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Who gets to make our community safe?

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It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.


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Thursday 8 September 2005

Merilyn Childs, Director, Fire Services Research Program, Centre for Learning and Social Transformation, University of Western Sydney


Who Gets to Make Our Community safe  


Many of us will recall the raging Canberra bushfires that swept aside entire suburbs- and tragically, three people’s lives- in 2003. Across the nation we became glued to our television or radio, we held our collective breaths, and we cried as the disaster unfolded. 


Given modern media, disasters now involve us intimately. Even if at a distance, we pay witness to fire, flood, tsunami, terrorist activities, large-scale disasters as, or soon after, they happen.  


Disasters lead us to ask questions about the safety of our way of life, and the safety of the people and places that tell us who we are. Our survival instincts and collective voices lead us to ask “what can we do better to make our communities safer?”  


Australasian Fire Authorities Council CEO Len Foster recently outlined what he saw as the future of emergency management in Australia. 


He argued: 


“We must realise that emergency service organisations cannot do the job on their own any more. We are in a changing environment….how do emergency service organisations remain relevant in that changing environment?”  


One way of remaining relevant is of course for emergency service organizations to provide a high level of professionalism and accountability. 


Another way is to actively encourage community participation. Buckle, Marsh and Shale noted to the peak body Emergency Management Australia in 2003 that disaster management is presaged on the assumption that communities will be actively involved in the processes of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. 


But whom do we mean when we speak about “communities”?  


Outside Australia, there exists a considerable body of disaster knowledge that understands that “communities” are best characterised by their diversity. They are places inhabited by living people. Places where gender, ethnicity and class are critical factors in effective disaster mitigation and planning. They are not simply places in which the neutral science of disaster management gets played out objectively. 


International research indicates two important things about diversity. Firstly, women and children are the most vulnerable before, during and after so-called natural disasters.  


Secondly, women can and do play active roles in disaster mitigation and recovery, even in the poorest of countries. However, often their knowledge and adaptive strategies are overlooked and undervalued by the emergency management community. 


For this reason, a comprehensive international campaign is underway to mainstream gender in disaster planning, Unfortunately, this campaign has yet to significantly impact on disaster planning in Australia. This has come to the attention of international experts such as Elaine Enarson, who recently wondered why Australia remains one of the few countries in the world that does not have a vibrant conversation about women and disasters.  


In my mind, to have this conversation we would need some important things to happen.  


We’d need to be willing to see women as legitimately able to do the hard physical labour of emergency response. As a community we seem to struggle with the idea of physically strong women, preferring instead the image of the iconic masculine hero. At a practical level this has meant that in the urban fire and rescue agencies in Australia, less than 5% of paid fire fighters are women. Women are still regarded, sometimes with hostility, as doing “men’s work” as fire fighters.  


We need to find ways of attracting more women, more often, into emergency management processes. We need senior women involved in disaster mitigation and planning.  


We need to acknowledge that it simply isn’t possibly to foster disaster-resistant communities if we fail to see that women make up half the communities we live in and that they have something to offer.  


We need to value the paid and unpaid labour that women contribute to emergencies, and we need to start researching and talking about what that contribution means. 


Finally, we need to see that gender-blind “emergency management” is not helpful. It falls well short of making our communities safer. Indeed it encourages women to rely heavily on emergency management professionals, who are predominantly male- the opposite of community participation.  


In closing I want to return to Len Foster’s question about the future of emergency management in Australia. How do emergency service organisations remain relevant in a changing environment?  


One way for the emergency services to remain relevant is by actively seeing, seeking and promoting women as capable labourers, partners and stakeholders in the important process of building disaster-resilient communities. Who gets to make our communities safer? We need to place “gender” on the disaster management agenda.  


Guests on this program:

Merilyn Childs  


Fire Services Research Program 

Centre for Learning and Social Transformation 

University of Western Sydney