A visionary program to reach workers who are out on the road during the bushfire season is yielding big dividends.
Paul Verbeek, a community education coordinator with the Hume region, which stretches from Corryong to Kinglake, says his team realised many people could be caught on the roads during a fire – from health and care workers, road workers, people in construction and delivery drivers … even real estate agents.
“Late last year we discussed where we were going with Fire Ready Victoria meetings because attendance has been poor,” Paul says. “There’s a famous quote about once the memory of bushfires starts to fade so do people’s interest.
“So we started to look at alternatives and we decided to target workers who had to be out on the road as part of their job. They are vulnerable because they are definitely going to be on the roads during the high fire danger days.
“On a Code Red day if the trees are down with wind storms, council workers need to clear the roads. Councils try to limit their services but Home and Community Care workers, for example, still have to go out because they have vulnerable people out there in the community.
“The reality for people caught in a bushfire while they’re in their car is that they may encounter trees blocking the road and flying embers, they may be disorientated by the smoke that could reduce visibility to only a few feet. Then there’s the danger of emergency vehicles coming down the road through the smoke and the possibility of intense radiant heat, which is the biggest killer of all.
“At the end of the day it’s all about ensuring the safety of those people out on the road. What we’re trying to do is to help people minimise the risk if they are caught in that situation. There are a lot of people on those really hot days still doing their jobs that need to be driving.”
They decided to run some ads in January and were taken aback at the huge response they received from employers wanting sessions run in their workplace.
“The phone calls started rolling in and the whole thing took off. It was fantastic. I didn’t expect the response we got,” Paul says.
“I got calls from 10 out of the 12 municipalities in the Hume region wanting to run sessions. I had calls from quite a few employers including a sand and gravel delivery business, and we did the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project because all their workers are out doing channel work during summer.”
CFA ran four Fire Ready sessions at Goulburn Valley Health, based at Goulburn Valley Hospital in Shepparton – one of the biggest hospitals outside Melbourne – with an average of about 50 people a session.
Paul says all their health workers who had to be out on the roads during summer attended the sessions.
He thinks employers are keen to run the program for their workers because it covers occupational health and safety as well as staff training. And it’s a way for CFA to reach people in the community.
“One of the mothers at one of our council sessions said to me, ‘This has been great because I can’t get to the community ones. After work I’m busy with the kids, I’ve got sport on and everything else. I just don’t get time to go to a community meeting’.
“When we ran a session at Alpine Shire 35 people attended. But if we ran a town hall meeting in the same place probably only about five people would turn up.
“The problem is that we had fires around the Bright area in 2003, 2006 and 2009. People have been going to FRVs [Fire Ready Victoria meetings] there since 2003 and numbers have been falling since 2010.
“By getting 35 people in the shire offices we’re getting better bang for our buck and we’re probably getting 15 to 20 people out of that community anyway. So this is a good alternative. We’re getting better numbers, we’re still getting community members but in a larger forum, we’re getting value for our money and we’re getting to members of the community we don’t get to in any other way.”
One of the popular misconceptions Paul encounters is that open, flat country is safe. He points to numerous examples of grassfires in that type of terrain, including the 1965 Longwood fires that killed seven people. “That’s a bit of a difficult one to overcome with people,” he says.
“Part of what we do with Fire Ready Victoria is help people understand their risk because that is the biggest thing for communities – to understand their risk.
Paul also wants to target utility companies that have workers out on the roads this summer. And they have already generated interest from some of the workplaces they visited this year, which signed up for Home Fire Safety sessions over the winter, as well as requests for repeat sessions over the summer to spread the message to new staff.
“We’re now looking at increasing the numbers of those sessions this year. We want to get to businesses that have workers out on the roads, no matter how small or large that workplace.”
By Yvonne Pecujac
Photos by Keith Pakenham