One of the positive outcomes from a disaster such as Black Saturday is that a window of opportunity opens in which opinions, behaviour and policy can be changed. But, the window closes as attention wanes and the issue of disaster management falls from the ‘hot topics’ list of decision makers and the media. A good example of the results of this effect is the decision by the government of Victoria to waive planning permissions for the rebuilding of fire devastated towns. Although this decision seems compassionate in the short term it means that now we are rebuilding the same fire vulnerable buildings in the same fire vulnerable areas.
Chance favours the prepared mind
The window of opportunity effect is also why the various findings of the various royal commissions and reports into bushfires have usually been quietly ignored or at best partly addressed. For example, problems with public warning and communications were a recurring theme on Black Saturday and in previous bush fires. See for example the 1983 commission into the Ash Wednesday which made recommendations to improve communication which were never acted on. Now we have the current commission making similar recommendations, which again probably will not be acted on. The reason for this chronic failure to take up recomendations is, as I see it, the fundamental problem with royal commissions, they take time. As a result by the time recommendations are delivered the public and government ‘will to do’ has waned. Consequently commissions are a blunt and inefficient instrument in changing public policy and effectively useless in changing opinion or behaviour. Government’s of course know this, which is probably why they are so popular with government’s.
So, what to do?
Well the sad truth is that the opportunity presented by the Black Saturday fires to shape and modify public behaviour has been lost. One way to surmount this problem is to build a sustained advocacy program that provide clear direction and guidance in the immediate aftermath of the next great fire. And at our current rate of progress, the next major fire is inevitable.
Mileti, D., Nathe, S., Paula, G., Marjorie, G., Lemersal, e., Public Hazards Communication and Education: The State of the Art, an Update of Informer Issue 2: Public Education for Earthquake Hazards 2004 (orig.1999).