I joined the Arthur’s Creek/Strathewen Emergency Scenario event in early November with my family. We had previously attended a briefing a few weeks prior, led by an independent facilitator, but co-created through a process with varying community members, emergency service agencies and the local council. At the briefing, we were advised that participants would receive a text message on the 15th of November with further directions.
When the text arrived, we were advised of a mock storm event in the region. We followed the directions to the community hall and met with other community members. There was a “statement of community intent” to consider, and we were there, in the dark, as other community members arrived.
As we all rolled into the hall, we were prompted to ‘do the best with what we had’ as the participants started self-organising. Some took on leadership roles, taking to the whiteboard and writing down the names of people present. Others created lists of available resources; some took on nurturing roles and cared for others.
The immersive learning here was that strengths and capabilities already exist in communities. This is why connection and knowing your neighbours before an event is critical – in many cases, community members are first on the scene and are, therefore, the first responders, often before agencies arrive. Secondly, power was decentralised. We were not relying on top-down instructions; we were working together to self-organise, assess risks and use the resources and skills available at the time to make it ‘less bad’.
The scenario also highlighted the importance of psychological preparedness. Building neural pathways to draw on in events ‘similar to these’ is helpful in familiarising yourself with some common reactions and actions. These ‘what if’ learnings are incredibly valuable in becoming more aware of how you, your loved ones and other people may respond to stress and how to plan for self-regulation and support others.
One of the things that stuck with me most during the scenario was my inability to focus on more than one thing. Even though I knew it was pretend and I had lived experience of a disaster event, I was still unaware of some things happening in the room. The lack of awareness about what was happening around me in a mock scenario was surprising. However, being aware of this helps to become a better decision-maker in emergencies. In Preparing Your Mind to Survive Disasters, Dr Rob Gordon states, “It has nothing to do with how intelligent or how experienced you are; if your adrenaline is high enough, your problem-solving capacity will disappear”.
Some further collective learnings from scenario participants.
Know how to access community gathering spaces; even though places of last resort have been declared, sometimes you will not be able to get there. Sometimes it may be too late to leave, and sheltering in place is your last resort. So knowing about the community facilities where you are, plus how to access them, can be helpful.
Have resources in your car; a blanket, water, torch and first aid kit are everyday items that you can have in your car at all times.
Remember things like phone chargers, glasses, and medication when you leave home.
It’s simple, but your phone can access the radio, be a torch, a notepad, and provide communications and connection to your broader community.
Know your neighbours
The power of local networks is highlighted in response and recovery. Understanding the skill sets and resources within your community before an event can be vital, particularly as you may be isolated or inaccessible for some time.
The community scenario offered immersive learning and valuable practice. I am feeling much more prepared, both physically and mentally – and it certainly raised a few ‘what if’ scenarios for my family that seeded valuable conversations that were well overdue.
Communities have incredible strengths and abilities to self-organise. By the end of the scenario, I was left feeling a sense of pride at what we had achieved as a group, but also felt an overwhelming sense of inclusion and connection to people and place.
Kate Fawcett, Strathewen Resident
About the author: Kate Fawcett is a resident of Strathewen, Victoria. The Strathewen community was devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. As a total loss resident, Kate and her partner were displaced by the event but have since rebuilt. Kate is currently a network convenor for the DisasterWISE Communities Network. She is passionate about community-led approaches and working in collaboration to improve resilience and recovery outcomes for all.