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Build community resilience in the face of disasters and emergencies

VCOSS recently published its 2016-17 State Budget Submission Putting people back in the picture. A series of blogs will examine some of the proposals in the submission.

Victoria faces increased risk of bushfires, floods, heatwaves and storms. Other recognised risks include energy supply disruption, hazardous materials emergency, insect pest incursion, marine pollution, mine failure, pandemic disease or transport infrastructure emergency.

Building the resilience of individuals, families and communities is the core work of community sector organisations. Through a wide range of programs, services, policy development and advocacy, delivered by significant numbers of paid and volunteer workers, community sector organisations contribute to the building of stronger, more cohesive communities every day.[1]

There is increasing recognition of the crucial role that the community sector plays before, during and after emergencies and disasters.  Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience states that non-government and community organisations are at the forefront of strengthening disaster resilience. It acknowledges that Australians often turn to these organisations for support or advice, and that their dedicated work is critical to helping communities to cope with, and recover from, a disaster. The Strategy commits Australian governments to continue to partner with these agencies and organisations to spread the disaster resilience message and to find practical ways to strengthen disaster resilience. It states:

Effective partnerships across all areas of society are critical to enhancing disaster resilience. Many not-for-profit organisations have experience and expertise in areas including community engagement and education, and various facets of service provision. Importantly, their existing networks and structures reach far into communities, and can effect real change.[2]

Community organisations are often on the frontline, providing resources, support and triage services to people impacted in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. Many community organisations themselves become informal relief centres, and local community sector staff can be called upon provide assistance at other formal relief and recovery centres. Research has found that social service providers are called upon to mitigate the human impacts of disasters and fill the gaps in resources and capabilities.[3]

The practical and crisis oriented services provided by community organisations in emergencies can  include:

  • providing access to food, shelter and clothing
  • organising donation activities
  • visiting and consoling families
  • providing counselling and advice for people manning help lines
  • connecting individuals to resources such as financial assistance providers, emergency housing and other special programs
  • providing and coordinating support to families looking for missing relatives
  • finding support for individuals and families
  • providing assistance in mediation of family disputes, emergency settlement, and investigating disaster information
  • providing grief counselling and post-disaster support
  • instigating prevention programs for those with health and mental health difficulties
  • linking people with resources and preventing physical and mental health problems and family breakdown
  • intervening in service delivery systems to advocate for change and following through with long-term advocacy and community development efforts.[4]

At the same time, the community sector can also play a role in building resilience and preparedness for emergencies and disasters, using the skills and experience that are used on a day to day basis. Community organisations know their local communities intimately, are embedded in their communities and have unique penetration into and engagement with their communities. They provide services to the most vulnerable and at-risk residents in their area. In addition they are perceived as ‘trusted sources’ by their community. Organisations are able to undertake formal and informal needs analyses, monitor trends, and ‘take the pulse’ of their community, have specific expertise in outreach, information referral, crisis management, volunteer management and special services and are trained in language and cultural sensitivity skills and for working with people who have disabilities or other particular needs.

Research shows that community sector organisations are willing to build the resilience of both their own organisations as well as that of clients:

  • 60 per cent would like to undertake climate change risk assessments, develop adaptation plans and help clients prepare for impacts to be more resilient.
  • over 80 per cent would like to work collaboratively with other agencies to deliver services during and after extreme weather events.[5]

However the majority of community sector organisations are highly vulnerable and unprepared for emergencies. In the event of an emergency means organisations risk shutting down or not functioning, leaving vulnerable people without support at a time they need it most. Research shows that organisations have limited capacity to manage disruptions to essential services; around 50 per cent of organisations would be out of operation for a week if they sustained serious damage, and up to 25 per cent might never provide services again.[6]  High levels of under-insurance and lack of adequate planning are also common among community organisations.The barriers to developing resilience include significant resource and capacity restraints.

Australian Red Cross has stated:

There are copious benefits to involving NFPs (not- for-profits) in disaster resilience. Intimate local knowledge, contacts and trust developed over time make NFPs natural partners for any community-focused endeavour. However, the ability of NFPs to play a central role in disaster resilience activities is inhibited due to a number of limitations imposed by restricted financial capacity and insufficient role definition.

…emergency management is rarely the raison d’être for NFPs (not-for-profits) and rather tends to serve as an extra role groups in the sector take on. This can add a significant burden to small NFPs with limited human and financial capital given it can also distract from their core work and services. [7]

The VCOSS State Budget Submission Putting people back in the picture proposes the state government build the resilience of communities by strengthening the organisations that support them.  Providing resources and support to enable organisations to plan and prepare for emergencies and disasters will ensure they can continue to contribute to the everyday resilience of communities, as well as assist with the recovery of individuals and families following an emergency event.

[1] Victorian Council of Social Service, Building on the value of Victoria’s community sector, VCOSS, 2015

[2] Council of Australian Governments, National Strategy for Disaster Resilience, Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department, Canberra, 2011.

[3] Institute of Medicine, Healthy, resilient, and sustainable communities after disasters: Strategies, opportunities, and planning for recovery, The National Academies Press Washington, DC 2015

[4] Cooper L & Briggs L, Do we need specific disaster management education for social work? Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Volume 29, No. 4, October 2014

[5] Mallon, K, Hamilton, E, Black, M, Beem, B & Abs, J , Adapting the Community Sector for Climate Extremes: Extreme Weather, Climate Change and the Community Sector – Risks and Adaptations, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 2013

[6] Mallon, K, Hamilton, E, Black, M, Beem, B & Abs, J, Adapting the Community Sector for Climate Extremes: Extreme Weather, Climate Change and the Community Sector – Risks and Adaptations, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 2013

[7] Australian Red Cross, Beyond the Blanket: The role of not-for-profits and non traditional stakeholders in emergency management 2nd National Disaster Resilience Roundtable Report, Melbourne, 2015