By Nathan Maddock, Communications Manager, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Five years into its tenure, the research of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre ( Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC) is being practically applied by its partners across Australia. This research impact highlights the vision of the CRC: trusted research and knowledge across all hazards, developed for the benefit of the community. This research is making a difference, saving lives, and reducing disaster-related costs. Read on to learn more about the impact of research in the specific areas of fire modelling, emergency warnings, youth-led disaster risk reduction, policy development, community engagement and volunteering, and emergency planning for animals.

Better fire danger ratings

The latest fire science, including CRC research, has been used to develop the pilot Australian National Fire Danger Rating System. Underway is the first major update to the system since it was devised in the 1960s.

The new National Fire Danger Rating System prototype was trialled by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service over summer 2017/2018 to better incorporate extreme fire behaviour. In coming years when the revised system is in operation around Australia, all fire agencies are expected to better predict bushfire danger, leading to better warnings and increasing the safety of the community. The CRC has contributed contemporary science on fire weather, vegetation conditions (fuel), fire behaviour, ignition likelihood, fire suppression, fire impact, communicating risk, urban planning, decision making, and mitigation.

The trial of the prototype is a significant demonstration of the successful utilisation of CRC research into the sector: CRC partners AFAC and the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service now own the ongoing use of the research outputs. As the new system is piloted and integrated into the sector, the CRC will continue to play a critical role, providing vital science and evidence that underpins the new system.

Research by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC in Australia has been integral to the development of a new system for predicting bushfire danger. Credit: Mick Reynolds, NSW Rural Fire Service

Improved warnings to ensure action

Aspects of the CRC research are shaping Australian public warnings and information campaigns that prepare and protect communities from flood, fire, heatwave and other natural hazards. Insights have combined to equip emergency service agencies around Australia with better targeted long term public safety campaigns, as well as urgent warning messages delivered to at-risk populations in the face of imminent emergencies.

Australian emergency service agencies have drawn from the CRC research, led by Professor Vivienne Tippett at the Queensland University of Technology. These agencies have collaborated at the national level on their insights and experiences in their testing phases to determine a style and structure for their official public messages and information campaigns.

The investigation of flood fatalities to inform community safety campaigns has seen close collaboration between CRC researchers headed up by Macquarie University’s Dr Katharine Haynes and operational emergency services staff. This has helped the NSW State Emergency Service to develop statewide education campaigns on flood warnings, with the findings enabling agencies to better target their warning messages to high-risk groups and high-risk behaviours based on the evidence from over a century of fatalities, injuries, and building losses. Findings have enhanced public information campaigns.

Research is involving emergency warnings and flood education campaigns.
Credit: NSW State Emergency Service

Disaster resilience education for young people

The importance of educating children and youth about disaster risk reduction and resilience is now front and centre around Australia, based on the CRC research led by Professor Kevin Ronan (Central Queensland University) and Dr Briony Towers (RMIT University). This new focus is based on research that identified the valuable role that children play in the safety of their household and their community.

Ronan and Towers evaluated disaster risk reduction and resilience programs in Australian primary and secondary schools to find out how these programs contribute to the mitigation and prevention of disaster impacts. Alongside this, the project team has also been co-evaluating disaster resilience education programs, both for reliability, as well as their outcomes. This development and evaluation is intended to ensure that intended outcomes are being achieved.

‘What if?’ questions drive future policy

What if an earthquake hit central Adelaide? A major flood on the Yarra River through Melbourne? A bushfire on the slopes of Mount Wellington over Hobart? ‘What if?’ scenario modelling by the CRC is helping government, planning authorities and emergency service agencies think through the costs and consequences of various options on preparing for major disasters on their urban infrastructure and natural environments and how these might change into the future.

The research, headed up by Professor Holger Maier at the University of Adelaide, is based on the premise that to reduce both the risk and cost of disasters, an integrated approach is needed that considers multiple hazards and a range of mitigation options. Taking into account future changes in demographics, land use, economics, and climate, the modelling analyses areas of risk both now and into the future; tests risk reduction options; identifies mitigation portfolios that provide the best outcomes for a given budget; and considers single or multiple types of risk reduction options, such as land use planning, structural measures, and community education. Case studies have been undertaken in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Tasmania that model the expected impacts of hazards from 2015 to 2050, with an annual time step under different plausible future scenarios, showing the change in risks in different localities. Agencies will be able to use the system to help allocate budgets, demonstrating that they are using the best available science to inform decision making.

A new model for helping

A highlight of the CRC research is that the nature of volunteering and community involvement in disaster management is fundamentally changing. The research led by Dr Blythe McLennan at RMIT University has provided strategies that emergency service agencies can employ to help adapt to this change, developing guides and advice that has informed policies around volunteering and spontaneous volunteering.

Key national programs have been influenced, with findings from the study used extensively for the development of the National Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy by the Australia–New Zealand Emergency Management Committee. The strategy provides advice to emergency service agencies on what they need to be aware of and what they need to consider and plan for when working with spontaneous volunteers. Important issues such as legal obligations and social media are also covered.

Building on this, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience drew directly on the research when developing the 2017 handbook on spontaneous volunteer management. The handbook provides important guidance for organisations on how to incorporate the principles of the National Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy, and the most recent research on spontaneous volunteering, into their own plans and procedures.

Emergency services are also using the research, with the New South Wales State Emergency Service using the findings to shape how the organisation will recruit volunteers. Their latest volunteering strategy was informed extensively by research findings from the CRC.

Emergency service volunteering is changing, and research by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC in Australia is helping emergency services adjust. Credit: Ben Shepherd, NSW Rural Fire Service

Emergency planning for animals

Australians, like many societies, love their pets – and this influences how people behave during an emergency, with emergency services incorporating findings from research to influence their plans and policies during disasters.

Under the direction of Dr Mel Taylor at Macquarie University, this research identified best practice approaches to animal emergency management, giving emergency management agencies the data they need to make better informed decisions on planning and targeting of resources.

Nationally, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience has drawn on the research to develop a section on animal management in their updated evacuation planning handbook, published in 2017, while animal emergency management has been strengthened in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.

Nathan is the Communications Manager at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. He has a communications background in research and emergency management, having worked in the area for ten years.