Emergency management policy has shifted from an emphasis on bushfire response to community preparedness, but the latter still requires attention despite extensive public information initiatives (Rhodes et al. 2011, McLennan, Paton & Wright 2015). This problem is significant as both the threat of bushfires and the number of people exposed to bushfire risk continue to increase (Jolly et al. 2015, Foster et al. 2013).
Positive influences on community disaster preparedness include community cohesion and attachment (Anton & Lawrence 2016, Prior & Eriksen 2013), perceived trustworthiness of emergency management agencies and personnel (Christianson, McGee & Jardine 2011), interactive rather than passive delivery of information (McCaffrey 2004, Foster 2013), and informal social interactions and networks (Akama, Chaplin & Fairbrother 2014, McGee & Russell 2003, Brenkert-Smith 2010).
In Victoria, the CFA encourages preparedness using education and engagement programs. These programs include activities categorised as:
Informing these approaches are concepts such as resilience and engagement (Coles & Buckle 2004, Stark & Taylor 2014).
Resilience in disaster preparedness refers to relationships and social structures that enable communities to prepare for or adapt to adverse conditions (Brown & Williams 2015). Johnson (2010) provides four types of community engagement approaches that have been used to increase bushfire resilience. These are:
In 2014, the CFA received funding to explore new approaches to promote community resilience to bushfires and chose to investigate an arts-based approach. Huss and colleagues (2015) indicate that arts can enhance resilience by addressing trauma, ‘building people’s capacity for and interest in shared enterprise’ (Matarasso 2007 p. 457) and fosters senses of community (Mulligan & Smith 2011). This study explored key stakeholder perspectives on the effectiveness of an arts-based initiative to enhance community bushfire resilience.
A qualitative interview study explored stakeholder perspectives on an arts-based youth community program delivered by the CFA in a small rural community in Victoria exposed to bushfire risk. The program involved 15 young people (5-16 years old) taking part in two two-hour workshops each week for three weeks during the summer holidays. Parents enrolled their children in the program after receiving information via the local newspaper, school newsletter, a direct mail-out to all households and word of mouth through local social networks.
During the workshops the young people used drawings and paintings to depict their knowledge of bushfires. Program facilitators also used body percussion, voice, and percussion instruments made from everyday objects (tin cans, sticks, plastic bottles filled with sand) to explore rhythm and sound. Ideas were used to compose short music pieces and a play was developed about bushfire preparedness that was performed at an Australia Day event that was co-hosted by the local community centre, State Emergency Services and the CFA.
Parents of young people participating in the arts-based program, community leaders, CFA staff and program facilitators were purposively recruited (Kuper, Reeves & Levinson 2008). Parents of the young people taking part in the program were interviewed because the focus of the research was not experience of the program itself but community stakeholder perceptions of program delivery process and outcomes.
Qualitative semi-structured interviews were used to explore participant views and experiences. In total, nine semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted. The nine participants comprised three parents of children attending the workshops, one community leader (who provided support for the program), one external program facilitator, and four CFA staff. Telephone interviews were conducted as participants were geographically dispersed across the region. Comparisons between telephone interviews and other techniques show no significant differences in outcomes (Sturges 2004). Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and thematically analysed based on methodology by Braun & Clarke (2006) by repeated reading of the interview transcripts. Participants were asked about their experiences of and perspectives on the arts-based program. Interviews took place between February to June 2015 and, on average, lasted 30 minutes.
Participant accounts indicated the potential for arts-based youth programs to positively impact on community bushfire resilience (perceived benefits), and barriers or challenges to their doing so (perceived limitations).
CFA staff said that the arts-based program had promoted a positive view of the CFA in the locality and had attracted new interest in the CFA by enabling conversations about bushfire safety and the role of the CFA.
The program was perceived to have a positive impact on community networks. Parents valued the arts-based youth program because it gave their children opportunities for social interaction in a locality where opportunities are limited.
Facilitator - What was the reason - why did you want to send them to it?
Respondent - Just to interact, get some social interaction… [and] when it’s in town rather than travelling out of town, it’s great.
The arts-based program brought young people together at a time of year when opportunities for social interaction were limited. According to Resident 02 this was because parents in the locality would be engaged in seasonal employment. Furthermore, in the process of facilitating their children’s participation in the program, adults could potentially reinforce their networks by meeting other parents. Encouraging such informal social interaction has been shown to support bushfire preparedness (Brenkert-Smith 2010).
According to parents, their children’s knowledge about bushfire had not increased by taking part in the youth arts-based program. Parents confirmed that their children already had some awareness about bushfires through other sources such as school and family (who worked or volunteered for other agencies). The general awareness about bushfires was also noted by a CFA member of staff.
Parents, too, had not learnt anything new via their children’s involvement in the program. For some participants bushfire is a feature of living in their rural town.
However, the extent to which bushfire awareness translated into preparedness was questioned by Resident 01 who stated that ‘everyone is a bit blasé… you don’t really think about [bushfires] until it happens’.
Participant accounts indicated some negative perceptions of the local volunteer fire brigade. While one parent was supportive and positive about their work, another expressed scepticism regarding their functionality and capabilities. In addition, community perceptions had also influenced the extent to which the local brigade participated in dissemination of arts-based program outcomes at the Australia Day event.
Accounts indicated that community engagement approaches required a shift in the CFA’s more traditional way of working:
Further to this, one participant expressed some concerns about ongoing resourcing and support for the arts-based program.
However, CFA participants (CFA 14, CFA 06 and Facilitator 01) confirmed that the approach was being tried in other localities in eastern Victoria to promote disaster resilience.
This study examined stakeholder perspectives on an arts-based approach to promote community bushfire resilience. The study found both perceived benefits to the initiative (enhancing agency-community relationships, facilitating community networks) and a number of factors mitigating its sustained effectiveness (existing bushfire awareness, local tensions, perceived agency support). Findings from this study indicate that community engagement initiatives reveal complex social relations within a community and aspects of agency delivery that may hinder engagement activities.
This study corroborates previous research by Crow and colleagues (2015) showing that the relationship between emergency management agencies and communities is an important factor in promoting bushfire preparedness. Findings indicated the arts-based program offered opportunities for the CFA to initiate conversations with community members about the agency’s role and about bushfire safety. This enhanced the local CFA’s reputation with the community. This should be encouraged as two-way, face-to-face interaction with trusted sources is an effective communication method (McCaffrey 2004, Christianson, McGee & Jardine 2011, p. 48) and community trust in agencies is critical in disaster preparedness (Crow et al. 2015, Sharp et al. 2013). Similar engagement programs could be used in other communities to help build bridges between agencies and residents. This study also showed that participants felt that their children’s social and community networks were enhanced by taking part in the workshops, and improved social networks have been shown to be an important feature of disaster preparedness (Akama, Chaplin & Fairbrother 2014).
The study found that awareness about bushfires did not appear to be significantly enhanced by using an arts-based program as a vehicle for enhancing community resilience. This is underpinned by previous research indicating that residents in rural areas have relatively high levels of bushfire awareness and regard fires as a natural part of living in a rural environment (McGee & Russell 2003). Despite using interactive rather than passive forms of information provision (Foster 2013), the benefits of this initiative lie in strengthening community networks rather than explicit educational outcomes. This study indicates that issues of poor reputation and lack of trust hinder engagement between communities, the CFA, and the local volunteer brigade. These findings confirm existing research regarding the importance of public trust in agencies (Sharp et al. 2013).
This study used a qualitative design with a small sample size. While the findings cannot be statistically generalised, they offer insights into the particular exercise conducted and have the potential for theoretical transferability. Given the possibility of future implementation of similar programs, this study shows the importance of emergency management agencies responsiveness to local needs and the use of such programs to leverage opportunities for community-agency collaboration and communication. This approach highlights challenges both at the local level and within the organisation of the CFA and the importance of training and skills development for staff and volunteers involved in engagement activities. Findings illustrate the importance of agency awareness and management of local expectations when the program ends. While the program helped the CFA to address some of the localised challenges relating to perceptions of the agency, this sort of engagement requires skilled practitioners and time to develop effective relationships among agency staff, volunteers and residents.
The study design did not attempt to quantify levels of community engagement or resilience pre- and post-implementation of the arts-based youth program. Instead, the design allowed exploration and understanding of the contexts of implementation and the perceived benefits and challenges from the perspectives of a range of stakeholders. Further research could use quantitative or mixed-methods designs to evaluate the impact of program implementation using population-representative surveys. Given the arts-based program explored in this study was a short-term activity, it is possible that evaluation of longer-term and more sustained engagement practices between the CFA and community members would enable a more comprehensive assessment of effects on bushfire resilience.
Fire agencies need innovative and effective methods to engage communities and to promote community resilience. This small study investigated the feasibility of arts-based initiatives as a method of community engagement. The study indicated that such approaches have the potential to improve agency-community relationships and strengthen community networks. Arts-based approaches offer another option for agencies to consider as part of a range of engagement activities to help promote bushfire resilience and preparedness. Further research is recommended to quantify the effects of such programs on community resilience to bushfire risk.
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Dr Richard Phillips is a Research Officer based at the Centre for People, Organisation and Work, RMIT University. His research interests are community capacity building and community engagement.
Angela Cook works in Design and Community Development, Country Fire Authority in Victoria.
Holly Schauble was a Project Manager with the Country Fire Authority in Victoria.
Dr Matthew Walker is a Research Associate at the Centre for People, Organisation and Work, RMIT University.