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It was recognised that the greatest impact from the 2013 bushfires was in the south and proximity to the Hobart office provided relative ease for the coordination of activities. Even so, the distance between locations had communication issues. Feedback shows the importance of ensuring early integration of Information Technology (IT) systems and routine communication channels to help staff feel more connected.
If a large-scale emergency were to occur in a different part of the State, feedback suggests that certain functions could occur in a central office in Hobart but that a regional base for planning and coordination would need to be established, drawing on local expertise and relocating staff from Hobart to key positions if needed.
Many formal and informal clubs, groups and individuals provided important local knowledge and support throughout the different phases of the recovery. Appendix Two provides a timeline of the main activities undertaken, and while not all activities are included in the timeline, it illustrates the high level of interaction and provides an indication of the planning and coordination required to enable these activities to occur.
The Active Partners Program was developed early in the recovery process as a mechanism to engage and collaborate with the broad array of organisations involved in the recovery process. In many areas, the process was highly successful and allowed the State and local governments to work effectively with community groups. At the margins, however, further attention could be given to ensuring that all of those involved in the recovery process are aware of activities and have the opportunity to have input into programs. For future emergencies, consideration could be given to dedicating resources to this program to more effectively capture the benefits of broad engagement and collaboration.
The State Recovery Plan and the arrangements established under the Emergency Management Act 2006 provide the framework for the coordination of recovery at the State, regional and local levels. During the early days of the recovery process, however, it was apparent that recovery roles and responsibilities were not as clearly defined as was required and that many stakeholders experienced confusion and concern about who was doing what and how they could best contribute.
While these issues were quickly resolved, it would be beneficial for the smooth transition to recovery to more regularly discuss and update registers of key positions and organisations that are available to support the recovery process. There was widespread agreement that an annual pre-fire season audit would be a useful planning exercise to:
The Taskforce was committed to hearing from the community to ensure recovery activities were addressing community priorities. As Dr Rob Gordon, Consulting Psychologist said, “we need to listen more than we have time for.”
Feedback from the community was gathered through the formal governance representation at forums such as STAARC. Community meetings, community consultations and surveys were also conducted at various intervals. Organisations involved in the recovery regularly talked between themselves to organise and share resources.
Some community members felt, at times, they just wanted to ‘get on with things’ – they were over-consulted and surveyed-out. Others felt they wanted more opportunity to contribute. Balancing this conflict was difficult and it became clear that different forms of consultation were important to meet the various needs and preferences of community members.
During November 2013, almost a year after the fires, a telephone survey was conducted with 300 community members as part of the review recovery processes. Almost all who were contacted were very pleased to contribute their views (refer to Appendix Three for summary of results). Paper and online forms were also widely distributed at this time through as many channels as possible, but had a very low uptake. This indicates a preference for sharing such views orally, rather than by filling out yet another form.
However, for other consultations, such as the feedback process for the Community Assistance Grants, people preferred paper forms to read, ponder and respond in their own time.
The community also voiced their stories and opinions informally, and often this provided the greatest detail and information. Regular drop-ins at the Information Service Hubs were encouraged; locals were invited to have a cuppa and a chat and to let the staff know what was happening. Daily teleconferencing link-ups between the DISH and the Bushfire Recovery Unit in Hobart meant that locals’ concerns were translated quickly into action at the appropriate level within government.
Conversations with Bushfire Recovery staff and other organisations on the ground provided an opportunity to dispel myths that sometimes circulated. The 1800 number provided people with easy access to voice their immediate concerns or to ask questions – allowing staff to provide advice and clear up misinformation on the spot or, where necessary, seek follow up.
Community representatives brought wider community views into formal meetings such as STAARC. However, some members of the community reflected that it was difficult to know what happened during the meetings when dissemination of key messages relied on a limited number of busy people. It was suggested that short summary updates of important messages could be produced by Unit staff and disseminated online, via email, Phone Tree or posted on bulletin boards at the hubs. This would make regular updates simple and easy and keep communities informed of key decisions while taking the pressure of community representatives and hub staff.
Although STAARC did receive this feedback and act upon it in mid-2013, it is acknowledged that the routine of sending out communiques following each meeting has not occurred regularly, usually due to time constraints and other priorities. This should be considered a priority in future emergencies.
The community survey undertaken for the review revealed that for many people, it is community spirit that is getting them through. This was fostered with grassroots communication and a range of activities organised by the community throughout the region.
Community-managed blackboards were placed in prominent places; they fostered community expression and collective understanding. The SMS Phone Tree – where an SMS message ended with the phrase “Please Forward” – let people stay in touch with key messages. Some people organised themselves into groups and started to meet either formally or informally.
All of these techniques helped the community stay informed, know what and how to get things going, and stay connected with each other.
“You sometimes don’t notice the true extent of community spirit unless something goes wrong,” the Mayor of Sorell Council, Kerry Vincent, recently reflected. In January 2013 a devastating bushfire was the something that ‘went wrong’ and it’s the spirit of the fire-affected communities that continues to illuminate the road ahead.
Kerry, along with the Mayor of Tasman Council, Jan Barwick, was the Chair of the Sorell Tasman Affected Area Recovery Committee (STAARC). This 12-member team, which was set up to support and help coordinate the bushfire recovery efforts initially included Mat Healey, the Director of the Bushfire Recovery Unit, and community representatives Caroline Bignell and Graham Millar*. A similar group was also organised in the Central Highlands in the wake of the Lake Repulse bushfire.
STAARC has given – and continues to give – the opportunity for everyone in the community to have a central body of communication with State and Local Government (and vice versa).
“This sort of community consultation has been at the forefront of the recovery,” Kerry said. “That will remain exactly the same as we look forward to the next stage of the journey.
“But what I think will change slightly is the focus of the efforts. The first 12 months were largely about people getting back on their feet and deciding what they wanted to do next. 2014 will be more about the recovery of community infrastructure. We’ll see projects such as the walkway through Dunalley, the Primary School and the Community Hall all start to come to fruition.”
Jan Barwick agreed that community volunteers were the true heroes of the fight against the bushfire inferno and that it is the same ‘can do’ attitude that will spearhead ongoing recovery efforts.
“We all applaud the residents of the fire-affected communities for their courage, strength and determination through this difficult time,” Jan said.
“We have been very fortunate to have several outstanding champions within these communities who have led by example. They have rallied to ensure that instead of being victims, we’ve all adopted a ‘can do’ attitude to help make our communities stronger and better than ever. These champions have advocated on the behalf of others, willingly given a helping hand when needed, lent a sympathetic ear, and laughed and cried with the rest of us.
“I have no doubt that the recovery of our communities would not be as advanced without them. There is no way we could ever repay them for all that they have done.”