extend and use these programs to encourage disaster resilience within their communities and to provide accessible, accurate and authoritative information. This empowers people at all levels to become more self-reliant and better prepared.

Box 10.1 Community preparedness for the 2019‑2020 bushfires

We heard that during the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, there were varying degrees of preparedness by individuals and communities in bushfire-prone areas.

Some were prepared in advance and were well aware of the risks they were exposed to:

  • [As the fires approached] we both had an inkling of hope that everything we had done would pay off; and it did – we still do have our house … [but] it was not a miracle that saved us – it was something we had worked hard for over many years, and on that day we believe chance favoured us because we were prepared. [1160]
  • …I’ve always been very fire conscious … it probably led to a passion to make sure we were fire safe [and had] fire safety plans in place … we have a generator and we have solar … making sure you’ve always got a water system that can saturate the place … even to having some loaves of bread and sandwiches in the freezer in case. [1161]
  • We prepared our property as best we could and prepared a bushfire emergency kit which we used during the bushfire event. The information provided by the [Country Fire Authority] leaflet and our actions meant that we were physically quite well prepared … I feel that the information leaflet was essential to our ability to survive the fire and psychologically prepare. [1162]

Others indicated that they had taken steps to be prepared, but the intensity of the 2019‑2020 bushfire season meant that neither their level of preparation, nor indeed any level of preparation, would have been enough:

  • We had a cement house, a fire plan, had both previously been in the RFS, had no curtains in windows, a cement floor, no gardens against the house, paddocks of dirt with no grass or understory due to the drought… We were still not prepared enough. [1163]
  • Our Aged Services providers were well prepared with experienced and professional staff, and excellent evacuation plans in place. However, the extent of the fires, with associated road closures, often thwarted carefully thought-out plans and led to decisions having to be made ‘on the ground’. [1164]
  • We have a big tank above the house. We turned the tap on when we drove away to hopefully just moisten the ground a little, it seemed to work and we were just lucky; that’s all it was. [There’s] just nothing you can do with a fire like that … if it hits [at] the right time and the right pace. [1165]

Others told us that they considered that their community was not prepared for the 2019‑2020 bushfire season or was complacent about the risks.

10.9 All state and territory governments and their emergency service agencies already deliver a range of education programs. These programs target different groups, such as schools, local governments, and homeowners. For example, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority delivers the ‘Get Ready Queensland’ program – a year-round, all-hazards resilience building initiative to support communities to prepare for natural disasters. [1166] The WA Government, as part of its bushfire awareness campaign, provides an online platform, ‘Fire Chat’, to support community preparedness for bushfires. [1167] In NSW, the ‘Get Ready’ program provides local governments with free tools and resources to help them prepare their communities for natural disasters. [1168]

10.10 To be effective, education and engagement programs should provide information that:

  • ensures that individuals and communities, including children, are aware of the specific hazards and natural disaster risks to which they are exposed and understand the importance of being prepared
  • develops awareness of local, regional and state emergency plans
  • reinforces the responsibilities that individuals have (particularly those in high‑risk environments) and reminds them of the importance of being prepared for natural disasters
  • encourages individuals and communities to develop natural disaster survival plans, and ensures that they are aware of evacuation routes and the location of evacuation or relief centres
  • ensures that individuals and communities understand that vital services, such as electricity and telecommunications (including internet-based services), might be disrupted and unavailable during a natural disaster
  • encourages individuals and communities to ensure that they have adequate emergency supplies (such as water, food, a radio and batteries) to withstand essential service outages
  • ensures that individuals and communities, especially those near a state or territory boundary, understand the meaning of emergency warnings and know where to find information during an emergency, and
  • is in digital and non-digital formats, as well as in a range of languages that meet accessibility requirements.

10.11 We heard concerns from Tasmania that ‘[n]ot all emergency services organisations are adequately resourced to fully meet this community development expectation’. [1169] We also heard from the ACT that ‘[a]ll education programs must use consistent language to ensure no confusion for communities that operate across borders’. [1170]

Example of educational material supporting disaster preparedness

Figure 37: Example of educational material supporting disaster preparedness [1171]

10.12 A number of other inquiries have made recommendations on community education and engagement programs for natural disasters, including the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, the 2020 NSW Bushfire Inquiry and the Independent Review into SA’s 2019‑2020 Bushfire Season. [1172] Continuing recommendations for improvements suggests there are opportunities to refine existing community education and engagement programs.

10.13 Education is key to informing and empowering communities. Education and engagement programs should account for changing risk profiles and community demographics to ensure that they are fit for purpose and support individual and community resilience to natural disasters. Programs must have all of the information people need to make informed decisions.

Recommendation 10.1 Disaster education for individuals and communities

State and territory governments should continue to deliver, evaluate and improve education and engagement programs aimed at promoting disaster resilience for individuals and communities.

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