“The Albanese Jobs Summit to be held in September provides a great opportunity to rethink our disaster response skill set and reduce pressure on the ADF -NISR outlines why and how” - Cheryl Durrant

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The extreme flooding affecting the East coast is once again producing stories of heartbreak, as communities struggle to deal with danger and loss. It appears the scale of flooding may eclipse the events in March, which themselves were utterly tragic in their consequences. While every crisis brings its own challenges, emergency response often struggles to meet community expectations.  The current floods provide just the latest example of emergency response resources and management struggling to meet needs and expectations.

We have traditionally presumed that The Australian Defence Force has a key response role in times of crisis. Right now, hundreds of ADF personnel are providing on-the-ground support to flood relief operations in NSW.  During the initial responses to the March flooding, there was some community anger at the lack of first response activity by the ADF. The spontaneous actions of stricken communities to rescue their fellow citizens led to criticism that organised emergency services, including the ADF, were late to the scene and under resourced.

March’s ADF ‘Operation Flood Assist’ followed hot on the heels of the ADF committing up to 1700 defence personnel to support the Aged Care sector; relief missions to Tonga following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January; and 54 flights during a single week in February, in response to the Solomon Islands covid outbreak. Whilst in Europe, a stark reminder eventuated; Russia invaded the Ukraine and we watched a country forced to mobilise, not only its military but its civilian contingency.

While the ADF has a role within disaster response, we recognise it as an ancillary capability, not a primary one. The Royal Commission into the National Natural Disaster Arrangements following the 2019-20 bushfires concluded: ‘Generally, the public perception was that the ADF could assist in every aspect and was always readily available. This is not, in fact, the case. Nor is it a reasonable expectation of the ADF.’  

Australia’s national security issues are cast in a new light amid growing security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region, geopolitical tensions with China, and now the war in Europe.  

It’s increasingly important that our military focus on their primary roles. Providing large scale disaster relief is a strain detracting from ensuring readiness for those roles, particularly if extreme weather events do increase in frequency and lead to increasing natural disasters.

For this reason, suggestions that the military should develop a specialist disaster response capability are misplaced. Likewise, the Defence Force Reserve cannot be presumed to be a ready response force. Their primary purpose, reinforcement of the regular military forces for surge capacity, has significant readiness overheads too.  

Current data indicates there are over one million volunteers who support Australia’s crisis response capacity, including over 400,000 who work directly in emergency response and relief. There are over 200,000 volunteers in fire services organisations, and over 25,000 in state and territory emergency services. 200,000 volunteers are engaged in over 1,000 registered emergency and relief charities, and many thousands of ‘invisible’ volunteers help informally and spontaneously to support communities before, during and after crises.  

The scale of volunteers is a magnificent reflection of Australian character, but there are growing concerns regarding its sustainability. Volunteering Australia has highlighted declines and fragility in some of these traditional fields of volunteering. During the 2019/20 bushfire season, for example, volunteer firefighter numbers were at a ten-year low. The annual State Emergency Service turnover rate is up to 25 per cent.  

Despite the readiness of Australian communities to assist their own emergency response, it’s not unfair to question how resilient our community response may be in the future. Observed high volunteer turnover rates, older volunteers, and growing levels of burnout present challenges to future community volunteer arrangements.  

There are public calls for a new model for how Australia prepares for, and responds to, crisis and disruption. It’s becoming clear that how we’ve done things in the past simply isn’t good enough to safeguard our communities, and our nation. Considered more broadly, this goes to our national resilience, a theme that has become an increasing concern across numerous strategic considerations.  

In facing this challenge there are also significant opportunities. As Alison Howe, CEO of the National Institute of Strategic Resilience says: ‘Our national challenge is to embrace the opportunities often presented by disruption, and use them to ‘bounce forward’, not just to bounce back from adversity.’  

There are agencies, enterprises and not-for-profits working across various aspects of disaster response, including the State Emergency Service, Rural Fire Service and Disaster Resilience Australia. What’s lacking is a nationally coordinated strategic approach.  Australia has an opportunity to upskill across civil society, in transferable skills that can support, not only disaster response but the broader needs of national resilience.  We need a cohesive framework to incentivise, train, predict, and manage our volunteer response workforces, to optimise the actual and latent potential of our society.

A model that’s being discussed publicly considers a highly trained civilian emergency response force, paid to develop and maintain key skills, which would be actively managed. Establishing this would be a significant national project, and a game-changer, not just in how we prepare for and respond to crises in the future, but how we enhance the resilience of our people, communities and nation beyond merely crisis response.  

While permanent paid emergency response forces aren’t a viable option, ensuring a ready force of suitably trained and managed volunteers, trained (and preferably paid) to learn critical skills and maintain them, is a model that deserves consideration.  

An initiative like this doesn’t need to have a standing start. In March, General Sir Peter Cosgrove backed a state based, commonwealth funded civilian contingency. Its goal to develop a reserve of volunteers, with training, development and maintenance of their skills for when disaster or disruption strikes.  

Building a capability that can be mobilised to address specific needs, will require the regular training of civilians. Aside from enhancing the ability of communities to support resilience, response and recovery, the upskilling of community members will create opportunity for the personal and professional growth for individuals. Education and training could target the utilisation of current and emerging best practice and technology. This could include professional development areas such as systemic risk assessments, pubic consultation and debriefings, as well as skills in using risk intelligence data, cutting edge logistics operations, medical mobilisation etc. Investment in strategic and operational skills will have a long-term payback to the community, and the economy, beyond their deployment in resilience building, preparedness or disaster response. The upcoming national jobs and skills summit to be held in September which has focus a to get the Australian “skills mix right over the long term “is a good place to progress this conversation.

A civilian response force with the right skills and supporting platforms will enhance individual and community resilience through personal and professional growth. Formal education, training and maintenance of qualifications will help to overcome declining volunteer numbers, whilst boosting economic opportunity. Our individuals and communities need to be part of a rewarding strategic plan that turns disaster into opportunity for the nation.

Max Heinrich & Tom Marchant

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