When floods swept the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales earlier this year, scores of people ignored official advice and rescued neighbours and friends from floodwaters using their boats, kayaks and jet skis, while risking their own lives. Now an independent inquiry has recommended communities in high-risk areas receive training and resources to become first responders to a disaster.
The report of the NSW inquiry into the spate of floods in 2022 was released last week. A “community-based first responder training program”, which incorporates Indigenous knowledge, is one of 28 recommendations.
The inquiry recognised that in areas such as Lismore many people – dubbed the “tinnie army” – rescued others when emergency services were overwhelmed by the scale of the floods. In accepting the recommendation, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said while people might not have time to be full-time volunteers, many would want to be trained and contribute though programs like this.
But exactly what’s involved in training community members and relying on them to be first responders when disaster strikes? Will this program help prepare communities and build resilience? Or will it cause more confusion and increase risks?
Communities must already negotiate a complicated landscape of response to and recovery from floods – or fires. While well-meaning, it is unclear whether the benefits of formalising community skills through emergency training program outweigh the risks.
How would such training benefit communities?
This article draws on our work with regional Australian and urban Pacific communities to reduce disaster risks and build resilience. We have also studied people’s behaviours and communications during emergencies.
Certainly, there are positives associated with this community training program. Research has shown people affected by disaster often become first responders, so the recommendation recognises that reality. People are much more likely to be altruistic in times of crisis (rather than panic and behave in self-serving ways).
Increasing the knowledge and skills of these individuals could help ensure their safety along with the safety of those they assist. There also is a trend in communities that have experienced a number of disasters to self-organise in the face of future disasters. Communities across Australia have come together to develop response plans and procedures, communication strategies and the like.
These communities want to be prepared, especially in case government agencies are unable to respond in time. This desire is a result of having endured experiences where things didn’t go so well.
Other obvious benefits of the program include the ability to draw on community members’ knowledge of local places and people. And when communities can contribute to helping disaster-affected people – whether by assisting with evacuation, managing shelters or providing comfort – that benefits community and individual wellbeing too.
What might the downsides be?
Such a program also has inevitable downsides. Disaster risk reduction and recovery is a joint responsibility of governments and communities. Yet this recommendation seems to place a great deal of responsibility on community alone.
In Australia, national, state and territory governments develop policies on disaster risk management. These are then implemented by local government authorities, state agencies such as Recovery NSW and NSW Reconstruction Authority, voluntary organisations such as Red Cross, specialist organisations, as well as community-based working groups such as the communities of North-East and North-West Queensland. Communities would have to respond to disasters within this structure, with support from such agencies and organisations.
Training community members would strengthen disaster response and recovery efforts only if affected communities are adequately supported. Trouble can arise, however, when these efforts rely too heavily on community members to fill the gaps in lieu of their official counterparts.
Another troubling issue is the failure to act on previous disaster inquiry recommendations, which points to the challenges of implementing the current recommendations. A 2021 NSW Audit Office report said:
“Two-thirds of proposed recommendations in past inquiries could not be verified as being implemented as intended, and in line with the outcomes sought. The audit also found that agencies did not always nominate milestone dates or priority rankings for accepted recommendations, and so could not demonstrate if they were managing or monitoring them effectively.”
These findings are probably the result of a few challenges, including short political cycles, the heavy burden already placed on emergency officials and the struggle to build on their past learnings when implementing previous inquiry recommendations.
Also telling is the frequent restructuring of agencies evident in the changes from the Office of Emergency Management to Resilience NSW to Recovery NSW, with a new NSW Reconstruction Authority to become the lead agency.
The inquiry was critical of the responses by Resilience NSW and the NSW SES to the floods. Its report identified confusion about roles, poor communication and a lack of co-ordination and resources as contributing factors.
This raises questions about whether they have the capacity to properly train communities. Training programs would require agencies to take on extra responsibilities during and after disaster events.
Many questions remain
Many questions of responsibility and liability remain to be answered. Issues include:
How will the responsibilities of the formal and informal volunteers be distinguished?
Who will be liable if a community responder is injured while assisting others?
Who will be responsible for ensuring any equipment provided via community-based grant programs is maintained?
In what capacity may these programs indirectly encourage community members to stay behind in a disaster-affected area, which could put them in harm’s way?
To increase the prospects of success, training programs should build upon any existing community-organised strategies and approaches. And they should be co-designed with those community members, including Indigenous communities, who are most knowledgeable and active in disaster risk management.
Mittul Vahanvati is working with Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal.
Erica Kuligowski does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.