Bushfires and Trash

Attended a debrief on the bushfires today. Everyone was there. CFA, SES, NGOs, DHS, DPI et al. What are the main things that went wrong? Communications. Lack of role clarity - agencies not knowing what their role was, and the coordinators not knowing either. And handling the public response. Stories from the agency people at the front line about "so much trash". Old toys. Unwearable clothes. Unsuitable items (lanwmowers! - think about it). Broken stilletos. [I suggested unbroken stilletos would be fine, of course]

Everyone says we need to change the public response. It feels like holding back the tide. But there is hope. 20-30 years ago everyone expected overseas aid agencies to ship actual goods in response to a disaster overseas. I remember chartering planes (or part of their cargo space at least) from Melbourne to other points of the globe. No-one does that now, and if anyone suggested that a World Vision or an Oxfam do it, they would be politely refused. So, consistent action by agencies over time, will change public behaviour. We need to be all saying, "Take your goods to your front driveway. Have a garage sale. Send the cash."

Another interesting phenomenon was donations that turned out to be not donations. Sometimes local people used their initiative to organise things to be delivered on a commercial basis. Except no-one knew there would be a bill until it arrived weeks later. You could hardly expect the locals to pay it, so the government ends up wearing the cost (our taxes at work). Not necessarily the most cost-effective way to do it. And some suspicions about the intentions of the suppliers sometimes.

But there is good stuff too. The public response, however misguided, is a phenomonally good thing. The ability of DHS to adapt to the crisis is impressive. Goes against the common perception of how quick the public service can change. The decision to have case managers was made and rolled out (if not completely) within a week or so. Premier Brumby and PM Rudd both showed good leadership and a willingness to sit with the communities and listen more than talk.

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