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Expectations and harsh reality: why bushfire warnings fail

The town of Yarloop was engulfed by an inferno on January 9. AAP Image/Department of Fire and Emergency Services

Expectations and harsh reality: why bushfire warnings fail

The recent catastrophic fires at Yarloop in Western Australia and Wye River in Victoria have raised the issue of how authorities communicate emergency warnings.

In Yarloop, where two people died, debate has arisen about the use of SMS-based warnings, which reportedly may have arrived after the fire had reached the township. The Western Australian government will investigate the fire.

On Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, towns were successfully evacuated so no people died. However, more than 100 properties were lost.

As we examine the losses to life, property, infrastructure and community from the most recent events, many questions will be asked about how we might have avoided such extensive loss.

The truth is that sometimes, even with the best services, most rapid response and most effective communications and co-ordination, the consequences exceed what we think is acceptable as a community.

One question often canvassed after events such as the recent fires is: “Why didn’t we know how bad it was going to be earlier?”

Despite sophisticated weather monitoring and arrangements for response activation and co-ordination in Australia, it’s not always possible to predict the ferocity, speed or scope of events. Many of the factors that determine these things are outside our control.

Information overload

Emergency services agencies provide early warnings to communities to provide the information people need to be able to take action that avoids or reduces their exposure to the hazard. These messages are always provided via multiple channels – SMS, television and radio and social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook.

However, being able to use this information effectively very much depends on an understanding of what the information means for us personally. Terms such as “leave early” and be “well prepared” are not as simple as they might first appear.

Another challenging question often relates to the actions of the individuals affected by the event. When we discuss the perceived effectiveness of emergency communications we need to take several things into account.

The first thing is that under pressure humans don’t always behave in the way we expect. Risk assessment and risk-taking behaviour change when people are stressed. The ability to absorb information and act constructively can become flawed.

For example, research has demonstrated that emotional stress can impact how we make decisions by interfering with how we find information. As a result we may make simpler decisions, ones we wouldn’t consider if we weren’t under pressure. We are also influenced by the behaviour of those around us and by our personal past experience.

We’re in this together

Society is now exposed to a great deal more content from many more sources than ever before. In Australia, there are many real-time media feeds contributing information to both the affected and broader community during significant events.

In addition to constant feeds on television and radio, increasingly we have become reliant on electronic messaging and social media such as Twitter and Facebook. While we are typically information-hungry during these events, the volume of information we can access requires us to make several important decisions.

What sources do we trust? How do we determine what is the most up-to-date information? How should be pull all the sources together to inform our decision-making? How well do we understand the messages we do receive?

Humans are also known to experience information fatigue especially during hazardous events.

We must appreciate that emergency warnings can be designed either to inform or to advise or instruct. Messages such as “evacuate now” appear to be fairly clear.

But we are highly likely to have other people, livestock, pets and property to consider and these assets may not be in the same location as we are. Co-ordinating an evacuation under these circumstances is understandably stressful. Recent coverage of the Western Australian fires reveals the awful anxiety associated with not knowing where loved ones are.

Clearly, making sound decisions under threatening circumstances is extremely challenging.

We have to fight fires on all fronts: by preparing the environment (ie burnoffs and fuel reduction), preparing our organisation, preparing ourselves and our homes, and communicating effectively. In Australia, emergency services agencies, working with experts and researchers, are making persistent efforts to improve our collective ability to protect lives and property.

Success in the fight against fires must be a collective responsibility. As individuals and communities we must accept the part we play in risk mitigation and management by concentrating on risk reduction. Understanding the complexity of making the right decision under threat, we need to act early, responsibly and with the best available information.