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Vulnerable people in emergencies – lessons from South Australia Analysis

Vulnerable people in emergencies – lessons from South Australia


A report released by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC in January 2016, Capturing community experiences in the 2015 Sampson Flat fire, recommends supporting individual planning and preparation for vulnerable people, and building relationships between vulnerable people and interested community members.

The South Australian Sampson Flat fires, a series of bushfires that burned for a week in January 2015, was the most destructive fire in the Adelaide Hills for more than 30 years. Capturing community experiences in the 2015 Sampson Flat fire explores the Sampson Flat community’s experiences during and following the fires.

The report finds that there was a general awareness of people in the community who may be vulnerable in an emergency, such as older people or people experiencing a mental illness. Despite this, only a small percentage of people were able to assist vulnerable people during the fires. People who assisted vulnerable people were more likely to be people who:

  • include helping others as part of their personal or professional value system
  • had previously helped another person
  • had particular skills and interests and were able to use these
  • were placed in a position to help because of the circumstances of the fire.

The report states that where helping others is part of a personal value system there is a higher likelihood of assisting during an emergency event. One respondent stated:

I just always try and look after the neighbours…. Let them know because some of them are old.

The report similarly finds that where assisting others is part of a professional role, such as health, community or social workers, there is a greater likelihood of helping during an emergency. Professional obligations and values combined with concern for vulnerable clients often see workers going beyond their remit in the event of an emergency. The Sampson Flat experience echoes experiences recorded during both the 2009 Victorian bushfires and the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire, where staff from community organisations combined their professional knowledge, local connections and personal concern to ensure the safety and wellbeing of clients and other vulnerable people.

The report also finds that previously established relationships can be extended during an emergency to assisting a vulnerable person. In the case where a respondent had already been assisting a neighbour, the respondent stated:

We text him to see if he had gotten out and he said yes he’s gone. That was all we worried about really […] He doesn’t have any work or anything like that so we get him to do some stuff for us if we need help or something like that. So we keep a bit close to him and keep an eye on him a bit because he struggles.

Having a particular interest or community connection is also an indicator of a willingness for people to use their skills to help: …there were people that were really obviously worried that had evacuated out their animals, and so they would send me their address, and I would be to send him (husband) around with whatever horse feed and water, and make sure all the animals were okay, and then feed it back to the owner so he feels more relieved.

Finally the report finds that the circumstances of the fire itself created situations where people were in need and the person assisting was the one in a position to help: A couple of people were rounding up cows so we stopped and help them and there was one young guy there and he’s from [outside the area] and… because we couldn’t get out because the trees had fallen across the road so we said “well you can come back up to our place and we’ll go back and we’ll have tea and hang out at home, you can ring your dad and tell him you’re alright and everything.

Capturing community experiences in the 2015 Sampson Flat fire finds that residents who had lived in the area for more than 20 years are more likely to feel their community is ‘close’. It states that while it is assumed that community closeness would be of benefit to more vulnerable community members, this was not the case during the Sampson Flat fires. The report states:

There were no significant associations found between community closeness and prior experiences of bushfire, prior concern about bushfire, or understanding of bushfire safety. Insufficient data were available to consider the associations between community closeness and understanding of bushfire risk and motivation to prepare. There was no relationship between community closeness and decisions to stay and defend, or decisions to leave early. It was not related to assisting vulnerable people… However, community closeness was related to coming together as a community post-fire

Video taken from the South Australia Police helicopter (PolAIR) shows the extend of the Sampson Flat fires.


This echoes the findings of the report from the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM), Review of community recovery following the 2013–14 Victorian bushfires, which finds that residents with strong and established local networks—including those living in an area for more than 20 years —were more likely to receive recovery communication or assistance after the emergency and were more likely to receive information about community meetings during the recovery period.

The Capturing community experiences in the 2015 Sampson Flat fire reports that the closer people thought their community was, the more likely they were to meet and communicating with one other following the fire. The implications of these findings is vulnerable and socially isolated community members may miss out on vital recovery information and support. Therefore alternative approaches are needed.

The report recommends that interventions and programs that increase community closeness may be helpful in fostering post-fire support, particularly for people who are newer to an area, and who are less likely to feel close to their community. It also recommends that initiatives to assist vulnerable people may be better directed at supporting individual planning and preparation, and building relationships between vulnerable people and interested community members.

VCOSS stresses the importance of acknowledging and resourcing the community sector in supporting vulnerable people in emergencies.  In the report Disaster and disadvantage: Social vulnerability in emergency management, VCOSS stated:

The community sector’s role is (also) vital in assisting socially vulnerable people and communities following an emergency. For many of these people, community sector organisations are their primary connection to the broader community and form the basis of their resilience to everyday adversity as well as in times of crisis. Community sector organisations have in-depth knowledge of local people, history, risks and vulnerabilities which best place them to understand and identify people’s support needs.

Australian Red Cross acknowledges that community sector organisations are frequently among the first responders to an emergency, and acknowledges the sector’s role in supporting rebuilding efforts, environmental recovery, managing appeals and donations, and supporting the social welfare of individuals and communities.

Australian Red Cross also acknowledges that the community sector as ‘pivotal to disaster resilience’, stating that the community sector ‘provides the glue or informal insurance necessary to prepare, respond and recover from disasters’, and that its capacity lies in its ‘inclusivity, innovation and ability to empower.’

It also states that with its close ties to members of the community, the community sector can absorb and integrate prevention and preparedness techniques to a wider audience, and that they can also define and represent needs to external agencies and specialists to secure resources and help in times of emergency. It identifies the unique skills that community organisations bring as including:

  • a capacity that extends beyond that which government can offer in regard to individual service provision as ‘compassionate service providers’
  • playing an important role within the community in articulating specific needs and building resilience
  • well established links in communities, with the majority of their client base being the same vulnerable people that government try to target
  • providing advocacy, social policy, community development and risk management integration
  • possessing a local volunteer base, embedded within communities
  • developed trust with communities and individuals over time
  • the capacity to empower the community and encourage community engagement.[1]

In addition community organisations have specific expertise in outreach, information referral, crisis management, volunteer management and special services. They are also trained in language and cultural sensitivity skills and for working with people who have disabilities or other particular needs. Importantly they operate at a local level, have the trust of local people and communities, and remain in their local communities for the long-term recovery period following an emergency.

A recent James Cook University study states that communicating personal vulnerability to an event, providing information on how to undertake recommended preparatory action, and increasing engagement in the community may contribute to effective preparation at the community level.

The study suggests that increasing access to emergency preparedness information from emergency and community services organisations can increase preparation.[2]

Ensuring a broader range of large, medium and smaller community organisations are involved in emergency management planning is the key to providing safe, efficient and dignified support to socially vulnerable people in an emergency. It can also reduce the burden on bigger, centralised organisations.

To achieve improved response, relief and recovery, emergency management policies and planning must better account for and address the needs of socially vulnerable people and communities. Collaboration between the emergency management and community sectors is vital for delivering effective emergency relief and recovery for socially vulnerable people and all Victorians.


[1] Australian Red Cross, Beyond the Blanket: The role of not-for-profits and non-traditional stakeholders in emergency management, 2nd National Disaster Resilience Roundtable Report, Melbourne 2015

[2] Kanakis K and McShane C, Preparing for disaster: preparedness in a flood and cyclone prone community, Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Volume 31, No. 2, April 2016

Image: Flickr/Scott Murphy CC BY-SA 2.0