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In the highly-charged environment after the 2013 bushfires, the fire-affected communities needed visible leadership to provide reassurance that recovery processes were being well coordinated and, most importantly, that those in charge were committed to understanding and responding to community needs. In these early stages the establishment of clear, high-level governance arrangements – including the Ministerial Subcommittee, the Taskforce, AARCs and the Unit – facilitated early decisive intervention in critical matters such as the restoration of power, the speedy commencement of the clean-up and the establishment of the temporary school.
The multi-sector membership of the Taskforce and AARCs and multi-agency make-up of the Unit brought different perspectives and a balanced approach to the recovery, with a clear community focus. As time passed, increased community involvement in the governance arrangements enabled the Taskforce to harness local knowledge and understand community priorities so it could ensure changing demands were met throughout the different recovery phases. This involvement allowed community members to build trust in the formal processes, as well as gain insights and provide input into decisions as they were being made.
Feedback to the review highlighted the importance of establishing functional governance arrangements and appointing the right people to key roles, particularly those in leadership roles. Feedback consistently indicated that key appointments to the Taskforce, the Unit and AARCs were viewed as having provided strong direction while allowing for the flexibility to respond to emerging community needs as they arose.
The broad representation, effective management and independence of the Taskforce were seen to have enabled balanced guidance and oversight of recovery decisions. Stakeholders also praised the Unit and the approach taken to manage its complex coordination role, including the collaborative methods used to sort through the diversity of issues in a timely and effective way. Early and close interaction with local governments was highlighted as critical for the successful rollout of recovery programs.
The early establishment of the AARCs was well received as a vital link between local governments, a broad range of Tasmanian government agencies, non-government organisations and as a forum for community representation so that appropriate decisions could be made to address the different recovery priorities for each of the fire-affected communities.
Membership of the AARCs was vitally important to ensure that the right organisations were represented and that community representatives were able to contribute effectively. The sensitive chairing of these committees and the balanced approach brought by members enabled targeted and well-considered responses to opportunities and issues, as well as responsibility for the implementation of key processes (such as community consultation and development of community recovery projects).
Clear lines of communication between STAARC and other formal and informal groups and committees were cultivated by ensuring that there was cross-over in membership. Activities and initiatives of a variety of groups, as well as concerns and issues raised by them, were frequently noted, discussed and acted on by STAARC, and vice versa.
The engagement of locals in key positions within the recovery process was highly valuable in terms of staying connected to the needs of the community and providing pragmatic sources of feedback on programs. Many members of the community were highly motivated to be involved in recovery activities. They also provided vital insights and solutions to local issues that emerged throughout 2013. However, it is recognised that involvement in recovery processes placed a significant burden on individuals that were themselves, working through their own personal recovery. Dedicated, early and continuous provision of training and support for locals with highly visible recovery roles, both paid and voluntary, would help to strengthen community capacity and lessen the ongoing burden on these individuals.
Suggestions included providing all staff and key volunteers with formal induction and regular, mandatory debrief or counselling sessions, and encouraging locals to return to normal community involvement once the initial recovery phase has passed.
Some concern was voiced by the community about the way in which community representatives were selected; there were suggestions that a more transparent process, rotations, and/or wider selection might have improved the breadth and depth of community input. When establishing longer-term AARCs, it was suggested that provision for changing membership may help communities to encourage and strengthen local capacity, help avoid member fatigue and ensure effective stakeholder involvement.
Partly in response to these suggestions, membership of the Sorell Tasman AARC (STAARC) was reviewed in July 2013 and community representation was expanded to include broader participation from different segments of the community.
In a less formal setting, issues emerging within the community were picked up by staff at the Information and Service Hubs and discussed in daily conference calls involving most of the Unit staff. Establishment of these communication routines helped to resolve many issues and ensure that the entire team was able to stay informed. The conference calls also provided an indirect link to the community and helped central office staff to assist the team working out of Dunalley. Staff on the ground were also able to stay informed of central office developments so they could provide advice to the community or act quickly to dispel myths.
The Bushfire Recovery Unit brought together necessary skills and expertise, from a range of government agencies to plan and coordinate recovery activities. The willingness of agencies to provide staff secondments to this temporary unit enabled a highly motivated, engaged team to be formed at short notice. Several staff members were ‘locals’ or had close connections with the fire-affected areas. Their networks provided valuable insight into local issues and effective engagement strategies for the broader community.
Co-location of core agencies within the governance structure of the Unit enabled better understanding and coordination of the different work being done and facilitated effective and regular communication regarding progress on priority activities. The arrangement enabled recovery priorities to better integrate with relevant agencies’ other work, and made for higher levels of accountability and reporting. Feedback to the review also suggested that agency staff who were co-located felt more integrated into the Unit and had a greater appreciation of how their work contributed to the overall recovery effort.
The experience clearly demonstrates that coordination of programs was more difficult when co-location arrangements were not in place. This suggests that in future, achieving co-location of all core agencies should be a high priority. This could operate on a part-time basis, as the need dictates.
Early setup of the Information and Service Hubs in Dunalley, Sorell and Murdunna, in the heart of the fire-affected areas, provided a range of general and expert advice and services. The friendly and inviting atmosphere of the hubs was seen to be a key ingredient for ensuring a successful relationship between government, non-government organisations and the community.
People and communities recover at different stages and times, and communication needs to be varied and frequent to accommodate multiple needs. A regular flow of key messages, often repeated across many channels, was needed to ensure they got through to people when they were ready to hear them. Importantly, people in the community were also encouraged to share their thoughts and use communication channels open to them so recovery decisions could be adjusted to meet their priorities.
A comprehensive communication strategy was implemented and supported during the early months of the recovery process. The communications function was centrally located to ensure that messages from government were clear, targeted and accessible by a wide range of audiences. This was considered to be one of the key success factors for the recovery program.
With routines disrupted and letter boxes gone, it was hard to reach everybody. Traditional media – such as television, radio and newspapers – were useful to reach a wide audience, however it was also important to recognise the value of individuals and community groups with well established networks for disseminating key messages, particularly early in the recovery. The local hubs, newsletters, fact sheets and pamphlets, blackboards, 1800 number, Phone Tree, local networks and meetings were all recognised as important communication tools. The effectiveness of the formal recovery effort in tapping into these informal networks relied on sensitive and respectful communications with well-networked locals, and was largely successful in linking in to the local avenues without overwhelming them.
Feedback indicated that people both directly and indirectly affected by the fires valued the regular editions of the newsletter Recovery News. The useful information and positive stories helped them through the recovery process. Editions were expected, kept, re-read, and handed around. For those who had to move away temporarily, Recovery News was delivered or emailed to help them stay connected. Recovery organisations also realised it was an excellent tool to aid their understanding of community context and need, as well as being a good conduit for getting their own messages out to the community. This was particularly so in the Sorell/ Tasman area, which continued to receive editions until late October 2013.
Fact sheets and other publications, such as the Building Back Better Guide, were also considered useful because they could be taken away and read when the need arose or when time permitted.
The Bushfire Recovery website was a well-used communication portal, providing online access to a range of information and resources, with more than 76 000 page views between January 2013 and January 2014. The most popular pages during early days included information about financial assistance and recovery grants; advice and registration forms for the clean-up; and information about ways to donate and volunteering. In later months, interest moved to events; advice about wellbeing; the various community assistance grants rounds; and finally, the Bushfire Recovery Review. Public feedback was addressed throughout the year to ensure important information, relevant to the recovery phase, was located up front so it was easy to find.
While the Bushfire Recovery Unit’s Twitter account had 600 followers and was highly valued by recovery organisations, it quickly became apparent that social media was to play a much broader role in the recovery process. The ‘Tassie Fires - We Can Help’ Facebook page was a high profile example of the way that social media can support recovery efforts, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the fires. The response to the ‘Tassie Fires – We Can Help’ page highlights the significant role that social media is likely to play in future emergencies.
Significant work has been undertaken by emergency response agencies and the Department of Premier and Cabinet in progressing their social media presence, including the launch of the TasALERT website. This work will ensure social media is used effectively to deliver important public information and warnings quickly and accurately during emergencies.
It is clear that there is further work to do in developing an understanding in government and across the community of the role that social media plays in government communications, compared to the role it plays in broader network-based community communication. The work of the Tasmania Fire Service and Tasmania Police in using social media, and the recently launched TasAlert webpage, will go some way to capitalising on these communication avenues for future emergencies.
The number of organisations involved meant that it was sometimes difficult to keep messages consistent. Feedback to the review showed that communication worked best when key people were identified within organisations to keep messages consistent when working with others and the community. This highlights the value for agencies, organisations and communities to have contact lists prepared in advance and widely available from the outset to reduce confusion. It was also identified that local councils, swamped with requests for information, could benefit from dedicated communications support.