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Why Resilience NSW was doomed from the start

Written by Javed Iqbal

Some emergency services confirmed on Friday that they got core recommendations from the report relevant to them and will review those findings.

Former Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian created the Disaster Management Agency in response to the Black Summer bushfires and installed Fitzsimmons as its head. It has since faced scrutiny over its role, budget and employee-related expenses, amounting to $38.5 million for 245 employees.

But former fire chief and climate lawyer Greg Mullins said Resilience NSW didn’t have the easiest start. After its formation on 1 May 2020, the disaster agency was forced to start work immediately – coordinating recovery in the wake of the bushfires. Then it was forced to respond to major flooding and a COVID-19 pandemic.

Mullins said when the disaster agency was first formed, there had been many former emergency managers who supported the move. “It was the first state government to acknowledge that disasters beyond the scale of climate change were happening,” he said.

But he said the agency had a massive task: to ensure resilience and recovery. “They are both very difficult long-term jobs. Our concern is that dumping [the agency] after two years and blaming the boss, we could put ourselves back behind the eight ball as we have more and more back-to-back disasters.”

NSW has battled two years of back-to-back disasters, including bushfires, a pandemic and floods.

NSW has battled two years of back-to-back disasters, including bushfires, a pandemic and floods.Credit:Nick Moir

Mullins said the new approach to resilience will require closer inspection once the report is publicly released, but many former emergency preparedness commissioners will be prepared to be highly critical of its findings if they feel the approach does not do enough to prepare communities . But Mullins, like many others, still supports Fitzsimmons and said he was the best person for the job.

“They better have a good reason to lose the expertise of someone of his caliber… Good luck to them finding someone better, they won’t.”

Former ACT Emergency Services Authority commissioner Peter Dunn said the approach to resilience and recovery needed to be locally-led rather than the centralized approach that had been favored by the government. He was concerned that recommendations to appoint a new police commissioner risked further centralizing the disaster agency and would take control away from local communities.

“We’ve gone in exactly the wrong direction with the wrong lessons and prepared for the wrong disasters,” he said.

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Dunn suggested more funding was needed for communities to control how they would prepare and respond to natural disasters. The Productivity Commission assessed that last year 97 percent of disaster funding is spent on recovery and clean-upwhile only 3 per cent spent on preparing communities, mitigation and resilience.

Lismore City Councilor Elly Bird said the community’s experience with Resilience NSW post-floods had been a mixed bag. She praised the efforts of officers on the scene who had done the best they could to help the community, but said there had been frustrating experiences where red tape had delayed emergency help.

For example, Bird said in the days after the floods, one organization offered 1000 volunteers to help with clean-up and recovery efforts, but Resilience NSW needed to grant permission. Despite her best efforts, Bird was unable to secure the necessary approvals. She said a different model of adaptation, preparedness and resilience should be used.

“The model of outside agencies coming into a community and telling that community what to do is fundamentally flawed,” she said. “Even before the existence of Resilience NSW, the best approach in an emergency is a recovery by community leaders. But over many events, the government does not seem to understand or be able to enable an effective community response.”

“A dollar spent in the community is much more effective than a dollar poured into government. We need to resource communities because communities will respond first and always step up to support themselves and each other to recover.”

The findings of the inquiry will also recommend that responsibilities such as emergency accommodation in evacuation centers should be allocated to the Department of Communities and Justice, which has day-to-day expertise in dealing with people in crisis. Increased funding will be essential to support this, the report advises.

The office replacing Resilience NSW should instead focus on the response in the first 100 days after a disaster. Other recommendations in the report will include strategies to deal with the future management of flood-prone areas.

The report and the government’s response will be published later this year.

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Javed Iqbal

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