[Analytics] How Australia’s bushfire crisis demands a rethink on defence’s role

Fire threatens Lithgow on Saturday. CREDIT: DEAN SEWELL. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

With Australia in the grip of a bushfire crisis it is clear that disaster management in this nation is now a national security issue. Because of the scale and speed of such natural events they have similar potential for harm as other security challenges that threaten our normal way of life across significant areas of the country. Anthony Bergin, Paul Barnes specially for The Sydney Morning Herald.

There are several steps the Morrison government should take to adopt a greater national approach to emergency management.

It’s time for a rethink on how defence could be better deployed in domestic natural disasters. Our defence forces have a blind spot for domestic civil assistance beyond counter-terrorism roles. In some ways it’s surprising. The Australian Defence Force has a strong culture of assisting other nations in need and is often praised for this humanitarian and aid effort. But many ordinary Australian citizens dealing with natural disasters at present do not see how their military supports them.

A greater defence role might require additional personnel with specialist skills with defence running aerial assets including drones and air-traffic management in fire zones. Military logistic support capabilities can help free up more of our firefighters to deploy to the front line. Major fires are happening year-round.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced an additional $11 million for the National Aerial Firefighting Centre. This would only cover a limited extension of some existing aircraft leases. And, as former senior air force officer Peter Layton has noted, a national fire-fighting fleet “would gain large economies of scale in terms of cost, staffing and training systems. The very long-term requirement means it’s most cost-effective to fund an enduring and expandable national capability. The air force appears the logical organisation.” The US Air Force has recently been contracted to install fire retardant delivery systems for seven C130s being transferred from the US Coast Guard to the US Forest Service.

We need fresh thinking on the role of volunteers. Their numbers are declining and their average age is increasing. We should create a national emergency management volunteer program. This could be a one-year program during which participants work in a volunteer organisation, gaining and practising skills applicable in emergencies, including in organisations active in the recovery side of disaster management.

Support for employers of current volunteers should be examined. This might be in the form of subsidies or other forms of benefit to offset the costs of absent workers. Country town volunteer fire brigades need to be fully integrated into a cohesive jurisdictional or national force, especially when we see restrictions on availability for release to undertake training and response. The individual costs of being a volunteer should no longer be accepted as a price they pay for service.

The federal government’s Emergency Management Australia, the government body responsible for emergency management co-ordination, is a division in the Department of Home Affairs. But it now needs a mandate from cabinet to co-ordinate responses to national disaster crises. It should be a statutory authority and develop a national disaster resilience scorecard with the states as well as providing post-event reporting on before, during and after-event capabilities and capacities to cabinet.

Without a basis for assessing disaster resilience it’s not really possible to monitor changes or ways to make improvements. With a national scorecard, communities could then develop their own scorecards, focusing on the hazards that threaten them.

Risk mitigation should become a key part of the Morrison government’s micro-economic reform program. Every dollar invested in mitigation can save $6 in future disaster costs. It’s much more efficient to reduce on the ground vulnerability ahead of impacts than spending over and over again on relief. Natural disaster costs have become a growing, unfunded liability for governments.

We need a national university curriculum on disaster management and a whole of government approach covering all aspects of disaster information on hazards and risk exposure to improve its consistency, sharing and communication. Crucial natural disaster information is often incomplete, out of date, or duplicated across sources. More engagement with the insurance industry would assist with accessing a larger data picture.

We need to start planning for large-scale disasters over wide geographical scales and duration producing catastrophic disruptions to critical infrastructure, food production and transport networks. The management of low-likelihood, high-consequence events isn’t well rehearsed compared with expected or familiar types of disruption.

We need greater focus on health preparedness through conducting rigorous no-notice disaster drills in hospitals to test our ability to handle a large number of disaster casualties. We need to set national minimum standards for dealing with mass casualty disasters. First aid training should become the norm in our society. Fewer than 5 per cent of Australian households are estimated to include a member with the first aid know-how to act in a medical emergency. First aid training should be taught in Australian schools, including primary schools.

Finally, let’s bring business more into our national disaster planning. Governments can’t do everything, and business owners are likely to understand their own risk exposures and vulnerabilities better than anyone else. There should be business liaison positions in our counter-disaster agencies.

Rising temperatures are leading to dramatic changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather in Australia. We need to strengthen and deepen the nation’s ability to prepare for and recover from disasters. Unless we do so, the cost of disasters will continue to rise, as will losses in the social and environmental systems that our communities rely on.

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Paul Barnes is head of ASPI’s risk and resilience program.

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