Australia is on Fire!

I am in rural Victoria in a heat wave. It is 10pm and a bead of sweat is slowly trickling down my neck. As the news pours out about 140 uncontrolled fires across New South Wales, parts of Victoria and 100 people unacounted for in Tasmania, I stay up flicking the channels. Conditions are not good for tomorrow – 40 degrees plus, high winds  and ‘catastrophic’ fire risk. I can’t help but think of the black Saturday fires.

Sometimes small pieces of information particular to an event lodge in my mind. I was reading a paper some time ago and this message made me stop – a phone call from a son (23), who was with his girlfriend and trapped by fire, to his mother:

“We are in the bathroom together, mum. I love you very much and I am dying. I want you to know that we are okay together.”

These profound and achingly tragic moments are what move the collective soul; they drive us to dig deep, to give and support each other. As  events unfold we feel deeply and respond accordingly. We start early recovery from a common human place.

So how do we move so quickly to a point of division? Where ‘head office/ the capital’ and those in the affected area collide? I have seen it many times around the world. The eyes narrow, there is a wrinkle of the nose, followed by a drawn out annunciation of the first letter and a sharp staccato of the last syllable. In our case Wwwellington, but I have also heard Gggeneva, and Dddelhi to name a few. This is often followed by a slow hushed “bloody bureaucratic bean counters what do they know about us?” a comment received with more narrowing of the eyes, wrinkling of the nose and nodding.

Conversely in (Geneva, Wellington, Delhi etc…), ‘trouble with the locals’ is discussed, “they just don’t see the bigger picture” and “of course billions of bucks doesn’t come without strings attached, what are they thinking? We are not talking about renovating the town hall this is about rebuilding a whole region/city/town – they need us!”

This tension illustrates a central tenet in recovery. It is a constant mediation between abstract policy and the concrete. The kicker is you need both. Dr Rob Gordon, a disaster psychologist, helped explain this to me. “When you are in a state of high adrenaline/arousal you can only think in the concrete, the here, the now, the what do I need to do to survive? This is an important instinct but it does not lead itself to strategic thinking, composing of the bigger picture and taking the long term view”.

To complicate matters further political figures often come in and position themselves in the ‘mourner-in-chief’ role. They speak with communities, they hold the hand of the woman who has lost her only child, they become caught up in the moment – they too want to take some pain away, so to the personal they too respond concretely. Then, to the horror of their officials they start making promises, “We will replace a house for a house”, “we will do everything possible to recover the bodies of the people who died”, “we will immediately employ experts to help your community” etc.

What do you think can be wrong with that? These kinds of ‘off the cuff’ promises give short term hope and solace but tend to lead to long term bitterness and anger. Politicians responding in this way can lead to incompatibility with the systems which formulate and implement our social policy. Officials under huge pressure are sent scrambling to “make it happen” but often encounter obstacles – perhaps financial, legislative, technical, or uncover research indicating that it is just a bad idea. This is not a good way to start the ‘field/head office relationship’.

We know policy formulation does not happen in the heat of the moment – its processes do not perform well under duress and this is for good reason – national policy needs to be well considered, have a long term view, including affordability and the setting of precedents. The ‘here and now action’ and well-considered policy are both critical factors in a successful recovery but they often do not sit comfortably together.

I have worked with communities who repeat things like “but President X and Minister Y came and told us that you would replace a house for a house before Christmas and that was two years ago”. The energy to undo those expectations and to rebuild a trusting relationship slows the recovery process dramatically.

As I watch the briefings and the response to these fires I hope that leaders empathise, relate to and support those affected but refrain from making ‘off the cuff’ promises that can impact communities for years to come.


Dunalley, Tasmania 2013

The odd thing is having worked in both the field and head office I have done my fair share of nose wrinkling and eye narrowing (in both directions) but what I hold on to is those initial moments in an event where we feel and respond together because no matter what comes, the vast majority of us (regardless of location) continue to do the very best we can over the long haul.

Suggestions from fellowship respondents to support field/head office recovery relationships:

•Non-authoritarian, participatory or democratic management styles are most effective in post-disaster scenarios
•The major “if only” moments revolve around communication with stakeholders (of all types) – holding back information generally backfires
•Do what you say you are going to do!
•Spend the money and time to train people to be effective in recovery work
•Don’t make any accusations without an evidence basis – if you don’t have it go back and get it – emotion only makes things worse – present the facts
•Rotate people between field and head office roles
•Recovery is as varied as communities are – you have to develop relationships to do anything!
•Don’t bag other leaders publically (especially between local and national figures) this only undermines both parties and makes communities feel insecure
•If you don’t know what to say don’t say anything
•Prepare robust and appropriate recovery policy/legilsation/skills/processes in advance
•Recovery involves power and money – do a regular ‘ego check’
•Listen to what affected people really need and want!
•Leaders make meaning. It has to start from within the community and works out from there – if that isn’t deep enough nothing will work.

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