Chris Carey knows that when it comes to giving bushfire messages CFA is really asking the public for behaviour change.
It’s a big ask and Chris makes no bones about the difficulty of the task.
“It’s hard to get behaviour change,” he admits. “Unless people can see what they can get out of it for themselves they’re not going to change.”
Like his fellow CFA community education coordinators around the State, Chris says complacency about bushfires seems to set in quickly when there’s no immediate threat of a fire. When there’s no Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday on the horizon, the attendance at community Fire Ready meetings plummets.
But two years ago Chris’s Grampians region team tried something new and were surprised by the results.
“It really began about two summers ago when the Department of Justice put on one-off Fire Ready Roadshow,” he says. “They invited emergency agencies including CFA along to a lot of little community events – farmers’ markets, twilight markets – with a heap of giveaways and it worked in a sense.
“They got the people in with the giveaways but we felt we needed to engage the community and give them advice.”
At the next lot of small community events, Chris took along his own presenters.
“The giveaways would get them in and then we would ask them where they lived and did they have a fire plan and start talking to them about their circumstances and concerns instead of just delivering messages.
“We went to a little farmers’ market in Bannockburn that had only been going for two months. There were only about six or seven stalls there but in that day we spoke to over 60 people.
“As soon as you started talking to people about their circumstances they wanted to talk to you. We found that instead of trying to get people to come to an event like a community meeting, they were at the farmers’ market anyway. They were strolling around in no hurry and they had the time to talk.”
Chris and his team got together to throw ideas around about what had worked and what hadn’t.
“We identified that we were getting more value out of these small community events than when we were delivering generic messages at Fire Ready Victoria community meetings,” he says. “There’s still a place for that but there’s been a bit of an information overload since the bushfires in 2009. The summers since have been wetter and colder than what we’ve been used to during the drought, and even though we try to make the talks as relevant to the area as possible it’s not set up to address people’s individual concerns and problems.”
This year Chris and his team decided to do more of the small farmers’ markets and community events. In very high-risk areas they ran a Fire Ready meeting the following week in that town.
“To give an example, we’ve been running Fire Ready meetings in the town of Beaufort, near Ballarat, which is surrounded by state forest, for years and hardly anybody ever comes even though the local brigade is community-education minded and they do a lot of great work. But we’ve always had poor numbers at these meetings even in the worst of the drought.
“Yet this year we went to the Beaufort Agricultural Show – we had the two of us from the region’s office and six of the local brigade – and we were absolutely flat out all day with people talking to us. Being where people are already gathering seems to be the key and we talked to about 300 people that day.
“The thing that was the most surprising for us was the gratitude we got. We were talking to people for 15, 20, 30 minutes, sometimes longer. We had one woman in tears saying she was just so thankful that we spent the time talking to her and that’s something I’ve never seen.
“As soon as it was relevant to them people wanted to talk, they wanted to listen. They were hungry for information, yes, but for information that was about their circumstances, especially the women.”
“It was a learning experience for us. The more we did those events, the better we got at it and the better the results and we were talking to people across a broad spectrum so we got a good feel for the community.”
When Chris’s team joined last year’s Fire Ready Roadshow at Lake Wendouree on Australia Day in Ballarat they saw more than 2,000 people. This year they went back alone but armed with the knowledge of what to expect.
“This year we had seven presenters there and we talked to more than 1,000 people,” he says. “We talked to fewer people but they were better, more focused conversations and, most importantly, we found out how to interest young people.
“We had an iPad with the CFA Fire Ready app and as soon as you mentioned a free app the young people were immediately interested and most of them downloaded it straight away in front of you. They could have it on their phone, play around with it and get some information about their fire safety.
“As soon as you said to them, ‘OK, you’re going down to the beach or you’re going to a party somewhere, you can put in your location and find out any fire warnings’, all of a sudden they were interested and they would tell their friends who would then come over and speak to us.”
But what intrigued Chris was the fact that the app appealed to all ages.
“A lot of retired people have smart phones and it was surprising how many downloaded it,” he says. “All age groups loved it.”
“The giveaways – the fireman’s caps and hats and bags – are really important because it gets people in to talk to you, otherwise they just walk past, and we learned to go and approach them, even just to say g’day, and get them talking to us.”
Chris says these conversations have had some unexpected spin-offs.
About 50 people they talked to at the farmers’ markets went on to join Community Fire Guard this year while another 40 people booked free home bushfire assessments where a CFA officer came out, assessed their homes and sent them a report.
Chris knows that behaviour change is a big task. But he’s heartened by the groundswell of interest his team has found in what some might see as the unlikeliest of venues.
“When we went to the smaller farmers’ markets we didn’t expect to get the numbers or the interest we got. The old way we went about community events was to hand out information and say ‘you need to have a plan’. Now instead of delivering a message we’re getting them to tell us about their situation so that we can listen, ask questions, have a conversation and offer suggestions about their fire safety.
“When we just delivered messages people seemed to switch off but as soon as people started talking about themselves and their concerns, they opened up and wanted to get that information.
“To me Fire Ready Victoria is a program that should have a lot of different tools, whether it’s a community event, bushfire planning workshops, summer safe travel, special interest groups or the traditional community meetings and street corner meetings, so that you can look at a community and say, ‘that didn’t work there but this might’.
“We need to keep developing a variety of tools because what works in this community may not work in that one.
“We need to be continually looking at how we can change, how we can improve, not just delivering the same thing over and over again. We need to look outside the square at something that may be a bit different.”
By Yvonne Pecujac