WA DEFENCE REVIEW Hosts VIP Breakfast Roundtable At Duxton Hotel Addressing The Future of Disaster Relief and Emergency Response in Australia

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As such, the following organisations were represented: Blue Ocean MTS, Disaster Relief Australia, Executive Risk Solutions, Helicopter Logistics, Janssen + Maluga Legal, Motium, Omni, Parabellum International, Royal Australian Navy, Risk Intelligence Solutions, UWA Defence & Security Institute and Vescient.

Chaired by Serge DeSilva-Ranasinghe, the Founder, CEO and Principal Editor of WA DEFENCE REVIEW, the catalyst for the event was aligned with the interstate visit by special guest Geoffrey Evans, CEO, Disaster Relief Australia (DRA), who provided the subject matter authority and direct expert knowledge for the breakfast roundtable.

Mr Evans spent 19 years, involving four operational deployments, in the Australian Army’s Special Operations Command, during which time he also served 13 years with Fire and Rescue NSW. In 2013, he founded Homes for Heroes, a charity for homeless veterans and their families. In 2014, he was appointed to the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans Mental Health. Subsequently, in 2016, he was appointed as the CEO of DRA, a 3500-strong, award-winning, national disaster relief and emergency response organisation.


Discussion Questions

The VIP Breakfast addressed the following questions, which provided the framework to spur the conversation among the discussants. 

  1. Twenty-first century natural disasters appear more complex and multi-dimensional than in the 20th century. What is the nature of the threats and challenges associated with climate change-induced natural disasters and the likely implications for Australia’s future?
  2. There are several key organisations like the ADF,  National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), State Emergency Service (SES) and DRA that are integral to Australian disaster relief and emergency response operations. Yet, there are concerns that more resources will be required. How can industry contribute to building national resilience?
  3. Effective policy and advocacy is critical to improving resilience to natural disasters. Does the present national policy framework sufficiently address the growing disaster relief and emergency response challenges, or are there additional measures that require consideration?


Communication of Vital Importance

So many of the challenges identified by the discussants could be put down to communication, and many of the solutions were equally interrelated. While many of the disasters themselves were closely linked to climate change, the responses to those disasters could be greatly and immediately improved, provided that the resources available were easy to locate and ready to be deployed, and that there were a sufficient number of personnel available on the ground. 

Discussants suggested that Australia fortunately already has many of the answers, and it became clear that if government, emergency response organisations, businesses, and volunteers were able to communicate more quickly and effectively, the damage done to land and communities could be significantly reduced. 

One of the first speakers, who has extensive experience in disaster response, listed the five key phases to a disaster incident: 

  1. The disaster itself
  2. Mitigation: pre-disaster planning within the community 
  3. Preparation: “what are we going to do about it?” 
  4. Response: “where and how the allocated money is spent.” 
  5. Disaster recovery: “something that no-one has given any real thought to” 
  6. The speaker went on to add that it has “become topical of late because Defence is increasingly called into that place.”


Multi-Dimensional Challenges

According to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, established in February 2020 in response to the extreme bushfire season of 2019-20, a tragedy which resulted in loss of life, property and wildlife, and environmental destruction, Australia is facing a markedly increased number and intensity of disasters. 

“We are experiencing more heatwaves and if the climate predictions turn out, that will become a more common phenomenon but [with] unintended consequences,” one attendee pointed out. 

  • Land use is one compounding effect, in the sense that houses built in flood- and fire-prone areas are becoming extremely expensive to insure, meaning that some people are unable to rebuild after a disaster, and housing insecurity increases.  
  • Yet, the pressure on local councils to release more land for infrastructure means that more houses are built in high-risk areas. 
  • Inflation means that the cost of rebuilding can increase during the recovery period and progress can be slow.
  • Past experiences have demonstrated that consequences of natural disasters can also manifest in an increased incidence of depression among communities. “There’s this really interesting and well-known phenomenon now, that about three years after a disaster, there’s a high death rate in the affected community,” shared one discussant. 


Alternative Capability 

For a long time, the ADF has been the first responder to disasters, and it was only during Black Summer and Covid-19 that DRA began to be utilised. 

Unfortunately, however, there are some dissenting voices who see DRA and the military as being in competition, but the actual experience is that while the military don’t mind being first responders, it is not beneficial to either them or the community if they stay past that initial stage. 

“When they’re back there for six months, shovelling mud, you are degrading Defence’s capability,” affirmed one participant.   

Instead of competition, DRA sees a clear path for veterans to transition into disaster recovery and emergency relief; is a place in which they can continue to serve. They see it as a preventive measure against the isolation which veterans can be prone to experiencing after leaving the military. 

Indeed, a soon-to-be-released report from the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide has acknowledged the positive mental health outcomes that flow from volunteering in DRA, even among veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 


Community Resilience

Likewise, many community members who become agents in their own recovery experience a sense of empowerment during what is otherwise a dark period. 

With scaffolding and training, community volunteers can be a valuable, motivated addition, reducing pressure on emergency services that have exhausted their resources, but stay because there is no-one else.

  • The ‘Big Map’ capability was raised as a way of building resilience in the community. This is where community members are educated in a way that helps them identify risks and work together to reach an agreement on solutions. 
  • Another idea generated was the introduction of a ‘green card’: a volunteering qualification that could be earnt by employees of corporations, especially young people, during the early stages of their employment. 
  • Discussants, who are all senior-decision makers in their organisations, stated that they supported corporate volunteering, and that it not only fulfilled corporate social responsibility outcomes, but also boosted the morale of disaster-affected homeowners.

Incorporating ‘civic duty’ into the secondary school curriculum was another interesting idea that was raised, likening it to cultures in places such as Germany and Japan, where citizens are brought up with a sense of ownership over their country. In Germany, for instance, volunteering is lawfully mandated. 


Industry Engagement 

There was general consensus that a market gap exists in disaster recovery, which industry is keen to fill. Indeed, some SMEs and NGOs are already filling it, it is just that it is not well known publicly. That highlights how a lack of communication can have an impact on the length of time that it takes for emergency response and disaster recovery. 

Many people in industry are ex-military, still have those connections, and are ready and willing to be part of an “agile, flexible workforce”. The response to the idea, that one attendee raised, of mandatory qualifying with AUKUS to become a preferred SME, was met with enthusiasm. 

Something that is being done really well is the use of technology, such as combat operating widgets for data aggregation, identifying where there are damages, although, unfortunately, the information is sometimes not being shared with the necessary response teams, and that means that disaster response teams must then guess what actions need to be taken. 

An opportunity also exists for such technology to not only be used for short-term infrastructure reconstruction intelligence, which is only used for the one-to-seven-day period immediately following a disaster, but also stored and reused for mid-term and long-term planning for recovery.


Strategic Communication

Both a challenge and an opportunity, a clear discussion point was that better communication on all levels will be vital in establishing an effective strategy for the future. 

One of the challenges that was repeatedly mentioned is that there are too many layers to sift through before a disaster emergency response team can be deployed. Each state has primary jurisdiction for disaster response-related activity in its jurisdiction, and, once the response phase ends, the next phase is passed down to local government. All of that needs to happen before a response is given, and it does not factor in the recovery phase. 

A participant asked if our government and bureaucracy creates a level of complexity that is too difficult for people to compute, suggesting that, perhaps “that’s when they throw it into the ‘too hard’ basket?”. Another discussant affirmed that could indeed be the case.

Finding supplies was also an issue, simply because the government does not always know who to talk to and where to look. Having a national catalogue of resources, such as trucks and helicopters, available to disaster relief and emergency response organisations was suggested by several discussants. Other participants, however, highlighted resistance at a federal level, such as the withholding of state-owned fire brigade or police force personnel and resources.

NEMA was identified by many as leading the way to a more collaborative approach. One attendee, who spends time with both NEMA and the federal government was positive about the future, saying, “There may be some obstacles in jurisdictions. But it’s coming together slowly”. They added, “I am seeing traditional hierarchical and protective structures melting away as positive examples are set”.

Despite some of the significant challenges that were identified, the undercurrent running through the dialogue was solutions focused, with discussants intent on contributing towards the conversation to generate credible emergency and disaster response outcomes for Australia. 

Credit: © WA DEFENCE REVIEW. Photographer: David Nicolson.

About the Author:


    Established in 2017, WA DEFENCE REVIEW set an important historical precedent by launching the first West Australian-based platform to support Australia’s defence sector across the spectrum of politics, government, defence, industry and academia.

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