Bermagui, a quiet coastal town on the NSW South Coast approximately 50 kilometres north of the University of Wollongong’s Bega Campus, has a population of 1500 throughout most of the year. On New Year’s Day 2020 more than 5000 people entered the Bermagui Surf Lifesaving Club when it was used as an evacuation centre during the bushfire season.
It is estimated that over 18,000 Australians were displaced during the bushfire season and stories of heroism, sacrifice and community spirit emerged from all evacuation centres along the coast of NSW, providing water, shelter, first aid, oxygen therapy among many other services to displaced communities.
However, many of the buildings used as evacuation centres lacked in core infrastructures such as power, communications, water, and information. The UOW Global Challenges call for research into disaster and crisis resilience led to a team of researchers to come together to tackle this problem. Duane Robinson (EIS), Cathrine Nielsen-Hewett (SOC), Matthew Pepper (BUS), Sean Elphick (EIS), Nurul (Izzah) Afandi (EIS), Jonathan Knott (AIIM), Albert Munoz-Aneiros (BUS), Andrew Glover (SOC), Jaimey Facchin (UOW Batemans Bay) and Samantha Avitala (UOW Bega) are looking into how these evacuation centres can serve communities in times of emergencies and beyond.
During these unprecedented times, we spoke to researcher Dr Jonathan Knott, Research Fellow at AIIM to learn more about the project and the research team’s aspirations.
How and why did the group members come together for the project?
It was a serendipitous coming together, a number of us have worked previously together on a UOW Global Challenges project looking at energy supply at the edges of grids – particularly in Australia, which has one of the geographically largest electricity grids in the world – and particularly what we’re able to do in terms of providing more resilient, reliable and high-quality power for consumers at the edges of the grid.
Like many people around Australia – and around the world – we watched in horror the bushfire disaster unfolding over the 2019/20 summer period, and saw the huge impact it was having on our Illawarra South Coast communities in particular. One thing that really stood out was the role Evacuation Centres were playing in the management and response to the bushfires – particularly that there were shortcomings and issues with power supply when these communities needed the Evacuation Centres the most. It was really a lightbulb moment where we saw some parallels between the research we were doing on power supply for people at the edges for grids – the focus on reliability, resilience and the fact that power is such a critical enabler for these people – and saw that we could translate that focus to look into ways we can make Evacuation Centres even better for the communities they serve.
We realised quite quickly that we’d need to take a much more holistic view on Evacutation Centres and look at all aspects of how there designated, how they're resourced, how they provide for the community – and really get to the bottom of what went well in the latest round of bushfires and what could have been done better.
Bringing the team together across different faculties and different groups is a real asset, we have people right down in the nuts-and-bolts of built environment, batteries and battery chemistry, power engineering and resilience, operations and management, all the way through to experts on childhood and childhood trauma as well. We’ve also got our UOW Bega and Batemans Bay campus managers on board – which is critical as they were right in the thick of it and can really give us that lived experience.
What is the research project aiming for?
We're looking at laying the foundation of investigating evacuation centres.
We’ve got this grand vision of being able to work with the Illawarra South Coast community to come up with the best evacuation centre, not only for when you really need it during bushfires or natural disasters but also something that can be a community asset through non-emergency times.
This Global Challenges project is the first step in realising this vision – allowing us to engage with the community and really understand how the Evacuation Centres served them during the 2019/20 bushfires.
Make no mistake, the people that operated these evacuation centres were locals, and by all accounts did a fantastic job supporting their communities. Our focus is really on finding out what support, what supplies, what infrastructure could have enabled them to support their communities even better.
Bushfires and floods are events that occur sporadically, and evacuation centres play a pivotal role in supporting the community in those times – but there’s an opportunity for them to benefit the community year-round as well.
We want to understand what stakeholders think, from the individual people who actually had to go to these evacuation centres, through to the state and local governments that have the policy and the laws around how these Evacuation Centres are identified, stood up, and how they are operated. We know that evacuation centres are typically community halls, surf clubs, pubs and other places like that – so understanding how these places transition to evacuation centres is a critical part of this project.
How do you plan to engage with those communities throughout your research process?
One of the really unique aspects of the team working on this project is we’ve been able to bring in our UOW Bega and UOW Batemans Bay campus managers to play a major role in our project activities. They were right in the thick of things during the bushfires and can provide us with their own experiences from the bushfires, and they’re also members of the Illawarra South Coast Community – and have a wealth of knowledge and contacts that will guide us in engaging with the community, councils, service providers and other stakeholders in the to allow us to get the full picture.
We’re also working with the Global Challenges team to reach out to the communities of the Illawarra South Coast and hear their stories – we know that getting the community perpective on how the Evacuation Centres performed during the 2019/20 bushfires will be critical to understanding what can be done better.
What is each member of the project’s connection with the impacted bushfire areas?
None of the team were in the Bermagui area during the bushfires, but our Illawarra South Coast connection is very strong. Samantha and Jaimey were both directly impacted by the bushfires, and Jaimey and her team actually opened the Batemans Bay campus as an unofficial Evacuation Centre during the bushfires to support the nearby designated Evacuation Centre that was up a flight of stairs and difficult for some community members to access. This just shows the strength of the community in coming in such difficult times, but also gives us an idea that the research we’re doing in this project is needed.
Why it is important to have people from so many disciplines working on this project?
It is a multidisciplinary problem. These Evacuation Centres are a lot of different things to the people that need them. They are places where people can shelter, where they can get communications and critically important information. They’re also places where they can get medical care if needed, and places they can meet with other community members and support each other. They are places where they go when their houses are in danger or gone, or when they’re not able to access them. There's lots of different reasons and ways people interact with Evacuation Centres, and so we need to have people with a broad range of expertise and perspectives to make sure we understand what the comminuty needs from Evacution Centres.
We are really keen on getting that holistic view of not only how people interacted with these evacuation centres but also what could be done to make them better assets for the community outside of disasters and emergencies. We don’t want to pre-empt our research, but we believe, for example, power is a fundamental component of an evacuation centre and it's something that is the foundation for a lot of services. Without power, communications are difficult or impossible, you can’t charge your mobile phone, you might not be able to run the radios. Without power, moving people around at night can be difficult. Without power, fridges don’t run – which means food and medical supplies can be impacted.
So we think there's going to be a few linchpin areas that we anticipate the community will tell us they need. In the next phase of this project, we’ll be taking a multidisciplinary, holistic look at these issues and try to find technologies or solutions that solve a lot of those problems at once.
We don’t want to go in and just say ‘what you need is some solar panels and a few batteries’, that's not taking a community-led approach, and not appreciating the other issues the community faced and providing holistic solutions.
For example, we know that there were not only technical issues experienced in the Illawarra South Coast community through the bushfires, but also great social pressures as well. In events like bushfires, evacuation centres have a role to play in keeping children engaged and mitigating that trauma. Reliable power doesn't directly solve that problem (although it may play a role), so it’s critical we look at these evacuation centres through that multidisciplinary, holistic lens.
The only way to conduct this research is through that multidisciplinary focus to make sure we are truly understanding the community's needs -that's the whole point of this project. We want to take community feedback – as they’re the ones that lived the experience – so that we have the best idea of how these evacuation centres operated, and where there are gains to be had, and eventually turn that information into solutions.
Our longer vision is to take what the community tell us and fold that with all the information that we gain through conversations with other stakeholders – about how evacuation centres are actually designated, resourced and operated – then try and marry these two together to understand how evacuation centres can support the community not only during emergencies, but also how they can be the greatest community asset every day. To see an Evacutation Centre that is somewhere a community can gather and use throughout the year, but also somewhere they can come together and support each other through adversity – that would be an amazing outcome.