Disaster preparedness, myths and programs that hold promise
Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:00:08] This podcast is part of our series about supporting children and families with regard to disasters and community trauma events. You’re with Laura Gooyers-Bourke and today I’m speaking with Briony Towers about involving children in disaster preparedness. Briony is a research fellow in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University and is a lead researcher on the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre’s project on child-centred disaster risk reduction.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:00:36] Briony, welcome. Thanks for joining us today.
Briony Towers [00:00:39] Thanks for having me.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:00:40] So today we’re just going to talk a bit about children and disasters and some of the myths that children hold and in particular around bushfires as well. So can you tell us a little bit about your work with children and families on disaster preparedness?
Briony Towers [00:00:55] So my work has been very much focussed on bushfire. And I started that work in 2007, I first started talking to children about their understandings of bushfire risk in their local communities. And that was part of my PhD research. And I think I ended up talking to about a hundred and forty kids between the ages of around six to twelve in high risk locations around Tasmania and Victoria. And based on that, was able to get a bit of an insight into how children understand bushfire risk, the roles that they play in bushfire preparedness and planning in their households. And also parents’ attitudes and values around involving their children. So since then, we’ve moved much more into the realm of designing and evaluating education programs for children, very much still focussed on that primary school age group with a particular focus on grade five, six. And I think that age group is emerging as one where children have a very strong intrinsic interest in bushfire preparedness and planning and playing a role in their families and communities in terms of bushfire safety.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:02:25] Can you give some examples of the practical ways that families and communities can help children get involved with disaster preparedness?
Briony Towers [00:02:33] So I think the starting point for a lot of a lot of programs in schools is to do with household bushfire plans. And I think when we’re talking about children’s involvement in household bushfire plans, it’s really important to acknowledge that often households already have a plan, but it may not be something that the children have been involved in up to that point. Sometimes they might have involved the children a little bit. So the children might have kind of a general idea and other times the children might have been very involved. And when we talk to those children, when they’ve actually had a real genuine role in the development and kind of implementation of their family’s bushfire plan, they often have a sophisticated understanding of bushfire risk. And I think one of the things that I found in my research is that bushfire plans are really the starting point for kids when they start to think about what they could do in their households or communities to manage bushfire risk and increase the safety. Bushfire plans is something that’s a really meaningful activity for them. So I do think that’s a really great starting point. But there’s a lot that goes into making a bushfire plan. There’s a lot of concepts and kind of processes that children need to understand to be able to genuinely participate in that. Everything from, you know, understanding the warning systems to understanding the dangers of late evacuation and things like that. But I do think that having a bushfire plan for a child that lives in a high bushfire risk area gives them a real sense of safety and security. So I think that’s something that we’ve kind of tended to focus on up to this point.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:04:38] You’ve spoken to children across Australia about their experience and understanding of bushfires. Can you tell us what you found?
Briony Towers [00:04:47] So in general, children living in high risk areas can tend to have a lot of misconceptions about how the risk manifests in their community. So they might live nearby the bush or a forest, a national park, a state park, and they understand that a bushfire could happen there. It’s called a bushfire. So they just think that’s perfectly obvious. But when they start to think about how bushfire could impact on, you know, the built environment, so the, you know, the urban interface area or the you know, the town the town itself, they dont’ necessarily understand a bushfire could come into into the town. And this is something that we see with adults as well, especially after Black Saturday. A lot of people living in some of the fire affected communities just didn’t think they could ever be affected. So I would say that’s probably one of the main misconceptions that that children tend to have, is that bushfires happen in the bush and if they live in town, they’ll be safe. If they live in the bush, they’re, you know, that they they may see themselves as being at risk, but otherwise they can see themselves as being quite safe. And in some ways, that comes back to their, I mean, it always comes back to their understanding of bushfire behaviour. So they tend not to have an understanding of how fire can travel via ember attack or how houses can be ignited due to ember attack. They see fire as something that travels in quite a predictable way across the landscape with the flames catching on to fuels as it as it goes along. So I think that’s probably one of the main misconceptions that they have. And then that then feeds into this idea that if you have a road in front of your house or there’s a river between your house and the forest, then the bushfire won’t make its way over to you because water doesn’t burn fire and doesn’t burn concrete. So that idea of of barriers. So I think for any effective bushfire education or for children to be able to get, you know, kind of accurate understanding of the risk bushfire might pose for them and their property, it really requires that they’re able to build their knowledge of bushfire behaviour and how bushfire actually behaves in the landscape. The role of weather conditions, the role of wind and temperature and all of those things. And we find that when children are really able to explore all of those different processes and and dynamics of bushfire behaviour, then they’re actually able to to have a pretty accurate understanding of their risk.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:07:41] So you’ve touched on this a little bit already, but what are some of the best ways to dispel some of these myths around bushfires that the kids can have sometimes?
Briony Towers [00:07:51] The first one is understanding what their misconceptions are. So a lot of talking. A lot of discussion. And the educational value of those discussions is huge. And often when I’m talking to children in in my research, in focus groups or in interviews, just by talking through some of these ideas, they are actually able to come to kind of more accurate conclusions themselves. So when we ask children often if they have a bushfire plan, they will start talking about how they will run to the back door if it’s coming from the front of the house or run to the front door if the fire’s coming from the back of the house and then somehow they’ll make their way to the letterbox and that’s where they’ll meet their family. And what they’re talking about there is a house fire escape plan, which they’ve usually learned in the younger years of primary school, and they’re applying that directly to a bushfire scenario. But as you start, as you know, as you kind of start to talk more and probe more in terms of, you know, how they’re constructing that understanding of what that’s based on, or often if you give them a scenario of, OK, there is a bushfire coming, what would you do at this point? What would you do at that point? Then I’ve had children say, actually can we go back to the start when the fire was still on the mountain? Because now I’d like to get in the car and drive away.
Briony Towers [00:09:14] So I feel like that dialogue is something that isn’t necessarily something that a lot of time is spent on in education programs. When we look at the education programs that exist, there’s there’s often not just a lot of talking, and I think that’s really important. But then also just having that exposure to bushfire itself, whether it’s you know, a lot of kids haven’t actually seen a bushfire, not on television, not on YouTube. They’ve actually don’t have any real concept of what a bushfire even looks like. And part of that might be to do with the fact that we’d like to protect children from, you know, from these things that might be scary or a bit overwhelming, especially if they are living in a high risk area. But I think it’s really important to at least give kids a bit of an understanding of the magnitude of a bushfire and that it isn’t something that you can run around or run away from.
Narrator [00:10:19] You’re listening to an Emerging Minds podcast.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:10:25] You mentioned some of the educational programs and you’ve evaluated the Survive and Thrive program for primary schools. Can you tell us a bit about the program and what your evaluation found?
Briony Towers [00:10:39] So the Survive and Thrive program was a pilot program run by the CFA and it started off in Anglesea and it was very much built on the premise that children have the capacity to educate their families and their communities about bushfire. So from the very outset, children are being positioned as agents of change, if you like, to use the UNISDR’s Sendai framework terminology. But I think the key things to understand about the program is that it’s it’s very it’s intensive. So the children spend two years learning about bushfire, whether it’s one day a week or one afternoon a week. And during that time, they spend a lot of time interacting and engaging with and learning from local experts. So whether it’s people from their local CFA brigade or local council or the local department of land, border and planning fire managers. So they’re getting a lot of opportunities to build relationships with those people and to build their foundation knowledge and skills. So one of the one of the kind of core features of the program is that the children spend a lot of time on experiential learning activities. So they go out to the bush and they learn how to use a McArthur Meter. So they’re taking the, you know, they’re taking calculations of fuel moisture and humidity and temperature, wind speed. They’re doing fuel assessments. They’re putting all of that data into models where they’re then mapping how a fire would behave in the landscape under those conditions. So it’s all very experiential and it’s very place based. It’s about their town. It’s about their their environment. And they have people or, you know, these these local experts supporting their learning.
Briony Towers [00:12:52] And once they’ve developed those skills, then they start to work on these student-led projects. So in Anglesea, the children developed community education workshops and where they decide on a topic that’s of interest to them, they usually work in groups and they spend, you know, a certain period of time, you know, months and months developing these workshops, which they eventually put on at a at a family evening. They go to other schools and put them on for other schools. And the effect that that has had on children’s sense of power, I suppose, in terms of what they can do to educate others, what they can do to educate themselves. The people in the community who are there to help them, that they now have these really close relationships too, these really trusted relationships with. It’s really quite, it’s quite extraordinary. And the I think the opportunity to be able to engage in that kind of learning and to be able to engage with emergency management, local emergency management people from such a young age. It will be actually really interesting to track these kids over time and kind of see what they do over time and to what extent this program influences decisions that they might make as older children or adults.
Briony Towers [00:14:31] And then, of course, the Strathewen side of the Survive and Thrive program has been really fascinating for us to explore as well, because, of course, Strathewen was very badly impacted by the Black Saturday bushfires. The school was destroyed. Most of the houses were destroyed. And everybody in the community lost someone that was important to them. Everybody lost somebody that they loved. So, you know, we’re talking about a community that has been through a really, really rough time. And the kids have grown up in, you know, in that post disaster context. And we found that a lot of the kids had were, you know, had experienced a lot of anxiety around bushfires, a lot of bushfire-related fear. And that the program there and learning about bushfire behaviour, learning how we can use, you know, use science and, you know, these technical tools to be able to measure weather conditions, measure conditions in the environment to help us make decisions about, you know, about our safety has been really quite transformative for those kids, I think. And for their families and I think the broader community as well. We found that as a result of the program families were talking about bushfire with their children more or bushfire preparedness with their children more. And the children were also getting much more involved in preparedness and planning activities. And perhaps most importantly, we’re able to cope much better when fam-, you know, when a family, one particular family that that does pack up and leave on extreme or catastrophic fire danger days or code red, I think it is in Victoria. Children would find that really, really difficult, very, very stressful and very scary. And they didn’t necessarily understand what was happening. But as a result of the program, they’re now able to cope with that situation emotionally much better. But they’re also able to contribute and be a part of the activities on those days. So the parents can now focus on what they need to be doing, which obviously is, you know, is really important when, you know, if there if there is a bushfire threat.
Briony Towers [00:17:04] So I think there’s a lot of different dimensions to to what’s happening with the program in Strathewen. But I think it’s really bringing the community together in a way that’s really special. A lot of volunteers invest their time in the program supporting the children, and they have their community helper days where the children put the put the CFA volunteers to work on their on their claymation or their book or whatever it is they’re making that year. And I think it’s creating very strong social connections. And I think that’s something that we don’t always tend to think about when we look at children’s bushfire or or disaster risk reduction programs more generally is the importance of those those social connections with people in the community.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:17:54] What a great program. It’s really amazing to see children leading the way and sort of showing the adults what needs to happen and helping them with their own preparedness. That’s great.
Briony Towers [00:18:06] And when you ask the children, you know about the you know, the nature of the program or the kind of program approach, they really do identify that that student ownership of the program and what they produce, whether it’s at Anglesea and it’s the workshops that they put on or whether it’s a Strathewen and that’s the you know, the kind of arts based community education materials that they produce. It really is that the students own it and they’re in charge. And I think that’s something we can’t underestimate the importance of that. That’s what leads to them going home and talking to their parents about it. That’s what leads to them feeling that they have knowledge that they can share with others to increase safety. And I think that yeah, that that’s really special for them. And I think that’s probably the most important thing about the whole program.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:19:08] That’s pretty much all. Do you have any other advice that you think could be helpful for families and communities either around bushfire or disasters in general?
Briony Towers [00:19:16] Yeah, I think there’s no, there’s no real general one size fits all advice for families or communities. And I think that that’s something that’s becoming much clearer to me as I continue doing research in this area. Every family is different. Every community is different. Every school is different. I think what’s really important, though, is that we understand that that children are vulnerable to the impacts of bushfire. We know that when they’re exposed to bushfire related trauma, that it does have long term impacts on their, you know, their psychosocial development, their educational achievement. But we can, we can protect them from that by investing in their education in this realm and by involving them, by talking to them. And I think part partly my advice would be to have just have a conversation. You know, if you’re a parent, have a have a conversation with your child. Ask them if they know if they know what what your bushfire plan is, what they might expect, you know, from from that. If you’re if you’re a teacher, ask your local CFA what they might be able to offer in terms of, you know, coming in and talking to kids or perhaps working on a project with the kids. Yeah, I think my general advice at this at this point would be just have, yeah start talking, have a conversation and see what might be possible and what might emerge.
Laura Gooyers-Bourke [00:21:00] That’s great advice. Thank you very much for coming in today, Briony. We really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk with us about children and disaster preparedness. Thank you very much.
Briony Towers [00:21:11] Thank you.
Narrator [00:21:14] Visit our website at www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Emerging Minds. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.