Thursday, May 03, 2012

Emergency management across legal and policy sectors

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Steve Dovers, and Dr Michael Eburn from the Fenner School of Environment and Society are talking about "Mainstreaming fire and emergency management across legal and policy sectors: Preliminary findings". They argues that emergency management requires a whole-of-government approach to manage risks, in advance of a disaster. The work has been published as "Mainstreaming fire and emergency management into law" (Michael Eburn and Bronwen Jackman, Environmental and Planning Law Journal (Australia), Volume 28, Number 2, March 2011).

I suggest that they are on the right track, but their approach is flawed by assuming government has a major role in emergency management. In reality the community and industry do most emergency management, with government providing only a minor role.

The authors argue that post-disaster inquiries are done in an ad-hoc way and are becoming longer and more litigious. A simple solution would be apply the approach used in the transport sector, particularly aviation. Rather than assume nothing will every go wrong and set up an ad-hoc inquiry when it does, the transport and airline industries have government run permanent transport accident investigation agencies. These agencies have special legislation which clarifies the purpose of inquiry is to discover the causes of the accidents and prevent them in future. As a result, there are procedures by which personnel such as airline pilots can report problems without this being used as evidence against them.

The authors discuss the issue of personnel fearing being blamed for their actions after a disaster. In part the solution, as the authors discuss is the personnel following agreed procedures and have some limited liability. This applies in some professions, such as computing. Each year, I give ANU IT students a lecture on "Professional Ethics and Social Issues in Networked Information Systems". As an Certified Computer Professional, my liability is limited under state legislation, to a maximum of $5M, in return for which I am required to have insurance and undertake refresher training each year. This system did not just happen by accident, the Australian Computer Society and the Federal Government invested more than $1M researching IT ethics, so we have a reasonable idea of what is feasible.
Emergency management is traditionally seen as the responsibility of the emergency services, such as fire brigades and State emergency services. Vulnerability to fires and the ability to protect life, property and other assets, is, however, largely defined by activities and policy settings in other sectors. This interplay of policy means that fire and emergency management should be seen as a whole-of-government and cross-sectoral issue. This article provides examples of how current Australian law may hinder communities to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from, the impact of natural hazards and in particular bush or bushfire events. It identifies areas of further research that are required to reduce community vulnerability and increase community resilience to natural hazard events, in particular bushfire events. ...

From: "Mainstreaming fire and emergency management into law", Michael Eburn and Bronwen Jackman, Environmental and Planning Law Journal (Australia), Volume 28, Number 2, March 2011

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