This section provides key facts about emergency management and Indigenous environmental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander environmental health practitioners.
Indigenous communities across Australia face many different types of emergencies. Emergency management helps communities to avoid emergencies and know how to deal with them if they happen.
Emergencies mean different things to different people. They are often defined as ‘an event requiring a significant, coordinated response'. These events can range from a cyclone or flood, to a vehicle crash or family dispute. The kinds of emergencies that might occur depend a lot on the surrounding environment and social conditions. Emergencies must be defined and dealt with at a community level.
Emergencies are caused by hazards from four main groups:
- cyclones, storms, and extreme winds
- dust storms
- earthquakes and tremors
- extreme temperatures
- sea surges and tsunamis
- insect plagues
Hazards caused by humans
- accidents (vehicle, plane crashes, farming or industrial accidents)
- poisoning (from spraying, baiting or contamination of water)
- fire (house, building or vehicle)
- loss of essential services (electricity, water or gas)
- lost or missing persons
- land or sea rescue
- social situations: fighting
- civil unrest (excessive substance use, domestic violence, suicide)
- diseases or infectious epidemics
What is emergency management?
Emergency management provides a way for communities to manage risks and avoid emergencies, or deal with emergencies quickly and efficiently if they occur. It requires good partnerships between Indigenous communities and agencies that deal with emergencies (including ambulance, fire and police services and the Royal Flying Doctors Service), especially in remote locations. An emergency management plan needs to take into account cultural, engagement (getting the community involved) and communication (letting people know) issues.
What issues should be considered when Indigenous communities engage in emergency management?
- Indigenous communities are not the same and they require different emergency and management plans
- the definition of an emergency changes from community to community; many communities believe that long-term social situations like substance abuse or family violence are emergencies in their communities
- communities have their own cultural traditions which need to be understood in the first response to emergencies (for example, evacuating or moving people to culturally appropriate places)
- communities need long-term healing services (like counselling) for people suffering due to the emergency
- emergency workers need to take part in cultural awareness training and have an understanding of a community's cultural traditions and taboos
Planning and engagement issues
- planning needs to be holistic and all community members should be encouraged to take part
- the prevention of emergencies is very important to emergency management; the 'prevention, preparedness, response and recovery' (PPRR) approach needs to be understood by all community members
- roles and responsibilities need to be clearly laid out and understood by the community councils, government agencies and emergency service providers
- long-time residents of Indigenous communities have a lot of knowledge on relationships in their communities, and the local environment; they need to be involved in coordinating and organising emergency management
- local and traditional knowledge must be appreciated and recognised by non-Indigenous people involved in the training and employment for emergency services
- planning should include Indigenous community members, a state/territory emergency service controller and Community Emergency Management and/or Disaster Plan
- many community members involved in emergency management are volunteers who may not feel empowered to contribute to the safety of their communities
- communities need awareness and education programs for emergencies, and Indigenous people should be encouraged to develop and run these courses.
Priorities for emergency management relevant to Indigenous Environmental Health Practitioners (IEHPs)
The Keeping our mob safe: a national emergency management strategy for remote Indigenous communities report identifies priorities for establishing and maintaining emergency management in Indigenous communities. The priorities of particular importance to IEHPs include:
- communities need access to necessary equipment (fire equipment, safety gear, generators for power, trucks with pumps, communication systems like satellite phones, SES vessel with trailer for island communities)
- communities need a siren to alert the community when there is an emergency
- roads should be well maintained, and there should be access to required infrastructure (like an airstrip and health services)
- communities need good town planning so they can be built in an suitable place and with the correct infrastructure
- information about insurance should be available to communities
- emergency exercises, which model an emergency should be carried out with a debriefing so people understand what to do before an emergency occurs.
Empowering Indigenous people
- training needs to be appropriate to the community and should be developed and delivered by Indigenous people. These programs need to consider the literacy and numeracy levels of community members
- local people should be trained as counsellors to help those suffering from an emergency
- training should include: chemical use, first aid, emergency services, and risk management evaluation and response
Education of Indigenous people
- local resources should be developed that are culturally appropriate, ideally with the involvement of local schools and/or art programs
- community education should be delivered about fire prevention (where appropriate)
- cyclone kits should be made up (where appropriate)
Emergency Management Australia (2007) Keeping our mob safe: a national emergency management strategy for remote Indigenous communities. Canberra: Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management (MCPEM)