Podcast / Episode #5

#5: Changing the disaster language to “our preparedness and resilience”

By renae hanvin

Aug 19 2020

This episode

In this episode, Renae is chatting with John Blackburn, who’s the Board Chair of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research Australia. We’re talking about changing the disaster language to “our preparedness and resilience”. You won’t walk away from this episode thinking the same as John’s insights will definitely have you thinking differently (and hopefully doing differently) when it comes to the language and narrative of resilience.

“I was introduced to John via a mutual peer who identified an alignment in our approaches, and since our initial discussion I have become an Associate of John’s sovereign resilience discussions – and alway enjoy the robust conversations we have.”


key moments from the conversation

About John

John Blackburn is the Board Chair of the Institute of Integrated Economic Research-Australia.  He retired from the Royal Australian Air Force in 2008 as the Deputy Chief of the Air Force following a career as an F/A-18 fighter pilot, test pilot and strategic planner. Since 2008, John has consulted in the fields of Defence and National Security and has undertaken a range of studies on Australia’s National Resilience,  Energy Security, Economic Security, Defence and Logistics systems.

I’d like to start with where we met...

John and I were introduced by a disaster colleague Claire Sullivan who connected with us both individually and identified a link in our approaches and arranged a collective discussion a few months back.

I think it was a great connection which I’m very grateful for.

Here are some questions I asked...

1. Now, John, there’s so much we can discuss and every time I attend a workshop or have a conversation with you we could literally talk for hours and hours, but I’m going to start by asking you, how did you end up talking about disasters?

I’ve spent about the last decade in a range of think tanks doing a series of studies in addition to my consulting work and the issue that really concerned us overall is that our societies are going through fundamental transitions and we started to think about how are we looking at that over the next few decades, what are the issue that we have to deal with, how do we manage risks and vulnerabilities and how do we maintain social adhesion? I had the opportunity during the work we were doing with that to participate in some workshops run by EMA when they were developing the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. And that was a real eye-opener. It was great to see the work that they were doing, but what I was concerned about, that was concerned with natural disasters, there’s a lot of important work going on there. What we were also concerned about was not just natural but unnatural disasters, and so we started to get involved in that community to see how we could expand the discussion to address all of the risks that we could face in the next few decades.

And just for anyone who is not familiar. EMA is Emergency Management Australia and I think that’s why the conversations you and I have are so of relevance too, John, because our focus too is all hazards or all types of disasters because you’re right, it’s not just the natural disasters that we seem to put a lot of focus on, but the unnatural disasters as well that are going to impact us, given that they’re going to be compounding and the interconnectedness between them as well.

2. Now, can I ask, what do you think is the biggest success when it comes to disasters in Australia right now?

I think in a couple of ways. In the last decade how Australians not only in the government, but the community and emergency services, have worked together with natural disaster, so we’ve got bushfires or cyclones or floods, it’s really great to see how everybody comes together and we get help from our neighbors like New Zealand, or the Americans, or other countries, so that behavior of working in a natural disaster is really great. What we’ve seen in our reaction to the pandemic is also a very good example of how effective you can be if you operate as a team, and certainly would applaud the federal and state governments working together, and industry, the workforce, and the community, so those are good things we can take out of it. That teamwork is absolutely essential, so our ability to react, whether it’s a bushfire or a flood is pretty good. We started to see it straining a bit at the edges last summer when the scale of the bushfires and all the effects it had on the infrastructure with all, you know, in the middle of the Christmas holiday break, that really strained our resources a lot and we’ve seen exactly the same thing with the pandemic, whilst the reaction has been good, our resources are really strained, close to breaking point.

Thankfully, to date, they’ve managed to contain the pandemic reasonably well, but the issue that we focus on, it’s not only our ability to react, but you can’t react effectively if you haven’t taken the time to prepare. And that’s where I think there is a bit of a crack or a gap in what our abilities are.

3. Do you think given that we’ve been through the Black Summer bushfires plus also the pandemic, do you think it’s potentially a start of a new way of working, or do you think we’ll be going back to how we used to do it and almost forget that this is how we can work?

Oh, I think one of the challenges is our political culture and we’re already seeing in the middle of this crisis starting points of little political bunfights happening, so my fear is that the political culture and the behaviors we’re seeing on both sides of politics in the last decade may revert back to practice when they get spare capacity. However, when we were doing our analysis with the Institute, looking at all these various factors, we came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t actually be able to have a comprehensive discussion with the public about this until a crisis happened. So, at the scale of this crisis, which certainly for most living people today is beyond any lived experience, gives us the opportunity to have a conversation we couldn’t have had six months ago because, yeah, let’s be honest about it, Australian’s culture is fairly complacent. So, the opportunity right now is let’s have a discussion about some really difficult issues, and if we then see the political culture reverting back to what it was, then it’s up to us, all Australians, to say to our local political members, “That’s not good enough. We saw how good it was to work as a team in reaction, now we got to start keep working as a team as we prepare.” Now’s the opportunity to have that conversation.

4. I’d like to start talking about the topic of today because I’ve been part of your workshops, which I appreciate the opportunity to participate, and you talk a lot about their needs to be a need to change the narrative as the current language associated with disasters are really roadblocks, so what do you mean by that?

Oh, when I look at this, and I’m looking at this from clearly from 40-odd years in the military, so what does it mean by resilience? So, I quite like the United Nations definition: It’s the characteristic or attribute of our society to be able to deal with a range of risks and threats and then in the aftermath, to absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform, and recover from the effects of that threat in a timely and efficient manner. So, the way I look at that, resilience is a characteristic, whether it’s in individual, family, community, or a society, it’s a characteristic that’s really important to have and to reinforce, but that, by itself, is talking about a characteristic. I don’t think we can be truly resilient unless we’re prepared and this is where some of the language we use in the military is useful preparedness. Now, you know, your listeners may have heard this being discussed a little bit.

Now, preparedness in a military sense comprises two things. One is readiness and the other is sustainability. So, let me just give you a bit of a word picture of how we look at this. The very first thing you have to do is start with a thorough risks and a vulnerability analysis. And the military’s pretty good at doing that, I used to run the area that did a lot of scenarios with futures work many, many years ago, so you open it up, non-constrained by politics or the current pressures to say, not only today but looking forward, what could happen? What’s the likelihood? What’s the problem? It’s difficult to do that in the current political system because when you hear a minister talking on Insiders for example, as I did when Minister Hunt was on a couple of weeks ago, when asked a question about a risk or vulnerability it’s the immediate default is, no there’s not a problem, we’re doing all these wonderful things over here, don’t look over there. So, the change in conversation has to be, we have to treat Australians like adults, and let’s have an adult discussion about risks and vulnerabilities.

Now, ideally, you want to prevent a risk, but if that’s not possible, you’ve got to be realistic and adapt to the reality of a changing world. For example, in our case here, it wouldn’t be the smartest to go and rebuild communities in the middle of national parks with a single road going in and out with a climate and impact that we’re anticipating in the next few decades, we’ll just have to rebuild them yet again. Now, the thing is, no matter what you do we are going to have risks that impact us. So, when we look at this readiness and sustainability in a military sense is, what capabilities do you need to have ready to deal with that risk, and sustainability is how long do you need them to function for? And that’s exactly the same for a business, or a community, or society. In your community or business, what things do you need, capabilities, experience set, whatever else, what do you need to be able to deal with the risks that could happen? And then you make a business judgment or a community judgment of where you put it.

The sustainability is the other really important part. If you can only last for a week or two weeks and the risk lasts longer then, you’re not going to be successful. This is where supply chains are a really important example that what we faced in this pandemic is that 90% of our medicines are import and we don’t understand the supply chain and we don’t mandate a minimum of stocks. That is the very definition of not being able to sustain yourselves in a crisis because we’re subject to 90% of foreign control supply areas. So, when you think about readiness and sustainability when the risk actually eventuates, then you have to react as best you can. So basically, you can’t be resilient unless you’re prepared. And whilst we reacted very well to the pandemic in Australia, the question I pose to a lot of people I talk to is, were we adequately prepared for this pandemic or any other significant risks that could eventuate? My answer to that is no way.

5. So, in terms of the language, so resilience is obviously about the definition that you explained before, which I think is a really great definition, so if we bring and start utilizing the language of preparedness and resilience and not just talk about relief and recovery and almost evolving recovery to be preparedness and resilience, do you think is that the answer to then start changing the behaviors in the culture?

It is because if you wait til something happens to react then you’re really constrained in what you can do and you’re not ready for it. Can you imagine if we’d said, and again, I’ll use a military analogy, well, we’ve got all these airplanes and things, but we’re not going to plan anything and we’re not going to make sure we’ve got stocks of weapons and fuel, what we’re going to do is what til something happens and then we’ll react. Well, I’m sure just about every Australian will say, “Well, that would be pretty dumb way to do business.” Because the first thing that happens is that $100 million platform, we don’t have any weapons or fuel for it. I mean, that’s obvious, but that’s what we do in society. So, we sit here and wait for something to happen. And the other one that really gets me is when you hear this, “Oh, this is a one-in-100-year event, and yeah, okay, if you want to take it statistically, that means at 50 years you’ve got a 63% chance of it happening again.

However, when we look at historical patterns, it almost seems to infer that the world changes linearly and it doesn’t, we’re going through exponential change. So, just because something hasn’t happened in 100 years, doesn’t mean, for example, we can’t have another pandemic next month or next year, so if we just wait to react we will be continue to be surprised. If you prepare, it can be a depressing activity to do, I can tell you having spent my life doing it, it can be a little bit depressive, it does cost you a little bit more, but you’ve actually gone through and rehearsed in your mind or with your team or with your society, hey if this happens this is what we’ll do. And that’s really important because resilience should not be perceived as it’s an inconvenience that gets in the way of living and that’s the preparedness part as well, it’s an inherent, essential part of living in the world. We’ve got to accept that it will cost us a little bit more.

6. So, you don’t necessarily need to set them up to wait for the disaster, you can set them up to enhance the current way of living as well in many ways, I think, for businesses and for communities in particular.

There’s also good examples particularly some of the Nordic countries and some of the Asian countries are far better at preparing than we are because it’s a difference in culture. But the other thing is, look, there’s a principle no matter where you are in life, if you’ve got a crisis or a problem you’re trying to deal with, if you can do it as a team it is far better, but to do it as a team, you’ve really got to have an adult and honest conversation, and I listen to some of the conversations I’m hearing that the Singaporean government has, like the Prime Minister talking to the Singaporean population about the reality of the situation they’re in and it’s not medical, it’s economic, but it’s also, how do we keep our society together. It’s a very adult conversation.

We don’t tend to do that, we tend to have a marketing spiel quite often, the political areas, and some of the things that are being said about our hospital capacity like ventilators and other things, if you actually dig into it and do some analysis which is what we’ve done in our Institute on medical supply chains and medical equipment, you realize that they’re not being forthright of what our real capacity is and what our risks are, probably, and I can understand the emotional side of this, they don’t want to distress the population, they don’t want to panic the population because when somebody thought we were short of toilet paper they panicked and created a toilet paper problem. So, I can understand the desire not to panic the population, but I’ve got to tell you, if you have an honest conversation with Australians and say, “Look, here’s the reality, we’re going to need to do this to prepare a little bit better, it’s going to cost us a bit more.”

The experience that I’ve had from doing interviews, talkback radio, and a whole bunch of other things, I haven’t found many Australians that say, “No, I’m not prepared to pay anything to be a little bit better prepared.” Because if it goes wrong and we’re not prepared it’s going to get ugly.

7. We have a culture, that’s a bit laid back and a bit wait-and-see, but you would have to hope, and you would think that there’d be enough in our society who have been so greatly impacted by the bushfires and by COVID, being individually, communities, small businesses, big businesses, that you would hope that there was recognition in the benefits of preparedness, and planning, and building resilience as to how you can adapt, that if we can change the language and then continue activating that mindset that is just starting now, it would absolutely be beneficial across all stakeholder groups.

And I agree with that. So, we’re trying to have a conversation that hasn’t happened before, but also put out information of what the reality is in certain areas in our vulnerability. The other thing that we’re going to have a talk about here is taking personal responsibility. So, I did live in the US for four years, one part of it was on the East Coast and you get the occasional hurricane, and for a year I lived in Tornado Alley, that tends to focus you a little bit that things could go wrong fairly quickly. So, I’m not talking about the preppers that go into the bush with guns and stuff, but it’s pretty common for Americans if you’re in an earthquake, or a tornado, or a hurricane area you’ll have a water supply, you’ll have food stocks, and you’ll have a back-up generator because they’ve seen this happen time and time again.

Now, in Australia, that’s sort of culture’s not there and the principle I’m saying here is it’s not a matter of the government to fix everything for us, where we can afford to do it and that’s one issue and where we’ve got the capacity to do it, we as individuals, families, and communities, have to take individual and collective responsibility to improve our own preparedness and resilience. So, before the bushfires, that was Sydney, before the pandemic, we were carrying a couple of month’s stocks of critical medicines that we might need. So, we didn’t go out and suddenly stock up. Over a period of time we were slowly building a little bit more and more so that if there was a supply shock, which we knew there was a risk of because of the work we do, then we wouldn’t be a load on the system running down to the chemist to get something.

The same thing with food, we carry a month’s worth of food. Again, before the pandemic, before any sort of panic buying. We also have water stocks. We also have a five-kilowatt back-up generator in the middle of Canberra. People go, “You’re crazy. Why would you do it?” Well, my brother-in-law was right in the middle of Sydney and he lost power for seven days in Ryde, so yes, I can afford to do that, and I’ve got the room to stock things, but so can so many other Australians. If we did that, then if there was a real supply shock or another interruption, we wouldn’t all be rushing out just to grab stuff for ourselves, we would allow the system to settle down.

But this idea that everything has to be available, if something happens the government’s got to turn up, why aren’t they there? Well, they probably weren’t there because all the roads got blocked with a fire, all the telecommunications went down, all the power went down. The reality is that’s going to take a fair bit of time to address. If people can be a little bit more prepared, we’ll be able to react in a much more calmer and measured way and look after the people who don’t have the resources to prepare as well.

8. So, can I ask you, in terms of driving the change in language, so obviously the Office of Emergency Management in New South Wales is now Resilience NSW, a lot of the post-bushfire agencies like Bushfire Recovery Victoria, et cetera, what is needed and who should be the influences and driving like … So, should we be asking Bushfire Recovery Victoria to change its name to resilience and is New South Wales, or Resilience NSW going to be more effective because is their mandate to integrate resilience, or is it just a rebranding?

I’m still unsure what Resilience NSW are going to do. I understand from what I heard initially is that it will take existing response agencies and integrate them under a single area to better manage across those agencies responding. I’m not sure they’re going to do in terms of risk and vulnerability analysis outside of natural disasters looking into the future. I don’t know. So, what I found at quite a few of the workshops we’ve run, people will talk about the problems they’re seeing today and go, “Right, here’s the process or structural change we should initiate now.” Because they’ll think it’ll deal with today’s problems. We’re saying, “No.” What we should be doing is say here’s today’s problems, how did we get here? What were the assumptions we made? Now, let’s look at this next decade, what else can go wrong? What should we think about? Now, what is it we would like to be able to do and to have in these resilience characteristics or preparedness? And have that conversation. And that conversation has to be right across the community because the people inside those jobs that are defined are going to be so overloaded.

Just imagine Resilience NSW this next summer, we’re going to have bushfires coming back most likely, we’ve got a pandemic, that fundamentally changes how you fight a bushfire. If you want to evacuate people you’re not going to evacuate them into a single community center, so they are going to be so overloaded reacting to COVID and an emerging crisis. The conversation we’re trying to have in the Institute is not about reacting to today, it’s about what do we have to do to prepare for tomorrow? And we’re not asking those groups currently dealing with the current crisis to do that job, we think that conversation is broader, and from that, we want the call from community and community groups and businesses to say look, we’ve had a look at this for the next decade, we need to be adding these different characteristics in our society, or how we work, and try and drive that change back into federal and state governments and businesses as well. So, I really feel for the people dealing with the current crisis, they will not have the headspace to cover what we’re talking about.

I think one of the language things that we’re playing with right now is, look what we’re talking about is complex adaptive systems and risk analysis, you don’t want to go and say that on talkback radio, or if you’re talking to a local community group, and say, “What’s that picture that we can give people?” And the one that we’re thinking about now is say look, life and as we go through life is like wandering through a maze. It really is confusing. There’s sort of dead-ends and stuff everywhere, there’s things happening, it’s noise, and if you try and walk through that maze by yourself and individually learn and bump your way through, man, that’s really frustrating. But, if you get together as a team, you know, somebody might stand on your shoulders and look over the wall, try and get a picture of where things are, you’re much better at navigating your way through that maze together. So, life is that complicated.

And it does make sense that we’ve got specialists in each areas, but we need to have a talk about how we’re going to manage through this maze in the next decade as a team without fighting each other because we’ve seen what happens when countries start to fracture. We’re seeing that in America; we’re seeing that in parts of Europe. We don’t want to go through that experience, so team Australia needs to find itself through this maze, which is a bit more than just put the next bushfire out.


With my final question always…

What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?

1. I think that firstly, we’ve got to get everybody to understand it’s a shared responsibility, and let’s be honest about the people who mostly get directly affected by bushfires are in regional areas or in the country, because you’ve got the fire services around the city, yes, you’ve got the smoke impact, but we’ve got to have this idea it’s a shared responsibility that we’ve all got to put into.

2. And the second thing is, we’re going to have to address our complacency. Australia has been fortunate to have 30 years of continuous growth until we hit the pandemic and it’s produced a bit of a she’ll-be-right attitude. I often say when I talk to people that, and this is a huge generalization, that in our cultural DNA in this county, apart from the Aboriginal people, we don’t have that existential threat experience in our DNA. Yes, we’ve got a lot of migrant communities that come from disturbed areas, but the Australian narrative and the Australian story is not about fighting for the country, it’s not about getting our independence. That story is there in America, it’s through Asia because they got invaded by so many people and colonized, it’s there in the Middle East and it’s there in Europe. I mean, my wife’s father is Polish and Poland was invaded or taken over every 50 years and occasionally disappeared.

In Australia, federation was handed to us, and then we had the Brits as our big brother until after World War II and then since then, we’ve relied on this fantasy that the Americans will save us from everywhere. The world is getting a more complex and dangerous place so we have to have in addition to that sort of conversation about taking shared responsibility and working as a team is let’s face reality folks, those 30 years of continuous growth are gone. We’re not going back there. The biggest impact we’re going to see in the world is not the virus it’s the economic collapse afterwards, so we’re going to have to deal with those two things, so we’ve got to trigger a conversation and a change in our complacency in order to be able to deal with these changes.

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