Commentary: The Australian bushfires are straining emergency disaster volunteers

Commentary: The Australian bushfires are straining emergency disaster volunteers

As the Australian bushfires rage on, and fire seasons start earlier and last longer, Australia needs to rethink its dependence on volunteers, says Dale Dominey-Howes.

Tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters have been hailed in Australia and across the world for
Tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters have been hailed in Australia and across the world for their unrelentling battle against the blazes AFP/SAEED KHAN

SYDNEY: Australia is in the midst of inconceivably bad bushfires. The death toll is rising, thousands of buildings have been destroyed and whole communities displaced. 

This scale is like nothing before, and the national response must be like nothing that has come before.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday (Jan 5) somewhat acknowledged the need for unprecedented action. 

He took the extraordinary step of calling up 3,000 Australian Defence Force reservists and mobilising navy ships and military bases to aid the emergency response. This has never before happened in Australia at this scale.

But it’s not enough. As this horrific summer of disaster continues to unfold in coming weeks, we clearly need to overhaul our emergency management plan with a workforce that’s large, nationally mobile, fully funded, and paid – rather than using under-resourced volunteers.

READ: Commentary: Australian bushfires reveal a national crisis of under-insurance

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction says weather and climate related disasters have more than doubled over the last 40 years.

Although expensive, the cost of not acting on disaster risk, planning and preparation will be greatly outstripped by the cost of future climate and weather catastrophes.

DISASTER MANAGEMENT SYSTEM NEEDS UPGRADING

The states and territories are primarily responsible for disaster preparedness and response. Typically, the federal government has no direct responsibility, but lends a hand when asked through a variety of programmes, policies and initiatives.

This may have worked in the past. But with ever larger and more complex disasters, these arrangements are no longer fit for purpose.

Australia's national emergency management workforce is largely made up of volunteers, who are stretched to the bone, exhausted and some say, under-resourced.

An Australian firefighter on New Year's Eve
An Australian firefighter on New Year's Eve. (AFP/SAEED KHAN)

What’s more, experts led by former Fire and Rescue New South Wales (NSW) commissioner Greg Mullins have called for significant changes in Australia’s disaster management preparedness and response. They’ve signalled the need for new resources, policies and processes to tackle more frequent and complex disasters.

We’ve also seen how consultation and collaboration between Australia’s federal and state governments are not working smoothly.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons only learned that Defence reservists would be deployed when it was reported in the media. And it wasn’t immediately clear how new reservists would be integrated into existing response activities.

FINDING A BIPARTISAN WAY FORWARD

The decade-long ideological battle between the left and right of Australian politics has paralysed climate policy development. This cannot continue.

Well-funded disaster preparedness and response inevitably builds resilience to climate change and extreme weather events like bushfires. This is something both sides of politics agree on – in fact, it was noted in the federal government’s own recent report profiling our vulnerability to disasters and climate change.

READ: Commentary: Bushfires in Australia and adapting holidays to a hotter, drier world

Aside from needing bipartisanship, an overhaul of Australia’s disaster management will require money. 

While Australia is lucky to have a dedicated, paid and exceptional set of state and territory disaster and emergency management agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service, most heavy lifting is done by agency volunteers.

But with fire seasons starting earlier and lasting longer, we can no longer rely for months at a time on volunteers who must also work, pay their bills and feed their families.

Bushfires in New South Wales, Australia
Firefighters keep a watchful eye on a fire threatening homes along the Princes Highway near in Milton, Australia Jan 5, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Tracey Nearmy) 

We need a larger, paid, trained, professional emergency management workforce. I reject claims that such a workforce would stand idle most of the year. Severe weather seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer, so these professionals will be busy.

The workforce could be divided in to areas of expertise to tackle specific disaster types, and focus on different aspects of the disaster cycle such as prevention and preparation. These continue year-round.

Alternatively, volunteers could be compensated through direct payments for lost income, tax offsets for volunteers and their employers, or rent or mortgage assistance.

READ: Commentary: How data-sharing by Big Tech can save lives in disasters, solve new problems

What’s more, a new national disaster management approach must intersect with state and local governments to help reduce disaster risk.

These might include contributing to land-use zoning plans, building design and standards for construction in at-risk areas, or building partnerships with the private sector.

FUNDING DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

All this will cost money. Australia must accept that taxpayers will pay for future disaster preparedness, response and recovery. We need a bucket of cash for when disasters strike. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced A$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) for recovery, but disaster funds should be ongoing.

This would be no different to the national Medical Future Research Fund – a A$20 billion fund to focus on solving nationally important medical issues funded through savings from the health budget.

The barely visible Sydney Harbour Bridge is enveloped in haze caused by nearby bushfires
The barely visible Sydney Harbour Bridge is enveloped in haze caused by nearby bushfires AFP/DAVID GRAY

There are several ways the money could be gathered. Commonwealth, state and territory governments could rethink their insistence on achieving budget surpluses, and instead spend money on a disaster fund.

A “disaster levy” could be applied to household rates bills, a tax on carbon introduced, or planned tax cuts for middle and high income earners abandoned.

The public could also contribute to the fund directly. The ABC’s recent Australia Talks survey found on average, Australians would be willing to chip in A$200 each per year to pay for adaptation to climate change.

READ: Commentary: How effectively can Singapore adapt to sea level rise?

If every Australian contributed, there’s another A$5 billion per year for the fund.

Future disaster management will require Australia to step up. It means making hard choices about what we want the future to be like, how we’ll pay for that, and what level of risk we are prepared to tolerate.

It also means demanding that our leaders deliver meaningful climate change adaptation, including disaster planning.

Dale Dominey-Howes is a professor of Hazards and Disaster Risk Sciences at the University of Sydney. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/el(sl)

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