For Deb Humphreys, small conversations that are going on in rural communities around the State may be vital for CFA to move forward.
“We need a spectrum of ways to engage with the community, from informing people about basic protection from fires at one end through to community participation and empowerment at the other,” she says.
“We know that building a community’s capacity and resilience is the way forward and developing community participation and empowerment is how we do it.”
This is the focus of Deb’s project.
Deb has been working as a researcher in the Barwon South West region on the Strategic Conversations project, facilitating a group of about eight locals from the grassland town of Cressy and a group of between 10 and 18 locals from coastal Aireys Inlet.
Both groups of locals meet regularly to talk about their experiences of fire and to share their local knowledge, to build relationships and to learn from each other. In her role as a researcher, Deb is looking at the effectiveness of these conversations in achieving those aims.
She’s hoping that as the groups raise their awareness, those people will share the information they learn with others in their community.
Deb believes the conversations are a way to build valuable relationships and provide an important way for organisations, such as CFA, to get feedback.
“The traditional way CFA goes about things is to deliver information with a presenter talking to a town hall full of people. But you need a spectrum,” she says. “We clearly need Fire Ready and Fire Guard and those approaches, and we also need a range of approaches at the empowerment end of the scale. The Strategic Conversations work is at the empowerment end by involving people with what’s important to them and to their communities.
“What is often missing is the collaboration with communities to build on the strengths they already have. Collaboration means joint decision-making so that people are empowered in the choices they make about their safety and the safety of their community.”
With the Strategic Conversations groups, the facilitators hold the reigns very lightly. “Basically we just ask one or two questions to get the discussion going at each meeting and then respond to how the discussion develops,” she says.
In Cressy, which was hit by fires in 1944 in which 11 people perished and 1977 in which three people died, the shadow still looms so large that some community members still can’t speak about it. "People can feel very emotional when they’re talking about fire,” Deb says.
With the Aireys Inlet group, memories of fire are even more recent. The Ash Wednesday fires swept through the surf coast in 1983.
“The trauma and the impact of the fires are still there in those communities,” Deb says.
The project is the brainchild of CFA staffer Sharon Rawlins who approached the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) that had already been running a similar program around the State for a few years with the help of anthropologist Simone Blair. The two agencies then joined forces and ran more conversation groups.
Deb works with a DSE team to facilitate her two conversation groups in Cressy and Aireys Inlet.
Practical outcomes are apparent even at this early stage: one of the DSE’s Strategic Conversations groups in Dereel, near Ballarat, organised a Fire Safety Expo day in February. It attracted a crowd of 250 people and was so successful that it’s being run again later this year.
Another fire conversation group based in Gellibrand, in the Otways, developed the ‘Put yourself on the map’ initiative. Local brigade members are collecting names and information about households and their fire plans, giving the community a better idea about who is prepared and who is vulnerable.
Deb says this project creates more awareness of fire safety while building relationships between people in the area. The project won a Fire Awareness Award in 2011.
When community groups work together it’s an effective way for people to learn how to prepare for fire.
“Often at CFA we provide too much information and expect people to be competent in fire behaviour, in how to prepare themselves and their properties and to understand a range of messages,” she says. “But this is a complex issue that takes time for people to understand.
“By engaging people in conversations we can address people as intelligent adults and collaborate to sift through what they and their neighbours plan to do. By sharing their knowledge people can learn from each other.
“At the conversations people have a chance to talk and to listen and they all have a lot of questions. At the town hall meetings, for example, I find if people don’t get their questions answered quickly they are just too anxious to take in much information.
“Getting people to write fire plans and be prepared for fire is complex and has many factors to it. We know that 75 per cent of people don’t have fire plans even in high-risk areas so rather than us just saying, ‘You must have a fire plan’, we could ask, ‘Why don’t you have a fire plan? What are the barriers?’
“We need good community engagement with different sectors of the community and these conversations are one way to do it. They are really about building capacity rather than reliance.
“If you don’t have any relationships in a community this approach is definitely a way to start building relationships and to get that conversation going and everybody needs to be moving towards this more collaborative way of doing things.”
Story written by Yvonne Pecujac
Photos by Deb Humphreys