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Including culturally and linguistically diverse communities in emergency preparedness and recovery activities Analysis

Including culturally and linguistically diverse communities in emergency preparedness and recovery activities

A new report from the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM), Review of community recovery following the 2013–14 Victorian bushfires, finds that some groups within local communities, particularly those with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, are considerably less aware than others of emergency recovery communication, and of the opportunities to become involved in either emergency preparedness or recovery activities.

The IGEM report, which examines the recovery experiences of East Gippsland Shire Council and Hume City Council and their communities, finds that across both municipalities there are clear differences between resident groups in levels of contact with authorities, awareness of recovery activities, and perceived opportunities to contribute to, or have their say about recovery.

To inform the report, IGEM surveyed 788 households across East Gippsland and Hume that were located in areas close to or directly impacted by the fires. Of residents surveyed for the report, 90 per cent of people from CALD communities did not receive information about recovery activities following the bushfires. In addition, 97 per cent of people from of CALD communities were not involved in emergency planning, preparation or recovery:

The report states:

While culturally and linguistically diverse community residents were less likely to receive communication or be involved in emergency management activities, the existence of strong networks in such communities suggests they are important in fostering community activities and supports. These networks could play an important role in strengthening connections and involvement in emergency management, with positive implications in times of recovery. There are also opportunities and challenges in strengthening connections with other groups identified as less likely to receive communication or be involved in emergency management activities.

The VCOSS report Disaster and disadvantage: Social vulnerability in emergency management, found people with CALD backgrounds can be greatly challenged by Australia’s extreme weather, particularly its heat and natural hazards. Those at risk include older migrants and new arrivals, people in new and emerging communities, and those on low incomes who are not proficient in English. Socioeconomic disadvantage, linguistic barriers, poor quality housing and cultural issues also contribute to their vulnerability. The VCOSS report stated:

Members of CALD communities with limited English proficiency, cultural differences, lower literacy levels and poor communication channels are often the first victims in an emergency. Particularly when they are new to Australia, they can struggle to understand what is going on around them in everyday situations; this becomes intensified in times of extreme weather or natural disaster. During disasters it can be hard for them to find information, to learn how to deal with the situation, and know where to get help. It is often assumed that people will access the internet or rely on television or radio for emergency alerts, but there are many people in CALD communities who cannot access or understand these mediums, or who rely on other forms of communication.

Those with limited English language proficiency may face difficulties before, during and after disasters. They may be unaware of hazards and not know how to connect with service providers, access and understand information or be able to secure relief payments. Many have experienced prior hardship and trauma, which makes recovery more difficult. Multicultural organisations, migrant, refugee and asylum seeker organisations and others that support CALD communities must be supported during emergencies to ensure the needs of their clients are met. Delivering warnings and other information in ways that all members of the CALD community can access and understand is critical.

In the its 2014 Submission to the Hazelwood Mine Fire, VCOSS stated that there had been scant effort to engage with CALD communities either directly or through the community organisations that support them, including no translation services. CALD communities tend to rely on word of mouth rather than written information, however there was no targeted information provided to organisations specifically for CALD communities. The VCOSS submission emphasised the importance of engaging multiple community leaders, including women, and recommended that the needs of individuals and groups with distinct vulnerabilities must be better addressed for in local emergency management planning.

The IGEM report recommends that the pre-existing characteristics of communities, distinct groups’ needs, and their ability and desire for involvement, must be considered in planning and designing recovery initiatives. The report states that local governments must make connections with their area’s distinct cultural and demographic groups to ensure that opportunities for involvement in community recovery activities are culturally and practically appropriate and accessible.

The principle of ‘shared responsibility’ requires that all levels of government as well as individuals, communities, the private sector, emergency management and support agencies contribute to the management of risk and to promoting community safety.

To better address the needs of groups that may be vulnerable in an emergency, such as people from CALD communities, emergency planning should be undertaken in consultation with local community sector organisations that work on a day-to-day basis with them. This might include local migrant refugee and asylum seeker services, multicultural centres or other organisations that work with people from CALD communities. The benefits to collaborative planning including greater coordination, shared services, expanded services, fewer service gaps, and strength in diversity.

Community sector organisations have in-depth knowledge of local people, history, risks and vulnerabilities means they understand and can identify people’s support needs. The perspectives of local people and organisations should form the basis of emergency management planning in order to adequately reflect local conditions and values. This will help develop more accurate information about local vulnerabilities, including the needs of vulnerable people, and improve the understanding of problems and options for solving them.

The IGEM report builds on the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry’s recommendation that Victoria, led by Emergency Management Victoria, develop a community engagement model for emergency management to ensure all State agencies and local governments engage with communities and already identified trusted networks, including community organisations, as an integral component of emergency management planning.

The ongoing reform of Victoria’s emergency management arrangements provides a unique opportunity to ensure that the needs of people and communities that may be vulnerable are better met in the event of emergencies and disasters. This can be achieved through closer collaboration and cooperation between those who plan and prepare for emergencies, including local and state governments, and the community sector.


Images: A CFA community meeting at the Apollo Bay Relief Center in January 2016 (via Twitter)