• Open Access

From hypothetical scenario to tragic reality: A salutary lesson in risk communication and the Victorian 2009 bushfires

Authors

Errata

This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Erratum Volume 34, Issue 5, 534, Article first published online: 6 October 2010

Correspondence to:
Priscilla Robinson, School of Public Health, La Trobe University, Bundoora Victoria 3086. Fax: (03) 9479 1783; e-mail: priscilla.robinson@latrobe.edu.au

Abstract

Objective: To investigate the ways that the risk of a bushfire emergency and communication strategies are perceived by different community segments.

Methods: A brief questionnaire preceded focus group discussion of a bushfire scenario with four communications from different sources. Groups were recruited to represent different community segments within a bushfire-prone peri-urban Shire in Victoria.

Results: Four groups (28 participants) were recruited. Bushfire experience was highest in the over 40-year-olds, who would use a variety of information sources, preferred to receive information from trusted local sources, such as emergency services and the council, and were more likely to be a member of a local organisation than the under 40s. Younger people used television, local papers, and friends, family and neighbours as information sources. Young parents felt disempowered through lack of local knowledge, and trusted government departments less than older residents. All wanted clear, current, specific local information about ground conditions and actions to be taken during a fire outbreak.

Conclusions/implications: Knowledge of and preparedness for bushfire is unequally spread throughout a bushfire community. There is a need in public health risk and emergency situations to focus on community development, information and consultation.

Recovery from the February 2009 bushfires that devastated many parts of Australia continues. It seems timely to look at results from the relevant component of a study of emergency management risk communication undertaken in 2004/05 for the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS).1 The DHS was at the time one of the four Victorian agencies with “legislative responsibility for fire management and a commitment to promote community well-being in relation to fire in Victoria”.2 Fire affects public health through injury and death; exacerbation of some health conditions such as asthma; food and water safety after power failures and ash contamination; and post-traumatic stress.1 Public health agencies thus have a relevant role in emergency risk communication management strategies before, during and after bushfires.

Social psychology evidence suggests that lay people do not clearly distinguish between natural and human-made disasters, or between hazards and risks.3 Constructions of risk situations vary with the kind of risk4–7 and in different social groups.8–10 Knowledge of these variables is relevant in formulating communication at times of heightened public health risk. Recent reviews of bushfires in Victoria11,12 highlight the need for community preparedness for fire events, suggesting community development as one key aspect of fire management strategies.2 The most recent two strategies2,13 emphasised community involvement in preparation and recovery. However, key issues identified from the 2006/07 fires recognised the role of communication with and within communities as a priority for action, specifically “the sustainability of community information flows”.14

While still emphasising the preparation and recovery phases, the 2008-2012 strategy acknowledges the challenges of growing complexity of communities, especially in fire-prone peri-urban areas.15 However, research commissioned in 2007 into community attitudes to bushfire safety16 has yet to be systematically incorporated into the future strategy. The State has established priority methods for emergency management risk communication. While the government places heavy reliance on ABC radio for information distribution during a fire, only 60% of respondents used it, with a number of additional sources being employed. Comprehensive and current information is vital when a fire strikes: information has already been highlighted as an issue in victim comments on the February 2009 fires.45

Risk communication is a complex task,17–19 and the subject of considerable theoretical and applied research.20–22 Trust in the source of information has been identified as one variable of some importance in assessment by the public of risk and risk-related action.23–28 Bringing together some of these diverse aspects of risk perception and the communication of risk, the study reported here examined the ways the risk of bushfire is perceived by different community segments, their evaluation of the usefulness of different communication media in an emergency, and the perceived trustworthiness of different sources of information in emergency conditions.

Method

We report here part of a larger study1 in which six disaster scenarios were developed for focus group discussion.31,32 Focus groups were selected as an appropriate tool for eliciting constructions of risk and evaluation of communication media.29,30 The focus groups were all run by the researchers in the larger study. This article is limited to the bushfire scenario.

In the wake of fire events in summer 2003, an hypothetical scenario based on reports from previous fires was drafted and submitted to both DHS Victoria and participating councils, including Nillumbik, for comments and tested with a pilot group. Two time periods were selected: the day of the blaze, and two days later, with two messages each day designed to test different communication media and issues, the timing of which related to realistic sequences within a major fire event. Three of the four messages specifically addressed public health consequences of bushfire. A brief description of the event provided the context for communication, action possibilities, and an indication of the possible interaction between the person and the event. The general scenario was, presciently, of a large fire in the Kinglake area (Box 1).

The messages for the public were adapted from actual examples, and framed the situation, recommended action, and gave the source and the channel or messenger; these are presented in Boxes 2 to 5. All four messages contained health information, with an emphasis on preventive action in the first three. The message at time one highlighted the immediate danger; the others were updates containing health warnings, the appropriateness of which were linked to the timing of the messages. For time two, the context provided consequences of prior action, new action possibilities and further information to relate the person to the event. Discussion questions probed who participants thought the message was addressed to, what was being said, when people were being addressed, and the channel of communication, its source, and the level of uncertainty in the message. Participants were also asked if the message would initiate or change their actions.

Table Box 1: .  The Nillumbik Council bushfire scenario
Major fires are burning in the Hurstbridge, Kinglake area driven by strong northerly winds. Kinglake National Park is burning out of control and the township has been evacuated. Hurstbridge and Panton Hill townships are under threat and the Christmas Hills are in danger. One hundred CFA units from as far away as northern Victoria are involved in firefighting effort. A heavy pall of smoke is blowing over the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

Participants were recruited through the Municipal Emergency Resources Officer and Emergency Recovery Management Officer. Researchers requested that groups include males and females of a range of ages, people with and without young children, resident in town and semi-rural settings. Four groups were recruited: Landcare members (including four local Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteers); community health workers, and two ‘new parents’ groups, one of mothers only.

Group members were first given a brief individual questionnaire asking for sex, age, prior experience with a similar situation, and how much risk on a four point scale (0=no risk at all, 3= very great risk) they thought the scenario posed to themselves, and to their community, their responsibility for others and their preference for and experience with different sources of community information. They were also asked for individual comments on the scenario messages, including a rating of 1 to 5 of the trustworthiness of the message source. Questionnaires were administered immediately before the focus groups. Because, interpersonal communication affects personal judgment and may alter perceptions; focus group information is not a series of personal views but rather an expanded and explained community view.33

There are a number of reasons to doubt the validity of data collected through focus groups, as they can reflect the augmented views of a few participants rather than the true range of views.33 Additionally, there were only four male participants (one group had none), and none of the men was under 30. In general, however, our participants appeared to hold similar views on most topics, and prior experience of fire, appeared more important then general demographic considerations in affecting opinions. For this reason we have reported the general consensus views of the groups, and have added dissident views where these were expressed.

Table Box 2: .  Message 1, Time 1
Message Wednesday 12 February, 3 pm on Community Radio:
CFA advises residents of Kinglake of a fire burning in Bowden Spur Road near Whittlesea-Kinglake Road.
The fire is traveling in a southerly direction and is currently 600 hectares in size.
Residents of Kinglake and St Andrews may be immediately threatened by this fire.
Residents in these areas should expect smoke and burning embers to reach their properties, and are advised to patrol their houses and put out any embers that may be landing.
It is important that all residents protect themselves from radiant heat by wearing the right clothing. Residents should wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, sturdy boots and a broad brimmed hat. On no account should synthetic materials be worn.
As the fire front approaches it will become unsafe to be either on foot or in a car as the heat radiating from the fire will be intense. Residents should avoid being exposed to radiant heat at all costs, and should make use of structures like their houses to shelter as the fire front passes.
CFA advises road users to remain outside the area affected by the fire. Residents of the area not currently at home should not at this time try to return to the area as access is limited and the road may not be safe.
Residents in Panton Hill and Christmas Hills should expect significant smoke and the arrival of increasing numbers of burning embers over the next few hours.
Further information and advice is available at the Victorian Bushfire Information Line on 1800 123 456.

Results

Participant characteristics

Four focus groups were convened, including 28 participants (Table 1). Two of four participating men and seven of 24 women had previously experienced bushfire. Two community health workers lived outside the area under consideration.

Table 1.  Characteristics of the focus group participants.
Age groupMenWomenTotal
20-29 44
30-39156
40-491910
50-59145
60 and over123
Total42428
Prior experience of bushfire279
Scenario risk perception: to themselves
  A great deal of risk11011
  Some risk21113
  Not much risk112
  No risk at all 11
  Missing data 11
  Scenario risk perception scale 0-32.002.302.26
  Scenario risk perception: to community
  A great deal of risk31922
  Some risk156
  Scenario risk perception scale 0-32.752.792.79

Prior to the focus groups, participants rated, out of 3, the bushfire scenario as a potential risk to themselves as 2.26 and to the community as 2.79, and 86% rated the scenario as having ‘some risk or ‘a great deal of risk’ to themselves, with all saying there was a similar level of risk to the community. New parents rated the scenario as at least of equal risk to themselves as to the community.

Local papers, followed in order by ABC local radio, ABC TV, Channel 9 and Channel 7 were the most frequently consulted media for emergency information. However, preferred channels differed according to age, those over 40 being most likely to use ABC local radio and local papers, while the under 40s used TV as their main source, together with local papers. Regarding non-media sources, there was again a difference between the under and over 40s, with the former most frequently using emergency services while the latter looked to state and council spokespersons as well as the emergency services. However, in all age groups the greatest perceived source was family, friends and neighbours.

Message 1, Time 1

Risk perception: One person ‘recognised’ the first message and thought that it originated from a previous Victorian bushfire emergency, saying that it had created major panic then; the Landcare group thought it gave rise to uncertainty and was stressful. The health workers thought it contained low dread, and they would be more worried about children than property. The new parents agreed that the message meant you needed to be aware and that it should be taken seriously enough to consider action if you were in the area; one mother thought it would give rise to panic.

Risk communication: Few participants thought this message clearly described the situation. There was particular concern that it did not tell people whether to stay or leave, and whether or not to implement personal fire plans. People wanted to be able to locate events in relation to neighbouring towns as well as the current seat of the fire, and stressed the need for relevant, local information with details (such as the cordoning off of roads, and where to go if evacuating). They wanted sources that were “as first hand as can be” and mentioned Department of Sustainability and Environment rather than the Shire as an appropriate source. The younger, less-experienced new parents wanted phone numbers or radio stations to use for further information. They were particularly concerned about informing new residents, estimating that only 10% attended CFA briefings whereas the bushfire season information in the local paper was read attentively, as was information circulated by the CFA and Landcare. If able, the health workers would consult the bushfire internet site. Prior experience with fire clearly contributed to the suggestions made about improving both the message and its delivery outlets.

Trust: The person who ‘recognised’ this message noted: “I'm comfortable with it because I know who wrote it”. CFA members pointed out that for them, local knowledge is better than other sources. In general, there is low confidence in community radio; preference is given to the ABC though few mentioned that it's the emergency communication station. There was reasonable trust in the Victorian bushfire emergency line although a number of the new parents did not notice it as a source, despite wanting numbers to ring. Concern was expressed about getting through to any single number. The parents would turn to neighbours. The CFA members expressed unease about the reliability of information from police brought in from outside the area during an emergency. Trust in the local police was high, and the health workers named “the man with the hat and the badge” as an authoritative and important source of emergency information.

Action: Participants in all groups would begin to take action, such as activating their fire plan, finding appropriate clothing and looking after animals. They would contact neighbours or other local residents to give (CFA volunteers) or request (others) information, go to the radio or TV to find out more, and one new parents group would find somewhere safe to go. The CFA members suggested using the CFA website rather than phoning them because they should be out fighting the fire. One person pointed to the need to re-charge mobile phones while the power was still available, and to always have a supply of batteries for the radio. Only the health workers thought that they would change plans as a result of the message, because someone with appropriate authority had suggested new action.

Table Box 3: .  Message 2, Time 1
Channel 9, 6 pm news bulletin (three hours later)”
Reporter with a shot of flames behind and thick smoke: “Fires are still raging out of control in the Panton Hill area.
“Thick smoke is being blown over Melbourne's northern suburbs. The Department of Human Services is warning people with asthma and chronic lung diseases to stay indoors to avoid the worst air pollution and continue to take any prescribed medication for their conditions.”

Message 2, Time 1

Risk perception: This message was considered by all to be alarming, dramatised, sensational and likely to raise anxiety levels.

Risk communication: This was considered inadequate and inflammatory, especially given the big gaps in residents' knowledge about what to do; while clear and with a sense of urgency for asthma sufferers, participants thought that it was only relevant to asthmatics. Two groups wanted more information about the location of the fire, and the health workers wanted a number to ring regarding the evacuation centre. Three of the groups felt the message contained news, not information, and was not applicable to the local situation. Other ways to communicate were suggested: the local post office, general store and railway station, local schools, festivals, and for those living near a park, Parks Victoria.

Trust: Trust in commercial television was low (1: very trustworthy, 5: not at all trustworthy: average rating 2.5); participants thought the channels sensationalise; making them sceptical of any information content, especially as the information is unlikely to be local. The level of trust in DHS as a source was also quite low: two groups averaged 2.0 (including the health workers), while one new parents group that rated most sources highly trustworthy, averaged 1.25. One group agreed that they'd change their mind about the message if they received information from a reliable source such as a local resident or an information line.

Action: Two groups said that if they were asthma sufferers they would take the advice. All groups suggested they'd seek further information as there was not yet enough to lead to action. Checking with the CFA especially to see if it was now time to implement their fire plan, and ringing local authorities were actions proposed. Those in the CFA said they would phone neighbours and friends to convey information.

This message triggered concern among the new parent group members who had not attended local CFA fire briefings.

Message 1, Time 2

Risk perception: Generally this scenario was considered more reassuring (that the worst was over) rather than concerning. Most in the fire-experienced group thought the threat to children was “a scare thing”.

Risk communication: Overall, there was not enough information about the safety of the situation or contact phone numbers to find out more; people wanted a source to obtain regular updates on the situation. The health workers group suggested a school-based phone tree would be helpful in such a situation, and one parents group suggested making the primary school an information communication source. The health workers pointed out that this message should reinforce the previous one from the DHS.

Table Box 4: .  Message 1, Time 2
Friday 14 February, 8 am, Community radio broadcast
“The bushfires burning on the outskirts of Melbourne are now under control. The threat of damage to property is over but smoke continues to blanket the area. The Department of Education has advised schools in the area to keep children indoors during play periods.”

Trust: People queried whether or not the Education Department was an appropriate source of information during an emergency, but did not comment on the trustworthiness of other sources.

Action: This message gave rise to little thought of action, ringing the school (one group) or leaving young children at home (one parents group) being the only suggestions.

Message 2, Time 2

Risk perception: Only the health workers commented on this, and considered the message was reassuring.

Risk communication: This message was easy to read but not considered sufficiently informative, despite the amount of detail. The fire-experienced group and the health workers found this message confusing and unclear about details, with an unreasonable time line. There was a lack of information about who should come and what to bring to the centre, whether pets could come, the availability of baby food and medication despite the content of the message. The importance of disposing of food was challenged by all groups, reasons varying from people needing something practical to do at such a time to doubt about potential problems. There was no special mention of young children, the help available for those affected, or whether those who had left could return safely. The health workers wanted phone numbers, details about the safety of getting to the relief centre and specification of the target group. One new parents group said it was not clear whether or not to go to the centre, and they could not decipher who was catering for it. One new parents group said it would be good to know in advance where to go in an emergency. The health workers appreciated that there was medical back-up available but wanted a broader range of support indicated (e.g. access to money); however, they added that the way help is offered is crucial, and that practical help was more relevant than offers of psychological help at this stage, a point reinforced during discussion with the CFA volunteers with experience of previous fires, who pointed out that it was often months later when psychological effects of a fire surfaced.

Table Box 5: .  Message 2, Time 2
Briefing notes for the Municipal Recovery Manager from Nillumbik Council, prepared by the Regional Environmental Health Officer, for a public meeting at the relief centre at 7 pm that night:
A Municipal Recovery Centre has been established down at the Eltham (Nillumbik) Community Health Centre. Personal support and other information services are available at the Recovery Centre:
• Clean water will be supplied.
• Food is being supplied through the Red Cross. People should not use food brought from home but leave that in the bins supplied.
• The relief centre has a small bank of bathroom facilities and Portaloos will be supplied shortly.
• If pets cannot be left in a safe place they should be restrained at all times.
• There will be limited medical supplies at the site. If you have left prescription medicines behind, there will be a doctor to consult.
• Please consult the doctor if you become unwell, especially with diarrhoea, vomiting, fever or cough.

Trust: The health workers debated who should give the information and whether or not the appropriate person was the municipal emergency response officer. None were strongly in favour of using radio for any messages, as they themselves were not high users of it. Trust was high for DHS (1.5 to 1.7), very high for the recovery centre (1.2) though the health workers were the only group to mention it, and also very high for the Red Cross (1.0 to 1.5). Several new parents said TV communication is useful because “seeing is believing”; others preferred radio communication, especially from the ABC as it is “less sensational” than commercial stations. The health workers mentioned the need for an agency with authority to coordinate information provision. Perhaps reflecting the year of the research, access, familiarity and age, no-one mentioned the internet or phoning in conjunction with communication.

Action: There was ambivalence about going to the relief centre. One parent thought that it would be easier for others to contact you if you were there, and that it would be good to get a “bit of support” because you've “had a bit of drama”. The fire-experienced group wanted more information in the message, one parents group thought that you could get more help locally than through such a centre, while the health workers suggested that they could send staff to the centre.

Additional relevant information

Further points raised by the closing discussions centred around the distribution of information especially in advance of, and also in response to, a bushfire. More communication channels during an emergency were suggested, such as local stores and the local pub in rural Nillumbik and in the early stages, a telephone tree. For prior information, many sources were named including the local paper, local newsletters of groups such as Landcare, and the police, in fact “anything that's a community focus where people gather on a regular basis” such as the Community Health Centre (CHC), the primary school, doctors' surgeries and local events.

Discussion

Although the groups represented a range of local stakeholders we do not claim that these data represent the views of all the Nillumbik population. The scenarios and messages triggered a great deal of discussion and generated a wide range of viewpoints. We conducted the groups ourselves and are confident that the attitudes and potential behaviour of participants are reflected in our data.

A potential problem with focus groups is that people change their views during the group. These discussions certainly raised awareness of the need for individual fire plans for one parents group, and the health workers suggested they needed a general emergency plan with precise information about their specific role. Otherwise, there was no appreciable change between individual pre-discussion results and views expressed during discussions.

It is of concern that there was a relatively high level of ignorance among the two new parent groups, who appeared unable to discern the sources of information especially in the last two messages. They were ambivalent about radio and TV as information sources, skeptical of commercial channels and community radio, but at the same time looking to them for information. Their individual responses indicated frequent use of commercial TV, with about half listening to the ABC for community news, tending to look for very local sources for information and wanted it in advance (for example through the local paper or even annual council newsletters). The use of sources was similar to 2007 research findings14 except that fewer cited the internet as a personal preference, with women using the internet less than men, and using it differently.35,36

In this study, participants said that the messages were not clear about actions to take even when the fire threat was considered high. Some literature suggests that European heritage men perceive risks, especially those related to health and technology, as less threatening than either women or men of other ethnicities.34 However, the men considered bushfires as a greater risk to the community than did the women. Male and female views of risk to themselves were similar.

Previous bushfire experience clearly helped people interpret and act on the messages, as well as working out their own plans to supplement information. Experience and age doubtless interact in providing tools to deal with emergency messages and situations. Membership of a local organisation with defined communication strategies helped reduce panic in an emergency situation, as did knowing people who were in them. Conversely, our mothers groups indicated that they felt disempowered in an emergency “because no one communicates with us and we don't know where to turn ”. The experienced CFA volunteers considered who should be responsible for passing on information, especially to new residents. The health workers wanted “more precise information about how you fit into the plans and what to do at different stages”. There is clearly a differential spread of emergency information throughout a community, with some groups with very little or no prior knowledge and few resources for finding it. When consulted, community members have useful suggestions about information distribution. The comments by the new parents groups suggest that while meetings play an increasingly important role in current approaches, it is harder for parents of young children to attend; they wanted the information brought to them, for example, through annual council mailings. That communication for and during emergencies is a challenge37 and that communication is a complex issue38 are not new insights, but that does not diminish the importance of ‘getting it right’.

All but the parents of young children rated the fire as less dangerous to themselves than to others. The implications of apparent altruism, a specific personality trait39 for moving individuals to action has received only scanty attention, mainly in the environment and psychology literature,40 and none related to emergencies. How this relates to the trustworthiness of information sources is a further issue for attention in the complex chain of perception-to-action required for effective reduction of health and property damage in a bushfire.

Health professionals were particularly concerned about co-ordination of communication and action, wanting a clear idea of their role vis-à-vis other service organisations within a community. A male DHS employee group member considered his knowledge of disaster plans, of the responsibilities of different organisations and of co-ordination during an emergency to be poor. The need for clear roles in emergency contexts has been discussed.41 This is not to say that local bushfires are not important too, and all municipalities in Victoria have to have well-developed emergency management plans (EMPs).42 As EMPs are regularly reviewed, perhaps a more systematic role for local primary health care staff in local management, which could be considered.

Newcomers to an area are less likely to have access to community communication networks and less likely to be involved in community organisations. The stress on building community capacity and the involvement of communities in decision-making about fire risks and events in the current State fire strategy addresses these concerns in general,2 however more attention is needed on specific details of communication during the fire response phase. All groups showed a strong preference for and trust in authoritative local information sources, underlining the value of a community development approach, which includes local services. Response strategies currently emphasise a single help line and ABC radio, both valued and used by the discussants, but do not recognise a very high preference for local information sources. It would be useful to see if people under 30 share this preference, and important to know their communication concerns in emergency situations. Careful consideration is also needed of the distribution of communication technology through the community, as 2007 data from WA showed fewer than 50% of households had a working portable radio, but 89.3% had a land line and 60.5% had more than one mobile phone.43

Communication during the major bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009 was consistently channeled through the ABC network, with plenty of prior notice to the whole community about how information would be disseminated. Since these fires there has been much criticism about a perceived lack of information about the fires, although useful comment since has distinguished between communication channels and communication content.44 This project has highlighted the need for both.

Conclusions and Implications

Bushfire was perceived as a major threat by our participants, although more so to their communities than to themselves. The need for local information as well as the ABC radio and well-staffed help-lines was highlighted, especially for isolated, elderly and new residents. Some sources of information are considered trustworthy, in particular DHS and local figures considered authoritative, and others such as commercial radio, much less so. The person providing the information is as important as the vehicle.

A number of suggestions for further consideration by DHS and other emergency services arose out of the bushfire focus group discussions. Those not specifically appearing in the current strategy15 are summarised here.

1. Emergency preparation

  • Assistance with developing individual/family fire plans, for example from a trained local volunteer in addition to the CFA.
  • Newcomers need to be alerted to CFA briefings about fire risks and fire plans and strongly encouraged to attend.
  • A regularly updated council register of elderly and disabled people; during emergencies provision for transport of those without their own.

2. Communication sources

The clearer and more specific the information, the better. Different sources are appropriate at different phases, and different community sectors need different approaches especially in the preparatory phase. However, the broader the distribution of emergency information, through as many sources as feasible, the better. The authoritativeness and trustworthiness of the information source is crucial for initiating action throughout an emergency and its aftermath.

  • During a fire situation, provide precise and current information about location and weather conditions. Knowing wind speed and direction is essential for individuals to assess personal risk / state of readiness.
  • Establish a local lead agency for emergency information distribution.
  • While wanting a single information number, there was some concern about long queues to get through.
  • The mobile phone network is considered crucial during an emergency.
  • The role of local ABC radio for emergency information is known by under two-thirds of people and younger people, especially young women, are less likely to use it.
  • Opinions differ on most suitable sources of information, with some preference for the emergency services generally, schools, the Shire, the CFA, and local organisations' newsletters.
  • The Shire should prepare and distribute a new residents' pack and annual information updates to be distributed with the rates, including a fridge magnet with updated emergency phone numbers.
  • There is a need for different messages for people who do, and do not, have a fire plan, and for those with different amounts of local knowledge (e.g. people in rental accommodation) who do not get ratepayers' information.
  • Those not belonging to local organisations want information reinforced from different sources.
  • Parents of young children seemed to be generally unaware of what is happening in the community wanted to feel part of a bigger effort.

3. Management during an emergency

  • Precise information is wanted about what to do and where to go, preferably known in advance.
  • A publically identified lead agency for each phase would be helpful.
  • Local people are looked to as a key source of information and newcomers may need to be especially catered for (e.g. through telephone trees).

4. Recovery phase

  • People need clear information about who, if and when should go to a recovery centre, rationales about food and water use, what to bring and the services available.
  • Initial need is de-briefing and practical help, counseling can come later.
  • Counselling should be sensitively and confidentially offered, for a sustained period.
  • The role of CHCs during recovery needs clarification and publicity.

5. Public health provider perspectives

  • As a community service, they want to know their part in a municipal fire and emergency services plan.
  • The CHC might be involved at the recovery stage so need a helpline number.
  • Want to see ‘some sort of authority’ for providing all the information, balancing the knowledge of local geography against state authority.
  • Health issues during and after a fire did not appear to be a priority for participants, which suggests a need for public health education as part of fire preparation.

Overall, fire clearly poses challenges to public health. This research indicates the need for ongoing participation of public health workers in the preparation for such an emergency, for maintaining clear health messages during and after and event, and for clarification of the role of CHC staff in emergency planning and communication.

The interim report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission45 includes a number of remarkably similar recommendations to these, particularly with respect to the timing of warnings, style and clarity of message, and detail about the geography and behaviour of the fire. The report does not include recommendations about the channelling of information. It is concerning that our information about a theoretical situation that was almost identical to that which actually occurred on Black Saturday has been available for four years. In the interim years radio warnings and the use of local people as ‘talking heads’ during bushfires has improved, but most of our practical recommendations have not been used. We hope that the recommendations from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission receive the attention that the community deserves.

Acknowledgments

A public health research grant from the Victorian Department of Human Services made possible the larger project of which this paper reports a part. We acknowledge with thanks the participation of Professor Viv Lin, Assoc. Prof Rae Walker, Dr John Tebbutt and Mr John Schauble in the larger project, the DHS reference group and the focus group participants.

Helpful comments by three anonymous reviewers are gratefully acknowledged.

Ancillary