Healing Together: Community Engagement in Emergency Management and Disaster Recovery

“When sending out a message…take a moment to take stock and look through it from the lens of those that have been affected.” – Kate Crowe, Acting Team Leader, Communications and Community Engagement, Shoalhaven City Council

From ‘disaster dashboards’ to recovery centers to bringing local artists together, local councils in Australia speak from the frontline of emergency management and disaster recovery.

In the wake of catastrophic climate events and unrelenting disasters that have ravaged communities in recent months in Australia, local government organizations continue to engage with community and stakeholders to foster recovery and resilience. Communication and engagement strategies in these extraordinary circumstances speak to both the urgency and complexity of the issues at hand. They underline the importance of the exchange that sits at the heart of community engagement: of being heard and being listened to, and of having effective ways to do so.  

Community engagement in emergency management and disaster recovery may vary in form across contexts depending on where and how the conversations happen. Nevertheless, they share a few defining features around their common objectives by way of providing accurate and timely information with clarity, in responding quickly and efficiently, in understanding community needs, and managing resources under pressure.  

To these ends, digital engagement can provide crucial support. In the hour of need it can be a place to go for clarity, direction, and reassurance. It can speak to the needs of multiple stakeholders in a cohesive way. It can enable, document, support, and direct the flow of information between community, decision-makers and stakeholders. It can also equip agencies for better responses, and nurture underlying relationships.       

The following notes from the frontlines look at learnings from three Australian councils who have tapped into community engagement online and offline to support their communities in managing, surviving and bouncing back from difficult times. 

Adelaide Hills: In solidarity with Each Other and Community  

For the core team responding to the Adelaide Hills fires in South Australia, the tense initial days drew on training, planning, collaboration, and anticipating the needs of the community around messaging and sensitivity. When it was time for the annual Christmas message to go out to the community, the situation demanded careful consideration. Even more so, when it was time for business-as-usual communications around, for instance, rates notices or health inspections. Mindful of how people were likely to be affected by such communications after the trauma of the disaster events, the Council prepared the community for the communications to follow. This way, people knew to expect letters and notices but were also made aware that the Council understood the situation at hand and outlined the available options.  

To take this approach was to see the disaster event through the eyes of the community and consider their priorities around communication in the aftermath.  The questions asked of the customer service team in this time spanned a range of concerns. For instance, dealing with displaced animals, waste disposal, repairing and restoring properties, power outages, and road closures. In this period, offline engagement or local events had to consider the best interests of the residents and businesses affected by the fires. 

In staying mindful of the physical and emotional wellbeing of community and stakeholders, a care-based approach resonated in the local recovery center. Located in an arts and culture hub that had escaped the fires, the recovery center became a place for sharing in care for self and community. 

“…the importance of the wellbeing of everybody who is impacted by something like this – and that ongoing care to make sure that we were taking care of each other and self.” – Jennifer Blake, Manager Communications, Engagement & Events, Adelaide Hills Council 

Adelaide Hills Bushfire Recovery Project tileWith around 100-150 people coming through in the first few weeks on a daily basis to access emergency services and relief, planners addressed an emotional component of the context by actively arranging for the space to be safe and welcoming. Local signage for easy navigation, warm decor with blankets and cushions, coffee and biscuits made available, a play area for children, art on the walls – all served to create a haven where the community could take a moment to breathe before addressing the practicalities of the situation.

The center went on to have an art exhibition which explored themes of healing and comfort, bringing local artists and community together around programming. With the Tour Down Under, a major cycling event, due to go through these bushfire affected areas, local communities rallied to prepare their towns. Competing for a prize for the best-dressed town, community members got together to decorate their public spaces with the community working together in creative collaboration. 

As observable in such times, communities go through a range of phases in recovery, and communications can speak to the distinct practical and emotional components of this spectrum. In the immediate aftermath of disaster events, the period of survival may see feelings of altruism and togetherness. The phase that follows typically sees government communications around relief and restoration. Ahead of this phase there can be challenging and demanding complexity around such issues as the financial aspects of shared repairs or rebuilding older structures to contemporary standards.     

“It’s really key that you don’t try and duplicate information and wherever possible refer people to a single source of truth…So our challenge was to make sure that we could disseminate the info without being at odds with it and without getting the messages mixed up.” – David Waters, Bushfire Recovery Director, Adelaide Hills Council

As communities go through the various phases of recovery, decision-makers have to keep in mind how to best address the communities priorities across these phases. In this regard, actions have to speak to immediate, short-term, medium-term, and long-term needs. Among the various challenges that this may pose, the Council notes, it remains key to ensure that efforts are community-led. Having already been active in local community recovery committees and reference groups, the Council maintains an active listening presence at community meetings. The Council has also outlined specific roles for local elected members in engaging the community, and within the recovery process.  

Local authorities worked closely with state government agencies, non-for-profit organizations, and local community groups throughout recovery. Each carried their own specific capacities, aims and objectives and needed to be able to work together seamlessly under pressure. The Council anticipated collaboration with regional decision-makers, state structures around disaster recovery, local recovery committees and reference groups, and non-governmental organizations. 

In addition to hosting a local recovery coordinator and their support staff, the Council has also offered to host nongovernmental organizations for collaboration. The Council will also embed a community recovery/development office within their community development team with state funding. 

Logan’s Blended Comms: Bringing Information To and From Community

“…we want to be able to disseminate messaging but wihtout replicating or confusing it – you need a single source of truth.” – Marion Lawie, Associate, Engagment Plus

Infrastructure to facilitate community and psycho-social support was a significant area of focus for the extensive training and planning that went into the City of Logan’s disaster management preparations. When Cyclone Debbie caused Logan’s rivers to flood, the emergency control center needed to get vital, up-to-date information both out to and in from the community. 

City of Logan Disaster Dashboard

City of Logan Disaster Dashboard

Logan’s Disaster Dashboard, a dedicated hub for information on disaster events, collates information to enable Council to disseminate messages from relevant agencies without replication or confusion. In the context of the floods, it was a one-stop, reliable place for information on road closures, emergency measures, power outages, and related matters.  The Disaster Dashboard continues to serve as a single source of truth, bringing together various sources of emergency information and situational updates to generate cohesive information for community and stakeholders.  

In response to events on the ground, the community took to Facebook to direct enquiries and relay local information to the authorities. This large volume of queries and contributions revealed some community priorities around information needs. The Council maintained around-the-clock, active approach in answering queries, providing direction, and listening to the community.   

Responding to community queries and requests for assistance around the floods required an approach that combined electronic messaging with real-time updates (often acquired in person at flood-affected locations). Emergency services door-to-door rapid damage assessments provided information on the scale and extent of the damage. 

In addition to mapping the extent of the floodwaters and feeding this information into their model and process, the Council included a welfare check, both in person and online. This line of enquiry initially went door-to-door with the rapid damage assessment to find out what kind of help was needed and made these specific needs available for decision-makers in the emergency management team. Council’s digital team created online forms to mirror this data collection, enabling the community to add their knowledge of flooding extents and requirements for assistance. This intel could then be added to Council’s flood modeling and to their roster for supplying community assistance. 

Shoalhaven: Housing Engagement Under One Roof  

Shoalhaven’s recent bushfire emergency and recovery stretched across a period over two months long, taxing emergency services and communications teams with fatigue. From the onset, the communications team were embedded in the local emergency operations center, alongside key service providers and authorities. This included state government agencies, emergency response teams, engineers, planners, and the local emergency management officer. 

While regional agencies took the lead during the crisis, the Council’s daily communications and engagement activities had a crucial role to play by way of reliable and regular digital engagement, media relationships, and local groundwork. 

“When sending out a message…take a moment to take stock and look through it from the lens of those that have been affected.” – Kate Crowe, Acting Team Leader, Communications and Community Engagement, Shoalhaven City Council

As a large local government area, Shoalhaven presented various challenges in conveying reliable and up-to-date information out to the community. However, the region has a rich online social community, with a number of local groups connected through Facebook. These community groups were a significant space for sharing information at the time of the bushfires, but were also rife with misinformation. 

During the crisis, the Council had used their official website as a central source of information. Social media had also been a major concern for communication strategies. However, spaces like Facebook came with their own unique challenges. For instance, as situations and related information changed by the hour during the crisis, the team had to consider how threads and updates would move and reach people.  Facebook brought a large volume of queries and insights from the community, and required active management and closing the loop on responses. This began to reveal a pattern of themes and questions, later reflected in Shoalhaven’s dedicated online engagement hub, which has become a central, unifying space in which to address community concerns and gather insight. 


Shoalhaven City Council’s dedicated online engagement project for Bushfire Recovery information, hosted by EngagementHQ.

Healing Together: What Can Engagement Do Better?

Spanning the contexts above, the collection and dissemination of information are central to managing and recovering from disaster events. Decision-makers in these contexts work with extraordinary pressures of time and resources to stay connected with the community and stakeholders to ensure that vital information gets where it needs to go. How can community engagement address the distinct challenges of these trying times?

Tune in to learn more about community engagement in disaster management and recovery.    

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