John Davidson is a process engineer who lived in various locations around Australia while working in the construction and mining industries. For two years his responsibilities included emergency services for the Groote Eylandt mine and township. He was on Groote Eylandt when it was hit by two cyclones and has gone through innumerable cyclone alerts.
(Image from ABC)
Following the Black Saturday fires it was generally assumed that the “prepare, stay and defend or leave early” (Stay or Go) policy would be replaced by some form of “Evacuate Early” policy. However, this recent article from ABC Drum suggests that some version of the Stay and Go policy is likely to be retained on the basis of recent information.
While there is no doubt that the best way of surviving a big fire is to be somewhere else, the behavior of people both during and after the fires suggest that the solution may have to be more complex than a simple “evacuate early” policy. The most telling statistic here was the response to “code red” alerts after Black Saturday. From the linked article:
Two-thirds did not leave their homes. While one-third weren’t at home, only 1.5 per cent had left because of the code red declaration.
During the fires themselves,
58 per cent of those killed had made no preparations before 1:30 pm on the day of the fires.
So firstly there is a people problem. For some reason people were ignoring policy and acting in what appeared to be a risky manner. This despite years of promotion of the Stay and Go policy or the recent horror of what happened on Black Saturday.
If we are going to have an effective policy we need a better understanding of why people did what they did during the Black Saturday fires and the recent red alerts. This includes understanding both why people left and why people stayed.
Secondly there was a technical problem:
As many as 20 per cent of those who died had been “well prepared” to stay and defend according to the criteria laid out in the Country Fire Authority’s “Living in the Bush” booklet, meaning there was evidence of fuel management around their property, appropriate firefighting gear and an independent water supply.
Professor Handmer said that “29 per cent of people killed were either actively defending at the time of their death or had done “some” or “questionable” defence. If you include children and others dependent on those who were defending, he said the figure could be at least 60 per cent.
The conclusion was that people died defending despite following all the defence recommendations in the CFA’s booklet.
Flaws in preparation and fire fighting technique appear to have contributed to some of the stay and defend deaths. Others may have occurred because people were trying to defend the undefendable. Professor Handmer again:
“Fire plans might be worse than a nebulous concept, actually something that gave people a misguided sense of security. It was something Joan Davey had identified in the Commission’s earliest hearings – that her son Rob and his wife Natasha had accumulated pumps and firefighting equipment and developed an unrealistic expectation that they could defend a cedar house on a ridgeline, surrounded by national park.”
The Stay and Go policy also advises defenders “to shelter inside the house – albeit not passively – while the fire front passes.” So there is was no requirement for a plan B to save lives if the fight to save the house is lost before it is safe to go outside. There was also no refuge in which to place dependants while the fire was being fought. It would be useful to know whether any defenders died in houses that did have an effective refuge that could be accessed from the house during the height of the fire.
It is also worth noting that only 173 people died out of the 14,000 residents in the fire affected area. Some residents left early, some of these successfully defended their houses and most of the rest managed to survive by some means of other. It would have been interesting to see the statistics from research into the success stories.
In terms of future policy, American professor Dutch Leonard put the criteria for a good policy very succinctly:
“A policy is no good if it only works in theory. In that case it could actually be an “invitation to potential disaster”. …A policy may not be a good policy if we can’t actually get people to comply at the level required in order for them to remain safe. So, I think it is in effect a moral question. I don’t think we can judge the policy as good if it has bad effects by simply saying, ‘Well, the household should have complied and they didn’t.’”
All the above suggests that we will continue to have a mix of people who choose to leave early, defend and procrastinate. Good policy should encourage people to make better decisions. However, it is equally important that it helps those who make less than wise decisions.
The article goes on to discuss a number issues raised in the commission and the response of various individuals to these issues. I won’t try to duplicate this discussion but do have the following suggestions based on the above analysis.
Do a house by house audit: This may save the lives of those who have convinced themselves that they can defend the cedar house on the ridge, help both evacuation and defense plans and possibly reduce the risks incurred when people who don’t need to evacuate do evacuate. It may also help reinforce the determination of those who really do need to evacuate – It is just too easy for Fred at the pub to convince others that evacuation is unnecessary, because, rightly or wrongly, he is convinced that it is OK for him to stay in his house.
Look for ways of improving the survival of undefended houses: There is no doubt that defended houses have a better chance of surviving than undefended houses. There is no doubt either that the loss of a house is traumatic even if it is fully insured. So it is not surprising that Professor Handmer emphasised that “half of people surveyed indicated the desire to stay and defend.” Improving the survival of undefended houses takes away some of the pressure to defend the home. Much of the action required should also help active defenders defend their homes.
Use a system of yellow, orange or red alerts: The cyclone alert system that I am familiar with went from yellow to orange to red alert as the cyclone centre got closer. The graduated system allowed us to make preparations and defer shutting down the mine before the red alert had us all going to shelter. A similar system of fire alerts might use yellow as a warning to start keeping track of what is going on, orange to complete preparations to evacuate or defend and red to evacuate or stand by to defend.
Plans B and C: These are needed for both evacuation and defence plans. Evacuation plans need to take account of the possibility of roads being blocked or the logical evacuation route taking evacuees towards the fires. Houses should only be defended if there is some way for the defenders to escape from the house during the peak of the fire.
Public refuges: These are important both as a means of saving late deciders, reducing traffic travel times and reducing the amount of traffic on evacuation routes.
It was said in safety circles that the US Air Force found that the only way to find out what really caused crashes was to take no disciplinary action on the basis of what was found. So it is a bit depressing when the article’s punchline said:
The fiercest outrage at all the failings uncovered over a year of hearings has been directed at Christine Nixon’s pub dinner.
It only takes one scalp hungry lawyer to compromise an investigation.