Psychological preparedness for bushres
Psychological preparedness for bushres
Coping with Fire
Coping with Fire
A REPORT PREPARED FOR THE COUNTRY FIRE AUTHORITY
Dr. Danielle Clode
About the author
Dr Danielle Clode completed this review as part of the
psychological preparedness for bushfire research project at
the Country Fire Authority, Victoria. She has a
background in psychology and biology, and has worked on
a number of mental health projects for Melbourne General
Practice Network, beyondblue, Department of Human
Services (Victoria) and Banksia Palliative Care Service.
Her publications include mental health, depression and
self-care as well as environmental history and she is the
author of Keeping the Doctor Alive: A self-care guidebook for
medical practitioners (RACGP 2006) and A Future in
Flames (Melbourne University Press, 2010). She is a
research associate of the University of Melbourne.
About this report
For additional copies, please contact:
Country Fire Authority
PO Box 701
Mt Waverly Vic 3149
Ph: 9262 8401
© Danielle Clode 2010
The author gives the Country Fire Authority the right to
reproduce, distribute and authorise reproduction of and
distribution of this document, in its entirety or in part but
without amendment, for research and educational
purposes, provided full and appropriate acknowledgement
of authorship and source is made in each case.
The author has made every effort to ensure that, at the
date of publication, this report is as accurate as possible
and that all opinions, advice and information have been
provided by professionals in good faith. However, the
author takes no responsibility for the results of any action
taken, or not taken, by any person as a result of anything
contained in or omitted from this report.
The un-ness of disaster
‘unexpected, unscheduled, unplanned,
unprecedented and definitely unpleasant’
Rosenthal, Boin and Comfort 2001
The psychology of fire.....................................................................................................................................................5
What is psychological preparedness? ..........................................................................................................................6
The PPRR cycle....................................................................................................................................................9
Pro-action and prevention.............................................................................................................................................11
Protection motivation theory..............................................................................................................................17
Differences in preparedness......................................................................................................................................18
Individual differences .........................................................................................................................................19
The impact of past experience ............................................................................................................................20
Lessons from health campaigns...........................................................................................................................21
Models of community engagement ....................................................................................................................23
Emotion and decision-making............................................................................................................................25
Different responses to different disasters .................................................................................................................. 27
Leave early or prepare to stay and defend................................................................................................................. 29
The neuroanatomy of fear .................................................................................................................................. 31
Subcortical level control of threats......................................................................................................................34
Individual differences in response.......................................................................................................................36
Managing fear ..........................................................................................................................................................38
Training ............................................................................................................................................................. 38
Phases of disaster......................................................................................................................................................41
Social communication in disasters ......................................................................................................................41
Individual differences in recovery.............................................................................................................................43
Age and gender effects ........................................................................................................................................45
Culture and community .....................................................................................................................................46
Social support ..........................................................................................................................................................46
Community resilience ........................................................................................................................................47
Post-traumatic stress ...........................................................................................................................................48
Treatment of survivors .......................................................................................................................................49
Supporting communities ....................................................................................................................................51
Psychological preparedness is an underlying state of mind that helps people to physically prepare
for a fire, to respond appropriately in the event of a fire, and to recover after a fire.
Psychological preparedness in pro-action allows an accurate assessment of fire risk to be taken
into account when choosing where to live, work or visit.
Psychological preparedness in prevention ensures adherence to fire restrictions, and adoption of
strategies to prevent fires on properties (such as fuel reduction, building design, site location).
Psychological preparedness in preparation includes making a commitment to having a survival
plan for fire should it occur, and making the necessary preparations to enact that plan and reduce
the impact of fire on loss of life or property.
Psychological preparedness in response to a fire involves recognising the unique physiological and
psychological reactions we have to extreme stress, and developing and implementing strategies to
minimise fear and anxiety during a fire.
Psychological preparedness for recovery involves a recognition of the individual and social
processes that support recovery, the willingness to allow those processes to occur over time and an
ability to seek additional assistance if required.
Psychological preparedness means having an accurate understanding of the risk we face and our
individual ability to respond safely to that risk. It means having a clearly articulated, implemented
and practised plan to respond safely to the risk, under various scenarios and taking into account
the ways in which we respond physiologically and psychologically to extreme stress. Psychological
preparedness aids in recovery by reducing fear and emotional trauma, and enabling us to retain a
sense of control over disastrous circumstances.
The psychology of fire
In 1939 bushfires burnt across the eastern states of Australia. Major fires burnt through the
outskirts of Sydney and Canberra, but it was in Victoria that the biggest area was burnt and the
most fatalities recorded. In his landmark investigation of the causes of the Victorian fires, and
particularly their impact on small forest towns and mills, Stretton concluded that ‘the full story of
the killing of this small community is one of unpreparedness, because of apathy and ignorance
and perhaps of something worse.’ (Stretton 1939 p4). In some cases it seemed that people did not
understand the full extent of the risk, or know how to defend themselves. But in many cases,
Stretton argued, although prevention and preparation strategies were well known, they were not
implemented, either through apathy or the conflict of competing interests.
Griffiths (2009) argues that the ‘something worse’ that Stretton was trying to describe ‘was an
active, half-conscious denial of the danger of fire, and a kind of community complicity in the
deferral of responsibility’. Knowing how to prevent fires, how to fight fires, how to prepare for
fires and how to stay safe during fires is not enough without the commitment to implement and
act on that knowledge.
Although our understanding of fire and fire safety continues to improve, loss of life and property
can no longer be attributed to lack of knowledge about fires. The issue of why properties and
people remain at unnecessary risk from fire today is about a lack of uptake and implementation,
not about a lack of available knowledge.
Understanding why people do not hear bushfire safety messages as applying to themselves, or
how they can recognise that they are at risk, without making efforts to mitigate that risk, is one of
the central dilemmas of community safety. Considerable effort has been expended in extending
the availability and delivery of information into communities, with some success. Yet there is still
much progress to be made. Understanding how and why people respond psychologically to the
threat of fires, the experience of fires and the memory of fires is central to improving the effective
and efficient delivery of community education programs.
Despite the unprecedented scale of the fatalities and losses in the Victorian fires of February
2009, Black Saturday shared many similarities with fatalities and losses from past fires (Krusel
and Petris 1992; Haynes et al. 2009). Too many people were exposed to fires without adequate
preparation. Too many people did not perceive themselves to be at risk. Too many people did
not interpret the warnings as a threat until it was too late to respond appropriately. While the
ferocity of the fires in some locations exceeded expectations of even the experienced, lack of
preparation undoubtedly contributed to many tragic losses.
These losses were not just about lack of physical preparation. Many of them also reflect a lack of
psychological preparation for bushfires. Psychological preparedness underpins and precedes
physical preparedness, ensuring safe decision-making before and during the extreme stress of
bushfires, promoting, not only survival, but also recovery.
The purpose of this report is to explore and explain the concept of psychological preparedness, in
the context of bushfires and to highlight opportunities to promote and enhance psychological
preparedness within the community.
What is psychological preparedness?
Psychological preparedness is an increasingly popular term among first response and recovery
agencies. All too often, however, it is used without a clear definition of what the term means. In
different contexts, psychological preparedness can appear to mean very different things, ranging
from committing to preparation to recovering from trauma. Without a definition of
psychological preparedness, it is not possible to develop strategies to improve or promote it, or to
assess the impact that various programs have on preparedness.
The term ‘psychological preparedness’ has a diverse and variable origin in the research literature.
A search of the ISI Web of Knowledge database for the term ‘psychological prepar*’ produced
243 papers (1957–Jan 2010), nearly three-quarters of which (74%) related to medicine. The
term also appeared in 23 papers on sport performance, 14 papers on aspects of education and
training and seven in relation to organisational or industrial psychology. Only five papers use the
term in relation to disaster research, with the same number using it in relation to military
research. It must be noted, however, that disaster research is typically under-represented in
international peer-reviewed journals, with much research being confined to reports, books and
specialist industry magazines.
Psychological preparedness, then, appears to be a primarily medical term and is most commonly
applied in relation to surgery. Patients who undergo psychological preparation for surgery appear
to recover faster than those who do not (see review in Devine 1992). Significant in this process is
the reduction of fear and anxiety and the strengthening an internal sense of control over events,
which allows patients to recall more information about their procedure and post-operative care.
Patients who receive psychological interventions typically require less anaesthesia and pain relief,
and recover more rapidly than those who do not. Psychological preparedness is a well-established
concept in this field and is widely applied, studied and generally accepted.
Psychological preparedness has also gained currency in the field of sport psychology, after its early
development in Russia in the 1960–70s (Stambulova et al. 2006). Russian sports psychology
pioneer Puni proposed a five-component structure to psychological preparedness of athletes
1. Sensible (realistic) self-confidence (or self-efficacy)
2. Uncompromising effort and willingness to compete to the very end
3. Optimal emotional arousal
4. High tolerance of stress and distraction
5. Self-control of actions, thoughts, feelings and behaviours (Stambulova et al. 2006)
More generally, however, the term is used to describe an athlete’s ability to visualise and
anticipate athletic success. Psychological preparedness is a widely utilised concept in the practice
of sports psychology and coaching generally.
Even within disaster research, psychological preparedness appears to have a diversity of meanings.
For example, the Australian Psychological Society has released guidelines for psychological
preparedness for disasters generally, and bushfires specifically, which focus on controlling anxiety
during the event (a response focus) (APS 2005). However the press release accompanying the
guidelines incorporates a much broader definition of psychological preparedness, including the
psychological barriers to physical preparation (APS 2009). A review of articles and book chapters
(Clode 2009) using the term ‘psychological preparedness’ or similar terms in the context of
disaster psychology also reveals a diversity of constructs and contexts (see Table 1).
Study Terminology Phase Disaster
Asgary & Willis 1997 Psychological need—risk perception and
preparation in relation to individual differences
Elsworth et al. 2009 Psychological preparation with physical
preparation as an outcome of education
McClure & Williams
Psychological factors affecting people’s
inclination to prepare
Social and environment influences on
Paton et al. 2006 Preparedness intentions—decision-making in
relation to preparation
Reser & Morrisey
Psychological preparedness contrasted to
Reser & Morrisey
Psychological preparedness relates to physical
or situational preparedness and coping styles
Sattler et al. 2000 Psychological factors as predictors of
Callahan & Hamer
Psychologic training—screening for
emergency workers in disaster zones
Daniels 2008 Psychological preparedness and resilience—
training in the navy
Delaine & Probert
Morrisey & Reser
Information enabling individuals to better cope
with themselves and others under threat.
Morrisey & Pooley
Psychological factors and processes in
effective coping and adaptive responding
Morrisey & Reser
Reducing psychological vulnerability
Basoglu et al. 2007 Psychological preparedness—fear reduction
training using a simulator
Livanou et al. 2005 Psychological preparedness and emotional
resilience in relation to treating trauma
Table 1: Use of psychological preparedness concepts in disaster management literature
The concept of psychological preparedness crosses all phases of the disaster response including
preparation, response and recovery. Psychological preparedness may describe an individual’s
commitment to undertaking protective behaviours and relate to risk perception and protection
motivation. Other studies describe how individuals respond to the stress of a disaster in the
response phase (as used in sport psychology) and might be equated with coping strategies. Other
researchers use the term to describe how individuals recover from disaster, a use which is most
consistent with that used in surgery and is associated with resilience and psychological impact.
‘Preparedness’ generally may also refer to psychological preparedness, depending on the nature of
the study. Research which primarily focuses on evacuation strategies, for example, may place
more emphasis on decision-making processes, rather then physical preparation. Thus research
into volcanic eruptions may primarily concern psychological preparation, whereas research into
floods and bushfires is more likely to refer to physical as well as psychological preparation.
Psychological issues underlie, intersect and accumulate during the disaster experience. They
naturally underpin all personal responses to a bushfire, whether in the preparation, response or
recovery phase. The point at which researchers wish to investigate psychological preparedness,
along the preparation-response-recovery phases of disaster depends upon the interests of the
researcher and the areas they are investigating.
Figure 1 illustrates the way in which psychological preparedness underlies physical preparedness
in a bushfire scenario. Being psychologically prepared (illustrated across the top of the diagram)
leads to individuals making physical preparations for fire and planning for survival. In the event
of a fire, that individual is then more likely to make safe fire decisions (such as leaving earlier,
actively defending and sheltering appropriately) on the basis of those preparations and plans.
People who have prepared for fires (both physically and psychologically) seem to recover better
from fires than those who were unprepared. This may be because their outcomes were better (due
to their preparation), but more importantly, because they retained a sense of control over the
events that occurred. By contrast, a lack of psychological preparation for fire (in terms of risk
perception or commitment to prepare) may lead to poor fire outcomes and difficulties in recovery
(as illustrated in the lower half of Figure 1).
In essence, psychological preparedness is an underlying state of mind that helps people to
physically prepare for a fire, respond appropriately in the event of a fire, and recover after a fire.
The PPRR cycle
In a review of different European responses to disaster, Brinke et al. (2008) highlights how
important it is to consider all aspects of the ‘safety chain’ including pro-action in the usual PPRR
cycle of prevention, preparation, response and recovery (but see Crondstet 2002 for limitations of
this approach). These five aspects of disaster response are outlined in below (adapted from Brinke
et al. 2008) with examples of both organisational responses and individual responses to bushfires.
This report will consider psychological preparedness within the context of the PPRR model of
disaster preparation and response, taking into account both risk management and crisis
management aspects. As noted by Keim (2008) ‘vulnerability to natural disasters has two sides: the
degree of exposure to dangerous hazards (susceptibility) and the capacity to cope with or recover
from disaster consequences (resilience)’ and both involve psychological preparedness.
The importance of human factors in understanding bushfire response is a growing area of
research, as evidenced by a number of recent edited books summarising Australian community
bushfire safety research (Handmer and Haynes 2008a), North American bushfire research
(Martin et al. 2008) and international studies of both responses (Ripley 2008) and resilience to
disasters (Gow and Paton 2008b). Human factors are considered significant not only in
promoting individual fire preparation, but also in promoting agreement on broad-scale land and
forest management practices such as fuel reduction burning, both in the United States (Arvai et
al. 2006; Chapin et al. 2003; Murphy et al. 2007; Vining and Merrick 2008; Winter and Fried
2000) and in Australia (Bell and Oliveras 2006).
Most research on fire has centred on the physical aspects of fire—ecology, behaviour, weather etc.
However, the impact of fire does not relate to its physical severity as such, rather to the impact it
has on human life and activity (Clode 2010 p57–8). A severe fire in an unpopulated wilderness
area has relatively less ‘impact’ than a moderate fire in an urban fringe area where there is loss of
life and property.
Within Australia, fire research has been undertaken by a wide range of research organisations, but
has been dominated by physical aspects of fire behaviour, rather than human aspects. The
establishment of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in 2003 saw the opportunity
for a more co-ordinated approach to fire research across organisations and the promotion of social
research within one of the four major programs of the CRC. The preliminary research outcomes
of the community research program are summarised in Handmer and Haynes (2008a).
This review will summarise issues of psychological preparedness along the prevention-
preparation-response-recovery continuum and address the implications of these findings for
psychological preparedness for bushfires, and particularly for Country Fire Authority programs.
Pro-action and prevention
Whilst prevention is a well-recognised aspect of the PPRR (prevention, preparation, response,
recovery) continuum, both prevention and pro-action tend to receive less attention from fire
management agencies or researchers than other areas of fire mitigation. The vast majority of fire
funding is directed towards suppression activities rather than prevention (including fuel
reduction) and even less to community safety measures. In the United States, four times as much
funding is available for suppression, compared to hazard reduction (Arvai et al. 2006). In Alaska,
a long-held official policy of total wildfire suppression has been recognised for some time as being
unachievable and even contributing to increased fire severity in some instances (Chapin et al.
2003). In the CFA, the budget for community safety is four percent of the total budget, the vast
majority of which is allocated to supporting suppression activities.
Both pro-action and prevention strategies tend to be regarded as the responsibility of various tiers
of government and generally comprise legislative responses to disasters designed to either reduce
occurrence or mitigate damage. Pro-action might include planning restrictions on developments
in fire-prone areas, while prevention might include planning guidelines for fire safety when
developments do occur in fire-prone areas. Other prevention strategies including fire restrictions,
fuel reduction burns, wildfire management overlays, building regulations for new houses in fire-
Given the largely legislative nature of these regulations, psychological aspects tend to be
overlooked. The tendency to focus on organisational and structural responses to natural threats is
not limited to bushfires. For example, in Holland responses to the risk of flood has traditionally
been focused on building dykes rather than a broader concept of risk reduction (Brinke et al.
However, psychology still plays a large part in the effectiveness of legislative strategies for bushfire
prevention. Whilst penalties promote law adherence, limited resources for patrolling fire
restrictions may reduce their effectiveness. The success of these strategies depends in large part on
the willingness of landholders and individuals to abide by such restrictions. In the 1939 fires, the
inflexibility of the fire restriction system in Victoria led to widespread violations of regulations,
rendering it ineffective (Stretton 1939). Community based volunteer fire brigades in Victoria
(particularly after 1939) are probably the most important factor in promoting adherence to fire
restrictions as well as monitoring and reporting infringements. They are also responsible for
providing localised information on fire risk through Total Fire Ban signs and fire danger ‘clocks’.
Although pro-action seems to be dominated by government or organisational responses, it also
requires an individual response. The extent to which individuals consider fire risk when they
decide where to live (suburbs, city, bush, farm etc.) is a relatively understudied area (Haight et al.
2004). Risk perception research suggests that fire risk is relatively low on most people’s lists of
dangers (Rohrmann 1994; 1998) and that many other characteristics take precedence in deciding
where people live. The risk of natural hazards generally rates low for most people (Asgary and
Willis 1997). For example, at-risk rural-urban communities in Queensland were found to be
generally unprepared for fire, largely because they felt the risks of other disasters (such as car
accidents and cyclones) were greater than that for bushfires (Cottrell et al. 2008). Studies of
public perceptions of risk rarely even include wildfire as an option, however (Daniel 2008).
The precedence given to other lifestyle factors over fire safety has been described as the Eden
overhead (Burns et al. 2008; McCaughey et al. 1994), where the cost of living in a high-risk area
is outweighed by other quality-of-life issues. Cohn et al. (2008 p36) quotes a homeowner from
an American community on the edge of bushland: ‘You know, when you live out here, it’s so nice
to be around the trees: that is the whole point of being here. And that is why everybody…they
build in the trees, don’t want to knock the trees down.’ Understanding the way in which
residents (or potential residents) in higher risk areas evaluate bushfire risk is an important factor
in understanding levels of preparedness, or lack of preparation (Gow 2006; McCaffrey 2008).
The growing population of urban interface areas into high fire risk zones substantially increases
vulnerability to fire and losses should a fire occur, and is recognised as a major challenge in both
Australia (Handmer and Haynes 2008b) and the United States (Cohn et al. 2008)
The costs of living close to bushland are graphically illustrated by Chen and McAneney’s (2004)
study of bushfire penetration into urban areas. In a study of the 2003 Canberra, 1994 Sydney
and 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, the researchers found that all destroyed houses lay within 700
metres of bushland, with houses on the forest edge having a 60% chance of destruction. Chen
(2005) defines high risk as being within 80 metres of bushland, which places 190,000 addresses
in the greater Sydney region alone at high risk of bushfires (see Figure 3).
Extending this work to all major capital cities except Darwin, Chen and McAneney (2005)
concluded that 4.1% of all houses were within 50 metres of bushland, with a total of 20% being
within the maximum reach of bushfires of 700 metres—this is over a million and a half homes in
total. It must be noted, however, that these studies are based upon urban interface bushland fires
and do not calculate the risk of fire to houses in regional or rural areas or from grassland fires
which may present a significant risk to properties not near bushland.
The risk of proximity to bushland to house survival in a fire was also confirmed in a survey of
Community Fire Guard house survival in the Black Saturday bushfires (CFA 2009). Seventy-five
percent of the variation in house losses could be explained by fire severity and forty-four percent
by pre-fire vegetation. It seems likely that an algorithm incorporating basic vegetation type from
aerial photography, slope and orientation of slope could provide a robust and reliable measure of
the underlying risk of any particular location (irrespective of individual house design, preparation
and defence factors). The increasing sophistication of geographic information systems (GIS) and
modelling make this a readily feasible and achievable project which would be of great value in
improving community understanding of risk.
Prevention strategies are also important factors in individual decision-making about fire safety.
One strategy is for building regulations and planning guidelines for new houses to set minimum
rather than optimum standards. Absolute safety standards are typically balanced against issues of
cost, industry impact, enforcement and the relative risk of a fire occurring. As a result, much of
the decision-making about fire safety prevention rests on the individual property owner. As with
pro-action, further work is required to explore ways of both encouraging fire risk to be integrated
into issues such as house site selection, choice of materials, design etc. and also removing barriers
to these issues.
Furthermore, legislative scope tends to be limited to new properties or public land. Whilst there
are areas for improvement in legislative regulation (such as bushfire plans and resources for
businesses and government agencies in fire prone areas), the vast bulk of prevention for individual
properties lies with the owners. Fire safe modifications to existing houses, garden design and
property layout are major factors in individual safety.
Assessing the effectiveness of property modifications is difficult for community members,
particularly with little or no experience of fire. The potential for computer simulations to offer
feedback on house design and property layout has long been recognised by fire agencies; however,
efforts to provide this service have been limited to what are essentially animated print brochures.
For example, an interactive house assessment program supported by Queensland fire offers
limited scope for individualising properties and feedback is restricted to generalised text on fire
risk. The Rural Fire Service (RFS) household assessment tool is also generic, entirely text-based
with restrictive options (http://bfhat.rfs.nsw.gov.au/). The newly developed CFA household
assessment tool is similarly text-heavy, technical, non-specific and not particularly intuitive. This
may be due to limitations on the online environment and difficulty adapting to new
Further development in simulated environments and interactive learning offer considerable
potential for more realistic and individualised house assessment tools. Specificity to individual
circumstances is essential for risk perception to improve. Many studies have demonstrated that
people recognise high levels of general risk, but low levels of individual risk. Walker et al. (2006a)
provides a model for a virtual reality bushfire mitigation tool to assist community members to
assess their risk and impact of mitigation measures. This model incorporates individualised
property and house characteristics as well as variable fire scenarios, illustrating the important
variations in fire severity and consequences. Specialist expertise is required to develop effective
interactive learning programs for adults and there are a growing number of companies offering
this expertise (e.g. MindAtlas, CatalystInteractive, Ringshaw Consulting).
Bushfires are relatively predictable disasters in that they occur in defined areas characterised by
particular climatic and vegetative features. They typically occur during known high-risk seasons
and, over a scale of decades, with some degree of regularity.
Despite this level of predictability (even inevitability), levels of preparation for bushfires within
high-risk locations are highly variable (Paton et al. 2008; Pritchard and Gow 2008; Petris and
Potter 1995; Odgers and Rhodes 2002; Steelman 2008; Strahan and Rhodes 2006; 2007). After
the Canadian fires of 1994 and 1996 (at Garnet and Salmon Arm), the Auditor General’s report
found that more than 50% of the community in the highest risk interface areas had no overall
strategy for reducing the risk of future fires (Arvai et al. 2006).
Reinholdt et al. (1999b) provides an overview of the complexity and diversity of bushfire
preparation and knowledge in high-risk communities in Australia. This study highlights many
elements to preparedness including:
• awareness of wildfire hazard
• recognition of wildfire risk
• knowledge of wildfire behaviour
• knowledge of house survival
• knowledge of human survival
• realistic expectations of emergency services
• decision to stay or go
• undertake a process of planning all
• produce an action plan to deal with the
event of wildfire
• undertake appropriate house modifications
• undertake appropriate landscaping
• implement appropriate fuel management
• establish water supply
• organise personal safety gear
• organise fire fighting equipment
• facilitate brigade intervention
• be self-reliant
• be confident
• establish community network
The need to improve levels of community preparedness for bushfires has lead to a great deal of
research on the role of intention formation and motivation in relation to behaviour change.
The commitment an individual makes to preparing themselves for a disaster includes decisions
about what they would do in the event, and making physical preparations to reduce damage and
protect life and property. This type of psychological preparedness is central to disaster agencies,
particularly the importance of individual defence measures and responses to disasters, many of
which, by their scale and nature, temporarily overwhelm centralised resources. Psychological
preparation, in the context of taking responsibility for one’s actions and preparation for a disaster,
is a central precursor to most education programs for disaster preparation. A clear understanding
of when, how and why people become psychologically committed to preparation, and who does
not, is vital if education and information programs are to reach their target audience.
There are a wide variety of theoretical models explaining behaviour change, including rational
choice, conditioning, cognitive consistency theory, social cognitive theory, heuristics and biases
(see APSC 2007 and CFA 2008 for overviews). Many of the approaches adopted to change
behaviour have, however, been based on social marketing strategies such as:
• building on prior or existing campaigns
• targeting people most ready for action
• promoting achievable behaviours
• removing barriers to change
• highlighting immediate benefits
• highlighting costs of old behaviour
• providing benefits and prompts (APSC 2007)
Whilst social marketing provides a useful framework for the delivery of messages, bushfires
present unique challenges that need to be considered in adapting these models. Bushfires impact
on a relatively small high-risk group rather than the general community. Bushfires also involve a
significant threat to life, and emotional factors such as anxiety and fear may play a larger role than
in most social marketing campaigns. In addition, the required behaviour change may be difficult
and costly compared to other campaigns.
The transtheoretical model (TTM) of behaviour change (see Abraham et al. 1998) divides people
into groups in relation to stages of behaviour change:
• Precontemplatives—those who are not thinking about change
• Contemplatives—those who are thinking about change
• Actives—those who are making changes
• Maintainers—those who are maintaining changes already made
Television and media advertising (such as the Prepare Act Survive campaign) are generally
targeted at precontemplatives; however, the impact of such campaigns is diluted by a lack of
specificity. As with other campaigns, such as driver safety, the most at-risk groups may not
perceive the message as applying to them. By contrast, detailed community education programs
tend to be directed at contemplatives (e.g. Bushfire Blitz meetings) actives and maintainers (e.g.
Community Fireguard). The great challenge lies in identifying at-risk precontemplatives and
moving them through the phases of behaviour change.
Many people appear motivated to act or have good intentions of acting—whether it is in living a
healthier life, giving up smoking or drinking, or preparing their home for bushfires. The
proportion of those people who actually put those intentions into action is rather smaller, and
considerable research in health messaging has focused on encouraging motivated individuals to
act on their intentions (Abraham et al. 1998).
The probability of a person acting upon a particular intention is moderated by their perceived
susceptibility to an event (how likely it is to occur) as well as the severity of that event (how bad it
would be if it did happen). However, the perceived risk of even severe events, with potentially
fatal consequences, can be greatly moderated by a low perceived likelihood (Abraham et al.
1998). When combined with people’s tendency to underestimate risk to themselves, perceived
likelihood of a severe event happening to them may be further reduced.
Self-identification or self-representation can be a stronger factor in determining actions than
attitudes. Thus a person who identifies with a particular identity or set of characteristics is more
likely to act consistently with that identity, irrespective of their underlying attitudes (Abraham et
al. 1998 p577).
There are a number of other factors that contribute to turning intention into action, including
self-talk, self-monitoring, context specific responses and goal prioritisation. Goal prioritisation is
a common feature of everyday life that basically describes our inability to get things done because
we have an imprecise goal to work towards and several different goals competing with one
another to be completed (Abraham et al. 1998 p582–3). For example, in the context of fire
safety, we don’t install the fire pump because we’re not sure what sort is the best one to buy and
because the weekends are fully occupied with kid’s sports, social engagements and mowing the
Making goals specific and bound by a time frame can help to overcome these issues. An example
of a message that provides this specificity and time frame is found in the campaign to change
smoke detector batteries with the start of daylight saving. This call to produce a very precise
behaviour at a particular time tends to be more highly prioritised than a general instruction about
making sure you have working smoke detectors.
Identifying and delivering the appropriate safety message to a community is obviously only half
the battle. Ensuring that the message is heard by the appropriate audience, understood and
interpreted correctly, and then acted upon, involves a large array of additional complexities. A
general model of this risk perception process is described as the hear-perceive-respond sequence.
Once people have heard a message, they then alter that message depending upon what they
understand and believe. How they respond to that perception is then determined by a complex
set of factors and decision-making (Asgary and Willis 1997).
Various models have been proposed to explain individual variations in risk perception and
preparedness. The person relative to event (PrE) model proposes that increasing threats only
result in behaviour change where the person has the necessary resources to mitigate the threat
(Duval and Mulilus 1999). Paton et al. (2006) provides a model for considering preparation
versus non-preparation for bushfires as separate reasoning processes, rather than as part of a
continuum of behaviour. Protection motivation theory offers another useful framework to
consider the various aspects of bushfire preparation and decision-making.
Protection motivation theory
Protection motivation theory (see Figure 4) provides a means of understanding the way in which
people moderate their behaviour in relation to a risk message (Floyd et al. 2000) and has been
applied to bushfire preparedness (Martin et al. 2007). This model highlights the importance of
socio-psychological factors in motivating people to prepare themselves (see Figure 4). This theory
proposes that the assessment of a threat message involves four appraisal processes. First we
appraise the probability of the event occurring and the severity of the event if it does occur (threat
appraisal). Then we consider the effectiveness of the recommended mitigation strategies and our
own self-efficacy, or our ability to complete the mitigation behaviours (Asgary and Willis 1997;
Grothman and Reusswig 2006). This comprises coping appraisal. Only once these two levels of
appraisal have been passed can we be considered psychologically prepared to implement
preparation. At this point, issues of actual barriers to preparation come into play, such as lack of
availability of equipment, or the provision of public protection (e.g. the belief that fire brigades
will defend your property).
Strategies to increase protection motivation include:
• Increasing the perception of risk—Risk assessments need to be specific to particular
locations, characteristics or behaviours. Generic assessments of risk can be ignored,
particularly when they are delivered on a broad scale to people who are clearly not at risk.
• Increasing perception of severity—People underestimate how severe a fire event will be.
Both simulated experiences and shared personal experiences are useful.
• Managing fear—Fear has a complex effect on motivation (Mulilus and Duval 1995). While
increasing fear may increase the motivation to protect oneself, this will only happen if self-
efficacy and protectability are strong. If self-efficacy and protectability are weak, fear may
reduce protection behaviours.
• Increasing protectability—Accurate information on the effectiveness (and availability) of
protection measures promotes a sense that the effects of fires can be mitigated.
• Increasing self-efficacy—Training in fire protection strategies are a well-recognised means of
promoting self-efficacy. Participation in activities (such as burn-offs etc.) is also helpful.
• Decreasing perceived costs—Many fire safety features can be integrated with other priorities,
reducing perceived costs. For example, local water reserves may be integrated into drought
strategies (tanks for watering) or leisure (swimming pools). Double-glazing or shutters offer
significant heating and cooling benefits in addition to fire protection..
• Managing perceptions of public protection—The expectation that the fire brigade will warn,
evacuate or defend a home during a bushfire is a powerful and pervasive misunderstanding
in the community as well as a major deterrent to personal protection
• Recognising actual barriers—Identification of actual barriers to preparation also need to be
addressed, particularly the lack of access to appropriate supplies, equipment and expertise.
Brass fittings for taps, for example, were extraordinarily difficult to source in Victoria prior
to February 2009 fires. The provision of information about specialist suppliers of goods and
services is an area which could be significantly improved. Similarly there are difficulties
obtaining building standards and guides to building standards for both new homes and
retro-fitted homes. The lack of building standards for bunkers is another example of an
actual barrier to preparation.
Differences in preparedness
There are a great variety of factors implicated in different levels of preparedness. The variable
findings in the literature do not necessarily imply contradictory results, merely that different
studies are tapping into different parts of the process, as illustrated on the Protection Motivation
diagram (although other models might also be used). For example, McClure and Williams
(1996) found that fatalistic individuals with an external locus of control tend to prepare less for
disasters (protectability) while Grothman and Reusswig’s (2006) study of flood mitigation found
that although risk perception is an issue, self-efficacy and a financial ability to carry out
mitigation is even more significant.
Providing a theoretical framework for interpreting human behaviour is a significant challenge for
interpreting complex behaviour in relation to fires. The methodological challenges of accurately
measuring behaviour and intention should also not be underestimated (Smith 2004).
The different levels operating in mitigation behaviour are well illustrated by a study of people’s
responses to earthquake risk in Iran. Asgary and Willis (1997) found that a fatalistic attitude
(protectability component of coping appraisal) and differences in hazard perception (threat
appraisal) predicted most of the variation in the intention to undertake mitigation behaviour.
Siegrist and Gutscher (2008) focused on issues of severity in floods, noting that people tend to
underestimate the negative emotional consequences of floods, even when they are aware of the
risks (see also Dunn and Ashton-James 2008). Lachlan and Spence (2007) explicitly distinguish
between people’s sense of hazard or risk (how bad will it be?) and outrage or severity (do I care?).
In other words, hazard is a technical definition of risk, whilst outrage is a cultural assessment of
risk, and the correlation between the two assessments is not necessarily high. For example, high
estimations of outrage over the 9/11 attacks dramatically reduced air travel in the United States
even though the actual hazard was relatively low. Both outrage and risk need to be taken into
account when understanding how people calculate risk.
High knowledge of risk and consequence does not necessarily translate into good preparedness
(Lachlan and Spence 2007) and community members do not always have the same expectations
of risk as fire authorities. Cohn et al. (2008) describes this as the ‘risk perception gap’. While
experts focus on quantifiable measures, such as area burnt, numbers dead etc., the public focuses
on qualitative issues like controllability, knowledge and experience. Cotterell et al. (2008)
emphasise the importance of understanding how the community views risk, rather than simply
wondering why the community doesn’t accept the risk that experts may see. Gow (2006) notes
that cognitive games of chance may account for why people don’t prepare for bushfires, not just
in relation to why people don’t prepare, but why they don’t prepare enough, or don’t remain
It is well recognised that many people fail to modify their behaviour in response to a known risk.
It is tempting to assume that this is because they simply underestimate the risk to themselves—
they don’t think it will happen to them. However, merely increasing messages that emphasise
risk—threat messages—may not achieve the desired result either. Duval and Mulilus (1999)
demonstrated that people increase protection behaviours relative to increasing risk only when
they think they have the resources available to deal with that threat. Previous studies by Mulilus
and Duval (1995) found that the more resources people felt they had to deal with the threat of
earthquakes or tornadoes, the more likely they were to prepare for them. Similar studies over the
years have emphasised the importance of addressing both threat and response variables
simultaneously if messages are to be effective (e.g. Girandola 2000).
The importance of self-efficacy and confidence in disaster response is supported by research into
threat evaluation in relation to cyclone risk in Darwin. Blakey (2004) found that behavioural
outcomes in relation to cyclone preparedness are better predicted by an individual’s appraisal of
their own resources (self-efficacy, or ability to deal with a threat) than by the nature of the event
itself (how dangerous or risky the cyclone is seen to be).
Self-efficacy, or personal competence/confidence, is closely tied to perceived behaviour control, or
barriers to behaviour (Abraham et al. 1998). Thus people not only need to feel that they can
make a change, but also that there are not too many things preventing them from making those
changes. The stronger a person’s sense of self-efficacy, the more likely they are to succeed, making
self-efficacy a self-strengthening feedback loop. These individuals set themselves higher goals,
invest more effort in both planning and action, persevere for longer and perceive errors as
learning opportunities (Abraham et al. 1998).
Collins (2008) found that mitigation was strongly related to socioeconomic status, a factor that
has been found for mitigation behaviours in other disasters (e.g. floods, Brinke et al.; 2008 see
also Miceli et al. 2008). Grothman and Reusswig (2006) notes that people in flood-prone areas of
Germany are more likely to take protective measures if they are home owners, and have previous
experience of flood. However, psychological factors, such as how much of a threat they perceive
floods to be, also strongly predict preparation. People who had prepared more for earthquakes
have also been found to have a higher economic standing (perhaps be home-owners) although
many other factors are also involved (Asgary and Willis 1997).
People with higher incomes who owned their own homes in wildfire zones of Arizona had done
more preparation for wildfire than lower income and renter households (Collins 2008). Level of
preparation also increased with house value although this is not simply a question of resources.
People who had lived in the area full-time and for a long time were more likely to have prepared
for bushfires, particularly if their income was derived locally. Similarly, Rhodes’ (2005) study of
householder preparedness and response to the Wangary fires in South Australia identified
significant differences between rural and residential areas in terms of preparation and factors like
risk perception and warning interpretations. Collins (2008) notes that rental arrangements,
apartment complexes and gated communities all prevent preparation and, in these cases,
education might better be directed at land-owners and managers, rather than the householders
The impact of past experience
Cohn et al. (2008) notes that many people who experience fire in America are more aware of the
risks, but this does not make them more likely to take mitigation strategies. Fire experience may
make people feel that wildfires are uncontrollable and that mitigation is pointless (as has been
found in studies after Ash Wednesday in Australia). Other people fall for the gambler’s fallacy—
that they have experienced their once-in-100-year fire and that they are therefore unlikely to
experience another in their lifetime. Arvai et al. (2006) found that people exposed to fire had a
lower level of concern about fire risk and lower motivation to prepare for future fires than those
who were in a similar area but had not been exposed to fire. Those who had experienced fire
displayed the characteristic ‘let down’ response of reduced perception of risk, while those who
had witnessed the damage elsewhere but not themselves displayed the characteristic ‘wake up’
response of increased concern about risk.
It has been argued that the experience of Hurricane Camille in the southern United States
contributed to the death of many people during Hurricane Katrina a few years later, as the earlier
experience made people complacent about hurricane risk (Ripley 2008). By contrast, Sattler et al.
(2000) identified past experience of hurricanes as an important predictor of hurricane
preparedness. Some fire survivors accurately recognise that the probability of a second wildfire is
reduced for some years because of an absence of fuel (Cohn et al. 2008).
In a study of earthquake preparedness, Asgary et al. (1997) found that recency of exposure did
not affect preparedness. People who had recently experienced an earthquake were not more likely
to have undertaken mitigation measures.
Lessons from health campaigns
Campaigns to promote preparation for fire share many similarities with health campaigns, in that
the required response is both complex and individual. The risk may be low but the consequence
severe, even life-threatening. The experiences of health campaigns (e.g. Conner and Norman
1988) provide a useful departure point for proposed fire awareness campaigns.
Abraham et al. (1998) noted that early campaigns to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS had little
theoretical grounding and were largely ineffective. Later campaigns utilised theoretical
understandings of behaviour change and were considerably more effective.
Floyd et al.’s (2000) review also found that it was necessary to avoid rewarding maladaptive
behaviours and that behaviour change was most likely where the costs of change were low. Again,
these factors differ for different campaigns and must take into account different preferences and
behaviours. For example, skin cancer campaigns have found that people would prefer to wear
sunscreen than stay out of the sun—the costs associated with one behaviour are greater than for
the other. Many behaviour change campaigns are successful because the costs associated with
conforming a small; for example, there is limited cost to putting on a seatbelt or wearing a bike
helmet. Nonetheless, significant legislative and promotional effort has been required to change
behaviour. Fire preparation, by contrast, is time-consuming, often expensive and complicated.
Daniel (2008) notes that wildfire research and public health share common themes of public
perception of risk. Both areas need to raise the awareness of risk and provide behaviours that are
effective at reducing risk. In both health issues and wildfire, many residents either ignore the risk
or believe that mitigation is ineffective.
Given that considerably more research effort has been directed at public health campaigns than
wildfires, the former provides a useful model of behaviour change and responses. Daniel (2008)
notes that successful public health campaigns (such as anti-smoking, diet and nutrition, exercise
etc.). require ‘full-court press’ including a full battery of sociopolitical, technical and
psychological interventions. Wildfire campaigns rarely involve such artillery so it is little wonder
that their uptake is limited.
In a review of disease prevention and health messages over twenty years, Floyd et al. (2000)
confirmed that a combination of increasing threat and efficacy was the best way to change
behaviour. Their review found that people were most likely to change their behaviour when
messages increased their assessment of the threat and their own personal vulnerability to that
threat. Successful campaigns also needed to demonstrate how effective prevention was, and
promote the sense that individuals could make a difference to their own health. However, the
importance of these different factors differed between campaigns. For example, cancer campaigns
found threat messages to be more effective than coping messages, perhaps because of the low level
of risk many people place on cancer. By contrast, smoking and HIV/AIDS campaigns found
coping messages to be more effective, perhaps because people in high-risk groups are already
aware of the risk they face.
Health campaigns frequently focus on fear, which is necessary to promote motivation (Witte and
Allen 2000). However, they also run the risk of overemphasising negative outcomes, which can
be dangerous when there is an opportunity ‘for experience to disconfirm overblown expectations
of doom’ (Daniel 2008 p111). These disconfirmed expectations erode the persistence of risk-
reducing behaviour. The ‘cry wolf’ accusations frequently levelled at fire authorities on high-risk
days, when nothing bad eventuates, are a classic example of this problem.
Bushfire risk reduction requires a significant commitment of time and resources, and research
from health campaigns suggests that it is unhelpful to underestimate the amount of work
required. Underestimation of effort may be more successful at getting people to start risk
reduction activities, but may lead to a lack of follow-through as reality replaces unreasonable
expectation. Given that bushfire preparation is, to a certain extent, an all-or-nothing activity
(either one is prepared or not, partial preparation is of limited value) this issue may be
However, it is also true that many health campaigns start with small, even sub-optimal,
expectations. For example, although exercising thirty minutes a day, thee times a week is unlikely
to improve health outcomes, it is achievable and promotes maintenance in more people.
Sometimes it may be better that 1000 people improve 10% than one person improve 100%. A
little bit may better than nothing, but it is important to recognise that a little bit will not offer
the protection that a lot does (Daniel 2008).
Daniel (2008) concludes, in reviewing American print and video publications intended to
promote mitigation in wildfire, that risk areas seem to be based on the principle of the scarier the
better. Towering flames, destroyed houses and despondent home-owners sifting through the
ashes are common images, yet the evidence from health campaigns suggest that this approach is
counterproductive. Emphasising damage might increase risk reduction initially, but is unlikely to
promote maintenance. Daniel (2008) argues that realistic expectations about the risk, with
moderate levels of fear are more effective. It is important to acknowledge the difficulties and
sacrifices required, and recognise that mitigation can only offer partial protection. Even more
importantly, bushfire campaigns need to expect that 100% continuation and maintenance is
Lack of social cohesion (high level of new residents) appeared to decrease preparedness in
Queensland communities (Cottrell et al. 2008). The success of programs such as the CFA’s
Community Fireguard groups and Community Fire Units in New South Wales rests not only on
the provision of education and information, promoting self-efficacy, but largely on increasing
social cohesion (Boura 1998a;b) and increasing opportunities for modelling and social
reinforcement of fire preparation activities.
Cohn et al. (2008) suggests, however, that the perception of risk is strongly influenced by how
people assign causal responsibility (see also Kumagi et al. 2004) and this is more affected by
relationships between organisations and individuals (trust and confidence) than education or
information. Similar issues have been raised in the Australian context, where differences in risk
perception between community members and fire agencies are better understood in relation to
differing contexts and can be reduced by better two-way communication rather than merely
‘education’ (Cotterell et al. 2008).
A review of community safety programs for bushfires also found that engagement, trust and self-
confidence, confirmation and reassessment, and community involvement and collaboration were
the four critical causal factors in program success (Elsworth et al. 2009). Sturtevant and Jakes
(2008) also stresses the importance of collaboration in delivering benefits both for fire agencies
and communities. Developing the level of engagement necessary to successfully access local
knowledge, however, is difficult (Indian 2008). For example, in a study of community
perceptions of prescribed burning near Wombat State Forest, north of Melbourne, Bell and
Oliveras (2006) reported that while most community members felt that prescribed burning was
appropriate and adequate to protect them from bushfires, they remained sceptical and untrusting
of the organisations co-ordinating these burns.
The importance of trust and confidence in agencies and authorities has also been demonstrated in
studies of volcano evacuation planning. Over half a million people live in urban area beneath
Mount Vesuvius in Italy. In the event of increased volcanic activity, all of these people need to be
evacuated. It is well recognised, however, that the success of any such evacuation plan is entirely
dependent upon the preparedness of the residents in the area (Carlino et al. 2008). People living
in the Red Zone (high risk) and Yellow Zone (moderate risk) of Mount Vesuvius generally have a
realistic assessment of their risk of volcanic eruption. They feel that an explosion is very likely and
that the consequences will be severe. However, respondents had little knowledge about what to
do in an emergency and little confidence in their own or official’s ability to respond appropriately
in an emergency (Barberi et al. 2008; Carlino et al. 2008). In the language of protection
motivation theory, people are prevented from actively taking up mitigation strategies by a lack of
self-efficacy and information. This lack of confidence and understanding of the necessary disaster
responses suggests that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to evacuate the area in an
Models of community engagement
The figure below illustrates a typical organisational approach to community engagement, in this
case, the Victorian CFA’s model of community engagement on bushfire readiness.
Models like this tend to characterised by a primarily one-way flow of information from the
agency to the community, with all the behaviour change occurring in the community, rather than
the agency. ‘Community as advocates’ and ‘shared decision-making’ are seen as endpoints of the
process, rather than characteristics that might shape the initial stages of the process. The research
above suggests that effective community engagement requires a two-way flow of information and
willingness for both agencies and communities to modify their behaviour and learn from the
Understanding the decision-making process is central to understanding bushfire preparedness.
Yet there are many difficulties and impediments to studying and understanding decision-making
processes. Arvai et al. (2006) identified three components to this field of study. Firstly, how
people should make decisions; secondly, how people do make decisions; and finally, how to help
people make better decisions.
Arvai et al. (2006) also identified three key factors which must be taken into account when
seeking to understand how people calculate risk:
• People use simplified rules of thumb (or heuristics) to calculate risk, which may have
systematic biases or judgement errors. For example, people are more likely to attribute
success to themselves but failures to external factors.
• People assess risk on the basis of emotional response, rather than quantitative data. For
example, a plan that feels like a bad idea is unlikely to be maintained even if it is
supported by evidence as the safest course of action.
• Decisions tend to be made through responding to unfamiliar circumstances, and
different responses will be elicited depending upon the circumstances.
This last factor makes surveys of plans difficult to interpret, since quite different plans may be
elicited with different questions or circumstances. For example, a household may appear to be
highly prepared and have a fully detailed plan for staying and defending their house. They may
be able to elaborate at great length on their plan and appear to have covered all contingencies.
But a member of this same household might also make a passing comment that they always park
their car facing out of the drive with the keys in it, so that they’d be ready to evacuate at the last
minute. Thus, while an hour long interview might have concluded that this family were well-
prepared and understood the stay and defend message, one simple comment revealed that they
did not understand the risks of late evacuation and had not, in fact, committed to staying and
defending at all. This particular variation on the leave early or prepare to stay is also known as the
‘wait and see what happens’ strategy or the ‘stay and defend until it gets to dangerous, then leave’
strategy. This approach is very common, even among prepared community members. For
example, one Canberra resident described this pattern in 2003: ‘I thinned out trees and chopped
down the ones close to the house. I cleared a lot of ground cover and vegetation, cleared the roof
regularly and had hoses on various taps around the house. We figured we’d fight a fire until we
couldn’t do any more, then we’d clear out.’ (quoted in Mannix 2008).
In a study of decision-making about fire management and risk, Arvai et al. (2006) found that
people tend to opt for mid-risk, mid-effort strategies, but are also highly flexible in their decision-
making, changing their preferred strategy depending upon the way in which the question is
Emotion and decision-making
Arvai et al. (2006) calls for the need for people to both think and feel about their options. This is
supported by research in health behaviour, which shows that attitudes or intentions not only
comprise of evaluative beliefs (how good or bad a particular action is) but also affective beliefs
(how good or bad a particular action would make me feel) (Abraham et al. 1998).
Daniel (2008) notes the significance of a dual process view of human behaviour, including both
the rational and the emotional. An example of this approach is Levanthal’s dual process model of
health risk behaviour. Levanthal (2003) argues that while threat leads from danger control to
safety in the cognitive system, in the emotional system a threat will lead from fear control to
relief. Thus both fear and efficacy are factors in an effective behaviour change model.
The relationship between perceptions, emotions and behaviour in cyclone preparation has been
investigated by Blakey (2004). Morrissey and Reser (2003) found that chronic anxiety lead to
avoidant coping and significant barriers to cyclone preparedness.
Emotional responses tend to be based on the personal and the immediate. Empathy is focused on
particular individuals or events, rather than abstract or general disasters. Our ability to estimate
our own reactions to disasters is confounded by this effect. Dunn and Ashton-James (2008) refer
to it as emotional innumeracy. Our emotional response does not increase with the severity of the
disaster, rather it plateaus at a certain point or flatlines.
Much of the community education aspects of fire agencies have focused on rational and cognitive
approaches to fire safety. However, increasingly researchers are recognising the importance of
emotion in decision-making and cognition (see Izard 2009 for a major review of the field).
Emotional responses are particularly important in the context of disasters, where cognitive
decision-making may be impeded (Leach 2004) and a significant level of behavioural control is
being exerted at a subcortical level through the parasympathetic nervous system and amygdala.
The threat of death is a particularly powerful emotion which has been implicated in longer term
issues with trauma and recovery. This issue is explored in detail in Gordon (2005) with parallels
from Lindeman (1944).
The term ‘psychologically (or mentally or emotionally) prepared’ can also describe how an
individual copes emotionally with a disaster. It is frequently applied to an understanding of how
we respond emotionally to extreme stress and how we manage that stress.
There is a shortage of research on the way in which we respond to extreme stress, no doubt due
to the almost insurmountable practical difficulties of conducting research during disasters. As a
result, most research is restricted to either the preparatory or the recovery phases. Anecdotal and
observational studies of disaster responses, however, can be usefully combined with our
knowledge of physiology and neuroanatomy to explain patterns of behaviour seen under extreme
While psychological preparedness in the response phase is less widely investigated in the research
literature, this use is more widely applied within emergency service agencies, such as Department
of Humans Services, Red Cross etc. Thus psychological preparedness is seen as directly analogous
to physical preparation. While physical preparation for a fire or other disaster is intended to
reduce the loss of life and property, this model of psychological preparation is intended to reduce
the emotional response to fire, particularly fear. While fear reduction in itself may be valuable, in
that it is an unpleasant emotion to experience, fear reduction also offers significant benefits in
maximising safe decision-making during a fire.
Different responses to different disasters
Responding safely to bushfires is a far more complex and active response than that required for
many other disasters. Many disasters (such as hurricanes and cyclones) require a similar ‘leave
early or shelter in place’ response (Keim 2008), where responses vary from full evacuation to
shelter in place, depending on the nature and timing of the risk (Sorenson et al. 2004). Bushfires
differ from many other disasters, in that the ‘shelter in place’, or prepare to stay and defend
option requires active defence, rather than passive sheltering, and considerably more preparation
in order to be effective.
Table 2 summaries the differing response strategies recommended for different disaster types and
the impact of different mitigation strategies. Building design (including the option of
appropriately constructed bunkers for bushfires and bomb threats) potentially mitigate impacts in
most disasters except major volcanic eruptions and landslides. Property preparation (such as
securing loose objects, windows, sandbagging etc.) is of minor value for most disasters but is of
major value in bushfire mitigation. Personal preparation (such as planning, emergency supplies,
medical training) is of value in all disasters but is of major mitigation value for bushfires,
eruptions and terrorism/military attacks. The impact of active defence strategies during a disaster
is negligible for most disasters, minimal for storm and flood damage, but of major significance in
bushfires. In many cases, the ability of individuals to mitigate the effects of disasters is determined
by the amount of warning they have of the disaster and the relative severity of that event. Despite
these generalisations, Table 2 illustrates significant mitigation differences between disaster types,
and the fact that bushfires are unique in that a complex range of mitigation strategies have a
significant capacity to reduce losses.
Disaster type Response strategy Mitigation strategies Impact of
Chemical spills/ nuclear
Evacuate or shelter in place Building design
Volcanic eruptions Shelter or evacuation Building design
Tsunamis Evacuate to high ground Building design
Landslides Evacuation Building design
Earthquakes Shelter from falling objects
(outside or under furniture)
Leave early or shelter in
Leave (under sustained
conditions) or shelter in
Floods Leave early or shelter in
Bushfires Leave early or prepare to
stay and defend
Table 2: Strategies and impact of mitigation strategies for different disaster types
Leave early or prepare to stay and defend
Analysis of deaths in many bushfires has revealed a number of risk factors, including being caught
outside and exposed to radiant heat (Krusel and Petris 1992). Last minute evacuations have been
found to have been responsible for many deaths in bushfires in Australia (Handmer and Tibbits
2005; Haynes et al. 2008; 2009) and the United States (Mutch and Keller 2007). Despite the
fact that leaving a bushfire zone well before a fire risk is recognised to be the safest option, the
vast majority of Australians stay on their properties on high-risk days, and many choose to stay
during a fire. In order to maximise safety, given known behaviour patterns and fatality risks,
Australian bushfire policy promotes individual choice between ‘prepare to stay and defend or
leave early’ policy (Tibbits et al. 2008; Loh 2008). Several studies have explored the application
of this Australian policy in the United States (Paveglio et al. 2008; Tibbits et al. 2008; McCaffrey
and Rhodes 2009).
Evacuation is a more common policy in the United States in relation to bushfires. and many
studies have investigated the efficacy of this policy both in the United States (Cohn et al. 2006;
Mozumder et al. 2008; Tuttle 2003) and in Australia (Stephens et al. 2009). Nicholson (1994)
provides an overview of the complexities involved in evacuation strategies, while the need for
complex and sophisticated planning and management systems is reviewed in Cova and Church
(1997) and Cova and Johnson (2002). Effective early evacuation in Australia is hindered by lack
of appropriate infrastructure, particularly the capacity of roads to support large-scale movements
of communities (Alsinih and Stopher 2004).
The effectiveness of the prepare to stay and defend or leave early policy depends entirely upon
residents making an effective and timely choice between these two strategies. However, evidence
suggests that many residents are neither prepared to stay and defend, nor do they leave early.
Reinholdt et al. (1999a) summarises eight typical responses, including:
• leave early
• stay away
• try to return
• return to rescue
• leave immediately
• wait and see
• do as much as possible before leaving
Understanding the psychological factors underpinning both the failure to prepare or leave early,
and the common decision to make a late evacuation is essential in order to improve community
safety during bushfires. Factors underlying transient residents’ behaviour (such as tourists) are
even more complex (Drabek 1996).
Rhodes (in prep) proposes that people are actually making two different decisions in relation to
bushfire safety, one based on the threat to property and one based on the threat to life. While the
safest option for saving property is to stay and defend, the safest option for saving life is to leave
early. This model offers some explanation for different strategies between individuals when faced
with the same threat, and also changing strategies during the course of a fire. Women, for
example, may have a higher perceived sense of threat to life, leading to a high proportion of
women wishing to leave early (a tendency compounded by a lower sense of self-efficacy). Men
may perceive a higher risk to property and lower risk to life (enlarged by a high sense of self-
efficacy), leading to a higher proportion of males adopting the stay and defend strategy.
Perception of risk may also change during the course of a fire, leading people to switch strategies
from saving property (staying and defending) to saving life (leaving). Unfortunately this switch in
strategies inevitably occurs at a time when leaving is no longer considered a safe strategy by most
fire agencies and actually places people at increased risk during late evacuation.
In comparison to other potential
disasters in Australia, bushfires are
generally likely to elicit a stronger
fear for life. This response is
supported by empirical evidence.
Within Australia, floods and
storms are the major cause of
economic damage (property
losses), however bushfires are the
leading cause of deaths and injury
The neuroanatomy of fear
The observation that people may respond to threats to property differently from threats to life is
supported by the neurological mechanisms that underlie threat responses. In particular it seems
that threats to life are often dealt with by a different part of the brain than less serious threats,
such as threats to property. The brain mechanisms controlling fear are complex and multilayered
(Campanella 2006) and we need to understand something of human neuroanatomy in relation to
fear in order to understand characteristic features of threat response behaviour.
The brain of any vertebrate is a complex cumulative structure that has added new layers and
complexities throughout its evolutionary history. One of the most striking changes in brain
structure across different kinds of animals is the development of the neocortex in mammals,
which overlies the older brain structures that mammals share with reptiles, birds and fish (see
Figure 7). While the older parts of the brain continue to perform the basic functions it regulates
in birds and reptiles, mammals have an added capacity for processing and regulating behaviour.
In many instances, the neocortex replicates and extends the functions of the old brain. In the case
of humans, which have the most complex and highly developed neocortex of all animals, the
neocortex provides a rational and conscious level of control over behaviour which is often
mediated by language. This contrasts with the often emotional, instinctive, unconscious control
of behaviour mediated by the older subcortical structures of the so-called ‘reptile brain’ and
limbic system. As such, the human brain can be seen as a ‘parallel processor’ with two
complimentary levels of behaviour regulation occurring, one at an emotional and instinctive level
and the other at a rational and intellectual level (Marosi et al. 2004).
The neocortex has been described as the executive control centre of the brain or ‘supervisory
attention system’ (Debatisse et al. 2006). It filters and qualifies all incoming information and
regulates the instinctive reactions the older parts of our brain might have. It tends to critically
assess information based on past experiences and dampen responses it thinks might be
inappropriate. In particular it is the prefrontal cortex that assesses danger on the basis of past
experiences and memories (Debatisse et al. 2006). The way
in which the neocortex processes threat messages and
warnings is critical to understanding the way in which
people respond to warnings.
In an overview of responses to disaster like the September
11 terrorist attacks, Ripley (2008) notes that most people
fail to respond at all initially. In the event of a catastrophe,
people seem to search for a normal pattern of behaviour
that suits the changed circumstances. But unless they have
explicitly trained for a disaster scenario, they rarely find one
and consequently either do nothing, or engage in irrelevant
This type of behaviour was frequently described from the
2009 Victorian fires on Black Saturday. Many people were
aware of the risk from the weather and warnings issued the
day before about extreme fire danger. Many people were
aware of smoke in their area. Many people were even aware of the fire approaching. But not
everyone responded to these warnings or threats with the necessary haste or with appropriate
responses. Some people continued with work or normal activities and sought or gave reassurance
to others that the threat was not significant. This response is known as the ‘normalcy bias’ (Omer
and Alon 1994), where our brain prefers a normal everyday explanation of an unexplained
phenomenon, rather than an unusual or remarkable explanation. Thus a gunshot might be
interpreted as a car back-firing, smoke will be interpreted as a fuel-reduction burn and an
earthquake tremor might be interpreted as a large truck going past. Some survivors of the 9/11
attacks interpreted the building swaying as some kind of work on another floor despite the
obvious abnormality of the situation.
Drabek (1999) emphasises that ‘the initial response to any warning is denial’. Threat denial is a
consistent and well-reported phenomenon for rare events (Manne 2009). This denial appears to
be related to the way in which we assess incoming threat messages against our own past
experience and knowledge. People who have little or no experience of fires, or knowledge of fires,
tend to downplay the risk of the threat. By contrast, people with past experience of fires, or
training and knowledge of fires, tend to actively respond to threats by seeking out additional
information and enacting appropriate survival plans. The role of past experience in risk
perception is significant, but training to respond to threatening events is probably even more
important in ensuring a rapid and appropriate response.
The normalcy bias is implicated in studies of evacuation behaviour in building fires, which have
found that people evacuate much more slowly than expected (Olsson and Regan 2001;
Thompson et al. 2004; Byran 1999). Sekizawa (2004) also provides extensive Japanese evidence
on the human factors leading to delays in evacuation, including normalcy bias, but also draws
attention to our need for information and confirmation of the threat. People under threat or
given a warning do not simply respond to the threat, or follow the suggested action (such as
evacuation). They commonly seek advice from others and confirm the information provided.
Mileti and Peek (2000) describe the importance of seeking confirmatory evidence of a threat,
either from other sources, from the environment or from friends and colleagues. For this reason a
single source of information is less likely to be heeded than multiple sources of confirmatory
information and warnings that provide validation (e.g. that specify environmental conditions that
should be regarded as an immediate threat). Sekizawa (2004) notes that many people need to
physically confirm the presence of fire—they need to see flames—before evacuating.
Making warnings work
The significance of triggers for effective evacuation has been more widely discussed (e.g. Dennison
et al. 2007), particularly in relation to the timing and content of warnings (Mileti and Peek 2000;
Sorenson et al. 2004; Mileti et al. 2006). The complexities of warning systems for evacuation in
Victoria is outlined in EMC (2006). Mileti argues that the warning content and style, as well as the
characteristics of the receiver need to be taken into account when planning effective warnings (i.e.
warnings that will be heeded and not ignored).
Warning content can be enhanced by including information on:
• Hazard—the precise nature of the hazard (in specific, not general terms).
• Location—where the hazard will impact (and where will it not impact).
• Guidance—what the public should do (specifically, not in general terms).
• Time—when the hazard is most likely to impact.
• Source—who is giving the warning.
Warning style can be enhanced by incorporating:
• Specificity—The more specific the information the more credible it is and the higher the
perceived risk to individuals. Location specific information is essential.
• Consistency—Messages must maintain a consistent format across agencies and across time, by
repetition and explaining why the message has changed when it has changed.
• Certainty—message must be delivered with absolute certainty, even when ambiguous.
• Clarity—Simple straightforward non-technical language.
• Accuracy—Openness and honesty is critical if people are to judge the messages as reliable.
• Sufficiency—Need sufficient information but not too much detail to be overwhelming. In
general more information is better, but may need to be organised to maintain clarity.
• Channel—Use multiple channels—as many and as varied as possible.
In February 2009, warnings tended to be very general about both the nature of the hazard (e.g. high
fire risk) and guidance about what to do (enact your bushfire plan). There was a lack of information
about when and where particular fires where likely to impact. Whilst the logistical difficulties of
tracking fast-moving fires are considerable, there does seem to be broad scope for improving the
flow of information both to firefighters and the community.
Mileti also notes that an emphasis on warnings provided by a single authority figure are not
necessarily important. Local authority figures may be more effective. In an Australian context,
people may be more likely to heed the advice of their local fire brigade members because of their
local knowledge and recognised fire experience, rather than central authorities who may be seen as
city-based without hands-on fire experience. Promoting information both from and through local
sources is almost universally recognised as important in post-fire investigations (Esplin et al. 2003)
as well as research (Indian 2008), yet remains a great challenge for increasingly centralised fire
Mileti and Peek (2000) stress the need to constantly monitor and improve information campaigns
and to implement them across multiple channels, through multiple agencies and on a constant and
ongoing basis. The importance of observational and social motivation is also recognised, along with
differences in how different language, age and gender groups assessed the credibility of different
sources of information (see also Walker et al. 2006b).
Drabek (1999) stresses that our response to threat is rarely, if ever, an individual one, but should
be regarded as a group response. This focus on the social aspect of decision-making in disaster is
also stressed by Gordon (2004). Emotional bonds to family members, friends or pets may also
influence evacuation timing (Mozumber et al. 2008). During emergencies, people also tend to
remain in socially bonded groups, even to the extent of increasing their risk of death (Cornwell
2003). This social bonding may also extend to pets and livestock (Haynes et al. 2009).
Subcortical level control of threats
In contrast to our conservative response to warnings, threats and smoke, we respond very
differently to the presence of flames. Fire agency staff frequently comment that people don’t
respond to threat messages until they see flames at the back door; this conforms with Sezikawa’s
(2004) observation of the need for visual confirmation of flames.
The presence of flames (and probably the loud roar of an approaching bushfire) appears to
activate a different cognitive alarm system to the one activated (or not) by warnings. Flames
present a threat to life, and threats to life activate fear, which is largely regulated by the
subcortical regions of the brain governing emotion (Panksepp et al. 1991). In essence, emotion is
the system which governs the behaviour of animals—hunger, fear, curiosity, pleasure—and is
largely controlled by the limbic system, and in the case of fear, by the amygdala (Debatisse et al.
2006; Campanella 2006).
Activation of the fear circuitry results in an immediate physiological reaction, largely bypassing
the cautious conservative cortex. The amygdala appears to have direct connections to the brain
stem, which regulates heart beat, breathing and other autonomic functions (Debatisse et al.
2006). Marosi et al. (2004) describe the amygdala’s role in activating fear as a ‘quick and dirty’
survival mechanism. Under these conditions a loud noise will make us jump, a sudden movement
will make us flinch. The characteristic
physiological responses to fear—
blanching, trembling, urination,
defecation and sweating—all occur
with little regulation by the cortex
(Panksepp et al. 1991) and are
primarily caused by a surge of
adrenaline-related hormones through
out system. Our bodies react
instinctively to these threats without
rational consideration. Once the fear
circuitry is activated, our bodies go
into survival mode (see Table 3).
Fear symptom Origin
Turning pale Veins in the skin contract, diverting blood to the heart and leg muscles to allow
‘Freezing’ Information gathering
Tunnel vision Reduction of unnecessary sensory input, focusing on threat
Loss of hearing Reduction of unnecessary sensory input, focusing on threat
Pilo-erection (hair standing
This makes furred animals look bigger, but it could also be a side effect of
Defecation and urination Digestive system closes down and muscles regulating digestion reduce activity
Increased heart rate and
Blood is diverted to heart, lungs and leg muscles
Loss of appetite and thirst Unnecessary functions like digestion shuts down
Trouble focusing on small
Brain preoccupied by larger threat
Table 3: Common characteristics of fear and why they occur
The term ‘flight or fight’ is commonly used to describe response to disasters and, in the popular
media, is often confounded with the ‘prepare to stay and defend, or leave early’ message. Flight or
fight, however, refers to an instinctive psychological reaction to immediate threats to life and,
even within that context, is an over-simplification. Bracha et al. (2004) argues that most
organisms respond to intense life threats first by freezing (allowing information to be processed
about the nature of the threat), then fleeing. The fighting or aggressive response tends only to
occur if fleeing is not possible (Panksepp et al. 1991) and a further response after this may
include tonic immobility, ‘playing dead’ or being paralysed by fear.
A far more common reaction to an emergency is ‘paralysis’. Survivor accounts frequently report
that people freeze, often delaying evacuations and even resulting in fatalities even when there was
a reasonable prospect of survival (Leach 2004). Freezing is well-recognised as a common reaction
to disasters. It has been reported in aircraft crashes, shipwrecks and fires and frequently impedes
evacuation or life-saving responses to disaster. Understanding why and how this freezing response
occurs is vital to understand how to overcome it. Inability to respond to a disaster is thought to
stem from ‘cognitive disarray’. Psychologists believe that the process underlying this lack of
response stems from a problem with working memory (Leach and Ansell 2008). Goal-directed
behaviour (such as survival in this instance) is regulated by the part of the brain responsible for
executive functions—decision-making, supervisory attention, working memory. Supervisory
attention, in particular, is the ability to allocate and restrict attention to relevant factors in order
to allow a goal to be completed. This ability is fundamental to survival under threat where there
may be numerous competing environmental stimuli dominating a person’s attention, to the
detriment of more reasoned action. Leach and Ansell (2008) found that the ability to search for
objects rapidly (selective attention) was substantially impaired during a survival training
simulation and the ability to retain information long enough to critically assess it (sustained
attention) was not only impaired but also took some time to recover.
Flight, fight and freezing reactions all serve a valuable survival function (Panksepp et al. 1991) in
response to mammalian predators in particular, but are less useful in response to other threats,
such as fires. Safe responses to fire require learnt behaviours to be implemented, behaviours which
are regulated by at a cortical, rather than subcortical level. As such, we need to minimise the level
of influence subcortical brain structures play during an emergency, minimising the activation of
the fear circuitry and maximising rational and learnt patterns of safe behaviour.
Fear triggers range from being learnt fears (such as phobias) to instinctive reactions which are
difficult to extinguish. Instinctive fear triggers, such as heights, darkness and sudden noises, have
been a part of our evolutionary heritage for millions of years (Bracha 2006). While a conscious
fear of death is the overriding factor in fires, subconscious fear triggers also need to be recognised
and brought under conscious regulation. In particular, humans are instinctively afraid of the dark
and loud approaching noises, both of which may be characteristic of fire. In addition, the
acoustic startle reflex (jumping at loud noises) is exacerbated in the dark (Grillon et al. 1997). All
these conditions are likely to occur during fires, potentially triggering a flight response. Fear is
also triggered by the unknown. Knowing what to expect in a fire (noise, dark, embers etc.) can
substantially reduce the fear associated with these experiences.
Desensitising people to the emotional responses to sensory stimuli underlies the use of earthquake
simulators to treat post-traumatic stress in earthquake survivors (Basoglu et al. 2007) and
potentially in preparation.
Panic and mass hysteria is commonly depicted in movies, but in fact is a relatively rare
phenomenon that only occurs under very particular conditions. Mileti and Peek (2000) notes
that these ‘conditions include people being in a closed room with an immediate and clear source
of death, and the presence of an escape route for which it is obvious that there is insufficient time
for everyone to escape with their lives.’ Thus nightclub fires and sport stadium collapses are at
risk from the effects of panic, but natural disasters like bushfires are not. Panic is not an issue that
needs to concern authorities and agencies responsible for bushfire preparation and response.
Indeed fear of panic commonly restricts information flow and is responsible for more problems
than the imagined panic itself (Drabek 1999). People do experience elevated stress or high arousal
(due to a state of high adrenaline) in a disaster (which they may describe as being ‘panicky’) but
this is not the mass hysteria authorities often fear (Gordon 2006).
Individual differences in response
In addition to significant differences between prepared an unprepared individuals, researchers
have also investigated differences in responses to threats in relation to gender and age.
Cotterell (2008) argues that women are an essential, but often overlooked component of
community preparedness for disasters. Cotterell (2008) warns against underestimating women’s
capacity to cope, given that their long term resilience as individuals contributes directly to the
resilience of many communities to natural hazards. She provides examples of both indigenous
and non-indigenous women in north Queensland where communities are regularly flooded and
isolated from contact as well as shops, health care and other provisions.
The importance of recognising gender differences is highlighted in Delaine and Probert (2008)
who notes that women are often left to defend properties, but are also more likely to be casualties
of fire. Whilst men often make the decision to either stay and defend or to go, it is often women
who actually fulfil this role, if men are away fighting fires elsewhere or work away from home.
Delaine and Probert (2008) notes that women may plan to stay but be uncommitted and
unconfident, which leads to late evacuation.
Elderly people are also disproportionately represented among non-firefighter bushfire fatalities,
probably because they are less able to implement defensive strategies (Krusel and Petris 1992).
Perry (1990) found that the elderly were just as likely to follow evacuation requests as other age
groups so their higher fatality rates may reflect increased frailty, particularly vulnerability to heat.
The elderly are also disproportionately represented in heat wave mortalities, as are children.
Children face additional risks during fires due to their level of cognitive development. While
children are often capable of following simple plans and actively contributing to fire safety, they
may be more at risk of freezing in an emergency (Leach 2004) or implementing an inappropriate
strategy (such as hiding during a structure fire). The presence of children also complicates parents
response to fires and other emergencies.
Kubicek et al. (2008) reviews the particular risks associated with school-based emergencies,
noting that particular problems emerge from a large number of parents inundating the school
and poor communication strategies. These problems can also be extrapolated to bushfire
scenarios during school days, which in the aftermath of Black Saturday lead to considerable
confusion over school closures. While some schools in bushfire zones, particularly those affected
by the Ash Wednesday fires, have established their own fire refuges, the implementation of
effective bushfire strategies is patchy across schools, with minimal support for essential
infrastructure or the development of disaster plans (Displans) relevant to bushfire risk. Generic
Displans tend to relate to structure fire risk and bomb threats.
There is a substantial scope for potential improvement in the provision of planning and
infrastructure to protect the elderly and children during bushfires, as well as those who are
mentally or physically incapable of enacting an appropriate survival plan.
Despite the fact that functioning of the neocortex may be compromised by activation of fear by
the amygdala, the neocortex continues to modulate and regulate the emotional response of the
amygdala with a more considered and precise response (Marosi et al. 2006). Even in an
emergency, our thinking brains are attempting to make sense of what is going on, trying to
rationalise the surge of emotions we are experiencing, and make sense of our behaviours even
when they may not be in accordance with previous intentions or safe practice. Decisions made in
the heat of a fire may be justified post-hoc as rational, even though at the time they may have
been primarily motivated by subconscious mechanisms. This ‘rationalisation’ of events has
important implications for the interpretation and analysis of behaviour post-fire from individual
The amygdala also plays an important role in laying down emotional memories. These memories
(unlike the conscious memory process we use to remember phone numbers or upcoming events)
are not filtered, rehearsed, assessed or filed cognitively. They give the impression of being an
intense visual stamp on the brain, and one which is directly recalled often in combination with
strong emotional responses. The attachment of fear to these ‘snapshot’ memories potentially has a
powerful survival value, to avoid such situations in future. However, it also has important
implications for recovery, as they are difficult to modulate and seem to be impossible to
extinguish. Reducing the level of fear during the crisis appears to reduce the intensity of these
emotional memories, and may in part explain differences in recovery.
The Australian Psychological Society provides a three-step ‘AIM’ process of managing fear
1. Anticipate that the situation will be stressful.
2. Identify your body changes related to anxiety and any frightening thoughts that are
adding to the fear.
3. Manage your responses using controlled breathing and self-talk. (APS 2005)
Even when extreme fear is not triggered, the cortex is impeded in its ability to make rational
decisions under stressful conditions; however, its efforts to regain control and make informed and
safe decisions can be substantially improved by training and practice.
Vulnerability to disaster is tempered by resilience (Keim 2008). We may not be able to reduce the
risk of disasters, but we can increase resilience and safe responses at a community level.
Ripley (2008) argues that people who have trained for disaster response, and particularly military
personnel, tend to respond rapidly and take command. This pattern is also described by
Coultman-Smith (2007) in a personal account of Cyclone Tracy as well as the experiences of
other military personnel (Daniels 2008; Bartone 2004).
On the basis of the neuroanatomy of fear, it seems that training provides the brain with a past
experience on which to base its response to fire. Without training, the brain searches for some
model of behaviour on which to base its response, but finds none and tends to revert to normal
behaviour patterns (continuing to work, making lunch, etc.). Without a point of reference, the
tendency to normalise and play down the risk is enhanced.
Training provides an immediate point of reference and interpretation for the cortical regions of
the brain to use in planning and responding. With a background understanding of fire behaviour,
environmental cues are interpreted correctly (heat, wind, smoke, embers etc.) rather than being
ignored. Training also appears to reduce the need for confirming the risk with others, as our own
internal schemata provide a framework of reference against which to verify the threat. Trained
individuals respond much more rapidly to disasters, enacting appropriate response immediately
and often promoting appropriate responses in others (Ripley 2008). Similar patterns were also
observed in the Black Saturday fires, particularly when comparing the responses of many active
participants in the Community Fireguard program with non-participants who had received
limited information on fire and fire survival planning (CFA 2009).
The ability of the cortical areas of the brain to organise and respond to fires also appears to reduce
the tendency of the amygdala to trigger a strong fear response. Fear may still be elicited, but the
cortex is able to suppress and control this reaction by superimposing a pre-planned and rational
approach to fire over our instinctive responses. It is common for community members who have
planned for fire to report that they didn’t have time to be afraid, that they were too busy to be
afraid or that they had a plan and they just did it. It is also common practice to give someone
who is overcome by emotional responses during a disaster a simple task to perform. We recognise
this ‘keeping them busy’ approach as a simple strategy for bringing emotions (particularly fear)
Training is effective in reducing house fire risk (McConnell et al. 1996). The importance of
rehearsal and ‘routinisation’ of behaviours are highlighted in a number of papers (e.g. Abraham et
al. 1998). For example, Delaine and Probert (2008) reports on the success of workshops for
women, aimed at increasing their knowledge, psychological preparedness and firefighting skills. A
review of Community Fireguard groups (which aims to deliver information and promote
planning and preparation) suggests that during the Black Saturday fires those who are actively
involved in the program significantly improved their chances of house survival (CFA 2009).
A large body of literature centres around the use of computer programs and various simulated
environments to teach basic fire safety behaviour to adults and children (Jones et al. 1981;
Williams and Jones 1989), particularly those with learning difficulties (Coles et al. 2007). Such
simulated training has been found to be highly effective, well-retained and generalisable (Ribbe et
Hillman et al. (1986) reviews different approaches to teaching house fire safety behaviour to
children. It found that children retained the information better over the longer term when they
were given a rationale for the safety behaviour than when they weren’t. Behavioural training was
also more successful than just verbal training. Holmes and Jones (1996) found that children
performed better when taught fire safety through either behavioural methods or with animated
graphics, compared with still graphics. Jones et al. (1981) found that social validation by
firefighters had a beneficial affect on learning. Elaborative rehearsal (self-talk) reduces fear more
than just behavioural rehearsal but both improve safety (Jones et al. 1989). Similarly talking
through their fear (exerting verbal control over their environment) appears to be effective in
reducing children’s fear of the dark (Kanfer et al. 1975). Fear reduction in itself may be useful
(Jones and Randall 1994).
Computer games simulating fire situations have been successfully used to improve fire safety
behaviour in children. These programs have been extended to intellectually disabled children
(Coles et al. 2007) and adults who are at particular risk in fire situations and for whom
traditional fire safety message delivery may be inappropriate.
Improved simulation of stimuli through visual aids has also been found to assist firefighters
predict the spread of fire (Lewandowski et al. 1997) by increasing the salience of critical variables
during fire situations (such as terrain). The Iccarus system reviewed in Powell et al. (2008)
highlighted the need for such training systems to be as realistic as possible. In the context of
firefighting, this included a high level of variability, both lack of and overload of information, few
system prompts and stress. Crichton also recommends the use of Tactical Decision Games to
assist in the development of decision-making skills during emergencies (Crichton 2001).
Joung et al. (2003; 2006) explored the use of ‘war stories’ in training firefighters. They found that
worked examples were particularly useful as they provide opportunities to discuss the use of rules
of thumb or heuristics typically used by experienced firefighters to ‘store’ their expertise. The
firefighters trained using errorless stories performed less well than those trained with examples
containing errors. Errorless training appeared to prevent adaptive approaches to problem-solving,
perhaps by reducing the need to explore alternatives and revise strategies. This form of training
might also lead to overconfidence. This reinforces the use of personal stories, both successful and
unsuccessful, in community education programs.
Other papers review the merits of community training programs such as Community Fireguard
(Boura1998; CFA 2009; McWaters 1998) and Community Fire Unit (Lowe et al. 2008).
Reviews of community fire prevention and preparation programs can be found in Cameron
(2003) for Victoria, and Gilbert (2007) and Elsworth et al. (2009) for Australia. The value of
community based training programs for earthquakes drills in San Francisco area is provided in
Simpson (2002). Sadhegi and Ahmadi (2008) highlight the need for similar training programs
specifically for psychological preparedness for earthquakes.
Paton and Gow (2008) stresses the importance of providing an accurate portrayal of reality, to
assist the community to be prepared for all eventualities. ‘The cornerstone of a resilient society is
recognition by that society that it needs to put in place procedures and capabilities for the
unthinkable. If they are to do so, they must know what kinds of activities to undertake.’ (Paton
and Gow 2008 p5).
Phases of disaster
Many researchers have developed models of disaster response that describe how communities and
individuals react to and recover from disaster. This concept seems closely related to the more
widely used term of resilience. Typical phases of disaster include:
• Initial shock—disorganisation on impact of the disaster.
• Heroic phase—rapid altruistic and cooperative response as community rallies to support
• Honeymoon—characterised by a period of high morale, common action and
organisation for recovery.
• Fragmentation—a period of discord and disunity, when people often become depressed
or exhausted and often fragment into groups opposing one another.
• Reconstruction—a return to normal functioning.
It is important to note, however, that these categories are useful only as an analysis tool at a very
broad level. Different individuals, and community sectors will move through these phases at
different rates, and may often move back and forth between these states over time. Whilst there
may be some broad community pattern obvious at the time, it is unlikely to apply consistently to
individuals within that community.
Immediately following a disaster, victims tend to organise themselves rapidly. They experience a
temporary sense of wellbeing (perhaps relief) and there is an increase in altruistic behaviour.
Sometime after the event, victims sometimes enter a phase of denial and frequently reject the
offer of mental health services (Aptekar 1994). Omer and Alon (1994) notes that authorities
frequently underestimate the capacity of the community to respond effectively to disasters, and
misinterpret normal healthy responses as pathological. They cite the example of a Gulf War
soldier who reported that ‘people whose homes had been hit behaved in a strangely courteous
manner, as if they were so deeply shocked as to be unaware of what had befallen them’ (p277).
Similarly Hasemi (2004) cites the observations of a German medical practitioner, Dr. Berz, about
the devastating fires in the Edo era in Japan who was ‘surprised that the general public was calm
and cool even after the big fire and that they built temporary houses and were preparing breakfast
as usual.’ The capacity of communities and individuals to recover themselves from disaster is
often surprisingly strong.
Social communication in disasters
Understanding how individuals communicate and connect within their communities before,
during and after disasters is central to understanding how they respond and recovery (Lahad
2008; Paton 2008; Paton and Bishop 1996).
Gordon (2004) outlines response to a disaster in relation to patterns of social communication (see
Figure 9). He notes that in the lead-up to a predicted disaster (like a bushfire or cyclone), social
communication bonds are dramatically strengthened as people seek contact, reassurance and
information while under threat.
As the disaster event moves across the community there is increased communication in the
warning process producing ‘hyperbonding’; then communicational bonds are severed at impact as
people confront the survival threat individually, creating a communicational event horizon
beyond which members are ‘debonded’.
During the disaster itself, on the ‘event horizon’ these communication bonds are severed and
people tend to be isolated, as phone lines are cut, people are forced to take shelter or protect
themselves. After the disaster there is a sudden resurgence of social contact once again,
particularly among those who shared the experience and their respective family members. Social
bonds, even from great distances, tend to be re-established at this time. Gordon (2004) describes
this phases as tending to be fairly egalitarian as past social boundaries are ignored or broken in the
face of the enormity of circumstances. Over time, however, social bonds start to re-establish into
more normal patterns, with some connections strengthening, while others weaken. Both
fragmentation and bonding is normal at this time and this may be both constructive and negative
in its consequences. Groups may form based on shared experiences (such as those who lost homes
or relatives) but may also divide from other groups (such as neighbours who did not lose their
homes). Group rebuilding
activities may be important to
avoid unproductive fragmentation
and to promote community
cohesion, rather than division.
This pattern of response was also
found in a study of the Rodeo-
Chediski fires in Arizona, where
researchers found that socially
cohesive community responses
tended to come from local,
informal social systems, whilst
divisive responses seemed to come
from organisations from outside
the local area, particularly
bureaucracies associated with
firefighting and distributing
resources (Carroll et al. 2005). The
researchers noted that in some
cases the event increased existing
tensions or caused new ones. In
addition to some racial tensions,
there was also concern over the
poor allocation of firefighting
resources and lack of recognition
over local knowledge and poor
Considerable resentment was
expressed over the ratio of
paperwork to financial support and poor organisation by some relief agencies. In summary, the
authors conclude that ‘the local matters’, observing that the bulk of the conflict generated as a
result of the Rodeo–Chediski fire was seen locally as a being in response to the actions (or
inactions) of non-local entities. This study conforms to the classic model of promoting internal
cohesion whilst fragmenting with outside groups. For example, some groups previously seen as
‘outsiders’ (such as summer residents) were incorporated as part of the inside group after their
There is a common distinction in the disaster literature between responses to man-made and
natural disasters. The essential externality of natural disasters (like cyclones or tsunamis) tends
bring people together against some essentially external threat, promoting internal coherence
(Carroll et al. 2005; Cohn et al. 2008). However, Carroll et al. (2005) notes the crudity of the
distinction between natural and man-made disasters particularly in relation to fire.
There is a general tendency in all adversity for people to look for a human agent to blame
(Carroll et al. 2005). However, assigning blame for a disaster is often more difficult in a natural
disaster than in a man-made disaster. But it is still possible to blame others for making things
worse, for not preventing the disaster or for not responding adequately (Burns et al. 2008). It is
common in the aftermath of fires for survivors to blame others such as forestry officials, but not
themselves (Cohn et al. 2008; Kumagi et al. 2004)). Community Fireguard Co-ordinators
working with Victorian communities affected by fire anecdotally report that it can take some
time for people to recognise that some of the responsibility for what happened may lie with their
own preparation and response, rather than externally. This process seems to take longer for
people who were less prepared to start with, irrespective of the loss incurred.
In Solomon and Smith’s (1994) study of flood responses, they suggested that blame may play an
important role in helping people to cope with disaster where mitigation is not possible, by
providing some sense of control.
Individual differences in recovery
A number of studies focus on individual differences in relation to disaster response, including
gender differences (Aksary et al. 2006; Cotterell 2008; Delaine and Probert 2008; Jones et al.
2003; Keane et al. 2000; Murphy et al. 1994; Solomon and Smith 1994). The incidence of stress
has also been examined in volunteer firefighters in NSW (Bryant and Harvey 1996). Coping
strategies employed following a disaster vary greatly between individuals (Chamberlain 1996) and
even people physically unaffected by the disaster may suffer from vicarious traumatisation (Byrne
et al. 2006; Matt and Vazquez 2008).
The tendency to catastrophise an event—imagining the worst possible outcomes—is predictive of
vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder (at least among trainee firefighters, Bryant and
Guthrie 2005). Similarly McFarlane found that firefighter stress after severe bushfires was related
more to pre-traumatic vulnerability than to the nature of the events themselves (cited in Celinski
and Pilowsky 2008). Guthrie and Byrant (2005) found that physiological responses to a basic
auditory startle test in trainee firefighters predicted the level of stress they experienced in response
There are risk factors in particular personalities that make them either vulnerable to trauma or
resilient (Celinski and Pilowsky 2008). Catastrophising has been identified as a predictor of post-
traumatic stress disorder in firefighters (Bryant and Guthrie 2005). The auditory startle reflex has
also been found to predict the severity of post-traumatic stress in firefighters (Guthrie and Bryant
2005). In a study of Australian firefighters, Regehr et al. (2000) found that individuals with
feelings of insecurity, lack of personal control and alienation from others were more likely to
experience depression and post-traumatic stress following traumatic work.
The ways in which people cope with stressful or traumatic events are highly variable across
individuals and situations. Active coping is effective and includes being involved in the recovery.
Avoidant coping is based on emotion and is often ineffective (Burns et al. 2008). The way in
which we cope with everyday stresses will not be the same as the way we cope with traumatic
events. As a result, coping strategies are difficult to define and hard to study (Chamberlain 1996).
For example, even when someone appears to be coping well with a particular disaster, they may
be unable to cope with everyday stressors which previously caused them little trouble.
Increased operational tempo causes stress in many emergency services and military personnel. A
typical response to this stress is to shorten deployment frequency and duration; however, this
strategy is often not possible in an emergency. Bartone (2004) identifies five primary stresses—
isolation, ambiguity, powerlessness, boredom and danger. Moderating any of these factors will
assist in reducing stress, despite emergency conditions.
In a review of the concept of resilience across cultures, Celinksi and Pilowsky (2008) noted a
strong link to both self-efficacy and personal cohesiveness. Thus in Ethiopia, resilience to the
effects of trauma has been associated with faith, hope, family and cultural roots. In Cambodia,
the preservation of traditional values has been found to protect adolescents from trauma.
Refugees from Tibet who were tortured showed greater resilience and recovery when they were
aware of and prepared for their ordeal, particularly where they had a strong commitment to their
choices and good social support. By contrast, family instability, alienation and insecurity all seem
to contribute to post-traumatic stress (Celinski and Pilowsky 2008).
Hardiness, or resilience, is often regarded as an individual characteristic. Hardy people have a
strong life or work commitment, have greater feelings of control, are open to change and have
challenges in life. Hardiness is learnt early in life and is a stable personality trait but it can be
increased through training and has been found to protect against stressors. Key features of
hardiness are (1) a willingness to interpret experience as interesting and worthwhile, (2)
something they can exert control over and (3) challenging with opportunities to learn and grow
Resilience can be regarded as comprising aspects of prior, present and past experience (Daniels
2008). Factors increasing our ability to maintain normal psychological balance in an emergency
include prior experience of similar conditions, protective measures during the situation and
undertaking appropriate recovery activities afterward.
Resilience is very often studied in volunteer emergency response services because, by their nature,
people who voluntarily undertake to expose themselves to potentially dangerous and stressful
situations, for no financial reward, tend to have high levels of resilience. Studies have found that
emergency workers have four typical response patterns to call-outs:
• occupational achievement
• enhanced appreciation for life/colleagues
• sense of control (quoted in Gow et al. 2008)
Age and gender effects
As with perceptions of risk, and responses to disaster, there appear to be significant age and
gender differences between individuals in terms of vulnerability to the impact of disaster
(Schmuckler 2004). Vulnerable groups include the elderly (Norris et al. 1994), children (Evans
and Oehler-Stinnett 2006) and adolescents (Jones et al. 1994), with the responses of parents
often being a significant factor (Jones et al. 2002; Kubicek et al. 2008).
Aksaray (2006) found that women reported more severe psychological reactions than men after a
disastrous earthquake (see also Stein et al. 2000). Jones et al. (2003) found that women reported
greater levels of psychological symptoms after a wildfire than men; however, their control sample
also showed a similar gender difference, suggesting that this difference may be due to underlying
gender differences, rather than different responses to wildfires. Contrary to other studies, Jones et
al. (2003) did not find that having small children affected how people responded to fire risk.
Keane et al. (2000) found that people requesting help after residential house fires were more
likely to be women with young families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
The way in which children respond to a disaster, like a fire, is often mediated by the reactions of
their parents (particularly their mother) rather than the severity of the event itself (Jones et al.
2002). Their responses may also be influenced by traumatic experiences prior to the fire and to
the consequences of the fire (in relation to loss of personal property or casualties). Unlike adults,
children may be more likely to retain traumatic experiences over many years rather than
immediately bouncing back (Evans and Oehler-Stinnett 2006). However adolescents seem to
react more like adults than like children.
Duarte et al. (2006) examined the incidence of post-traumatic stress among children with parents
who responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks. They found that children from lower
socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress than those from
higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
The issue of personal control is as important for children as it is for adults, particularly in
managing fear. Kanfer et al. (1975) found that children were better able to manage their fear of
the dark by using mediating responses which focused on their control of the situation, rather than
responses that reduced the negative sensations of the dark.
The Cerra Grande recovery project specifically targeted children, giving them an opportunity to
rebuild an interpretative trail. Providing this role for the children legitimised their experiences
and provided them with the opportunity to talk to their parents about the fires and their
consequences. It also assisted children to see a positive emerging from the fire and to exercise
some control in an environment which had been out of control (Burns et al. 2008). Similarly, a
photographic exhibition and calendar of plants recovering from the fires has been organised by
children at Strathewen Primary School after the Black Saturday fires and has been the focus of
Older people may also be vulnerable as they may be more strongly attached to place, slow to
change and slow to recover; however, their stronger attachment to community and stronger
resilience (which is characteristic of older age groups) might mitigate such risks.
Culture and community
Paton and Tang (2008) identify important cross-cultural differences in response to disaster;
however, it is important to distinguish between the effects of ethnicity or culture and differences
between communities, which may intersect or divide along cultural lines.
Ethnicity has been implicated in many studies of post-traumatic stress following fires. It is
possible that this finding relates less to ethnicity per se and more to level of acculturation in the
community. Thus minority groups may be more likely to experience trauma symptoms because
they are less protected by community support factors. This interpretation is supported by Langley
and Jones (2005) who found that African American youths who were strongly acculturated were
less likely to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms following wildfires than those who were
Morrissey and Reser (2007) note that rural communities may be particularly vulnerable, given
the prevalence of both poor mental health and natural disasters.
Despite underlying cultural differences in levels of volunteering and systems of social support,
there is a growing recognition of the importance of informal or volunteer social support in
promoting and protecting community resilience. For example, student volunteers in Japan were
originally utilised to prepare food for earthquake survivors, but their role as listeners for the
elderly turned out to be far more important (Childs 2008). While volunteer firefighters are
typically seen as being operational resources within the CFA, their strength and value as
community members is probably vastly more significant. The artifical delineation between
‘community’ and volunteer firefighters is unhelpful and ignores the continuum of involvement
many community members have over the course of their lives in many different aspects of local
brigades and other programs.
Cowman et al. (2004) found that Maryland urban firefighters who felt well-supported by their
community were less prone to stress in the course of their work. Similarly Fullerton et al. (1992)
found that firefighter stress was mediated by social support, type of leadership, level of training
and use of rituals (see also Mitani et al. 2006; Varvel et al. 2007). Gordon (2007) stresses the
importance of ‘embededness’ in social relationships as a protective strategy for trauma.
The extent to which people feel they belong to a community is a very important factor in
recovery from fires (Langley and Jones 2005) leading to some minority groups coping less well
with disasters. Families have a strong tendency to connect with their relatives after a disaster, even
distant ones (Aptekar 1994).
When people belong to a community, they have a role to play, which helps them to cope
better—they have a ‘therapeutic community’ (Aptekar 1994 p60). They have people who
understand what they have been through, with whom they can share their stories and take the
time to work things through. This process of talking through disasters and making sense of events
may take months, even years. Many studies have identified the importance of the therapeutic
community in recovery (Burns et al. 2008; Lahad and Nesher 2008). Disruption to the
therapeutic community due to the evacuation of 23,000 people from Darwin after Cyclone Tracy
is thought to have contributed significantly to additional stress and slower recovery in many of
those evacuated (Chamberlain et al. 1981). Relocation stress compounds the trauma of many
communities after disaster (Gerrity and Steinglass 1994). Recovery programs now recognise the
importance of retaining family and community connections in order to reduce stress and rebuild
The importance of the role of community has been widely recognised in recovery efforts
worldwide, for both fires and other disasters. Burns et al. (2008) outlines a series of case studies
illustrating the use of community engagement in recovery activities. In the case of the Cerra
Grande fire of 2000 in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a volunteer task force was established to bring
members of the community into the burnt forests to build paths, spread mulch and plant trees.
This activity allowed people access directly into the environment that had threatened them
during the fires (burnt forests often being locked up after fires), potentially reducing the potency
of the forests as symbols of fire threat. The evidence of ecological recovery was also seen as
therapeutic with one participant noting that ‘seeing the forest recover helped me recover’ (Burns
et al. 2008 p86).
The role of the community in fire safety can thus be seen to extend from its value in assisting a
community to prepare, through promoting an effective response, to enhancing recovery after a
fire disaster. The cascade model of developing community resilience utilises the trickle-down
effect of community education. In practice, this involves training a small group of professionals
who then train others who then operate within their community. Following the 1999 earthquake
in Turkey a core group of twenty professionals each trained a further twenty people who in turn
trained at least fourteen people, thus ultimately reaching 5600 people (Lahad 2008). Lahad and
Nesher (2008) notes that there are difficulties in maintaining a volunteer disaster emergency
system over time, in the absence of emergencies; however, this does not appear to be a major
problem for the CFA.
Military training is frequently regarded as providing a level of resilience to disaster, even though
the severity and duration of exposure to trauma may be higher than other occupations, resulting
in higher levels of mental stress over all. Daniels (2008) describes the four-pronged approach used
by the Australian Navy to promote resilience in their personnel; this includes selection and
training, education, ongoing screening and referral, and team cohesion.
Diamond Model of community resilience combines internal locus of control, self-efficacy,
commitment and cohesion (Lahad and Nesher 2008). Many of the community education
programs developed by fire agencies utilise these concepts. Community Fire Units have been
developed in New South Wales to increase empowerment, capability and training among
community participants (Lowe et al. 2008). Community Fireguard in Victoria operates under a
similar social mechanism to increase local knowledge, preparedness and strength of community
(Boura 1998; CFA 2009)
Gow and Panton (2008) conclude that ‘the accumulated depth and breadth of expertise
encapsulated in collective community capacity exceeds the sum of its parts’.
Disaster syndrome originated with a study of trauma in survivors of the Coconut Grove
nightclub fire in which nearly 500 people died (Lindemann 1944, the historical context of which
is outlined by Aptekar 1994). Lindemann (1944) noted that the survivors suffered from
flashbacks and had an obsessive need to talk about the event. Many were preoccupied with their
distress about those who died, felt guilty about surviving or not helping others, were angry about
what happened or were hostile towards those who tried to help. Some survivors developed
obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. Apathy and compulsive activity were also
common features. Lindemann noted that these features were a typical response to unexpected
death, and they constitute part of the healing process with most people recovering over time.
Gordon (2006) notes that rather than panicing or becoming helpless, most people enter a
‘heightened state of arousal’ in an emergency. While this heightened state may be helpful in
conjunction with a plan of action, once the threat has passed this reaction may be unhelpful and
damage recovery. The strong emotion-laden memories laid down during the disaster will often be
triggered by stimuli associated with the events. These memories recreate ‘arousal’ and we need to
learn to control those symptoms. For example, we often elicit our own fears by recalling or
imagining what might have happened even though the worst did not come to pass. This self-
stimulation makes us feel all our fears again. By focusing on what did happen, what was
successful, we can stop those fears from washing over us.
Post-traumatic stress disorder originates in Freud’s studies of shell shock in the First World War
(Aptekar 1994) and has been refined within a cognitive neuropsychology framework (Brewin
2001). While post-traumatic stress is rare, the likelihood of developing symptoms is increased by
the loss of family, friends or emotionally significant property (Aptekar 1994). Gordon (2005)
notes that when people have a close experience of death, they often become detached from life
and find it difficult to reconnect. There is a sense in which they have ‘said goodbye’ and they
need to recognise that in order to be able to reconnect emotionally and move on with their lives.
Bryant and Harvey (1996) found that more than half (56%) of 751 volunteer firefighters
surveyed felt that their safety had been threatened at some point in their activities, with one-
quarter reporting significant levels of post-traumatic stress. In most cases, external factors were
blamed for the stress rather than the firefighting incidents, perhaps because of fears that they may
be seen as not coping. Repeated exposure to traumatic events appears to increase post-traumatic
stress. The authors call for screening tests like the General Health Questionnaire to monitor
responses to trauma.
Traumatic events may have a long-term impact on survivors, particularly children (Leach 2004).
Livanou et al. (2005) found significant trauma among survivors of a moderate Greek earthquake
four years after the event, while Lundin and Jansson (2007) found that, although survivors of a
hotel fire had few signs of traumatic stress, the event still had a determining effect on the lives of
half of the survivors and affected the daily lives of 20% even 25 years after the event.
Lahad (2008) notes that the focus of disaster research on individuals and families (rather than
populations) leads to the impression that most people suffer from post-traumatic stress after a
disaster. This may be exacerbated by media reporting which focuses on distress and tragedy,
rather than resilience. In fact, most people cope with disasters and recover successfully with little
or no need for intervention (Lahad 2008).
Treatment of survivors
Benyakar and Collazo (2005) note that, in disasters, the ratio of mental injury to physical injury
is about two hundred times, however there is 20 times the support for physical injury than
mental injury. ‘As the ratio between available practitioners and people in need of mental health
care is so inadequate, the population as a whole must become a resource.’ (Benyakar and Collazo
Many studies highlight the need for mental health services in bushfires (e.g. McFarlane 1984).
Raphael (2004) reviews this changing history of mental health services in Australia for disasters.
Schmuckler (2004) provides an overview of mental health considerations post-disaster,
particularly in relation to emergency responders.
Many of those impacted by disasters like fires have no experience of asking for assistance. Those
who ask for help are often already connected into a helping network (Keane et al. 2000). Lack of
professional experience in trauma, particularly from bushfires may reduce or delay access to
appropriate care (McFarlane 1984). Understanding the nature of grief can explain many
difficulties in undertaking recovery efforts (McFarlane and Raphael 1984).
Psychological first aid presents some significant challenges for first responders (Benyakar and
Collazo 2005). Traumatic events do not always lead to trauma, and identifying those who will go
on to develop longer term problems can be difficult (Marshall et al. 2007). There is a great
complexity of factors leading to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (McFarlane
2005). Symptoms vary considerably between individuals and over time (Ursano et al. 1994) and
may manifest in the longer term, particularly if people are exposed to the likelihood a repeated
events (Livanou et al. 2005; Lundin and Jansson 2007; McFarlane et al. 1997).
Better understanding of psychological aspects of disaster response has lead to a much better
understanding of how people react and how they can recover (Reser and Morrissey 2005; 2008).
In recent years there has been a growth in critical incident stress programs, particularly for agency
staff, such as firefighters. Debriefing (including critical incident stress debriefing) lacks empirical
support and has been found to increase the risk and duration of post-traumatic stress disorder
(Devilly and Cotton 2003, see also Coultman-Smith 2007 for a personal viewpoint on disaster
experience). Despite this, Critical Incident Stress debriefing is the most widespread option
following a disaster (Benyakar and Collazo 2005). It seems likely that this popularity stems more
from fears of litigation by employers for failing to provide treatment rather than the sound
principles of mental health care.
Research on firefighters’ preferences for treatment suggest that mandatory critical incident stress
debriefing may not cater adequately for individual needs. Most firefighters preferred informal
discussions within their peer group for most events, but expressed interest in all interventions as
the severity of the events increased (Jeannette and Scoboria 2008).
Debriefing may be less helpful that spontaneous, caring and altruistic reactions (Raphael and
Wooding 2004). The preference for structured and sometimes mandatory debriefing may reflect
and cater to the emotional needs of those providing the service (wanting to help, trying to correct
what is wrong, regaining structure and control) than it does for the people who have been directly
Post-traumatic stress is generally most effectively treated by behavioural interventions designed to
reduce the association of symptoms with the stimuli that elicit the symptoms. In the case of
military personnel, sudden loud noises might elicit a traumatic response. For fire victims, footage
of fires on television or smoke might elicit alarm. For earthquake survivors, ground movement or
unexpected vibrations might cause distress. Learning to dissociate the felt trauma from the stimuli
allows the sufferer to bring their symptoms under control, reducing emotional responses to
everyday events. For example, earthquake simulators have been successfully used to treat post-
traumatic stress disorder in earthquake survivors in Turkey (Basoglu et al. 2007). Psycho-
education has been found to enhance medication-based treatment of earthquake survivors
suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (Oflaz et al. 2008).
Given that the majority of people do not develop post-traumatic stress, early intervention needs
to focus on passive support and listening (McFarlane and Raphael 2009), rather than active
intervention, and a strong emphasis on social context (Gordon 1997; 2007). Benyakar and
Collazo (2005) stress that the most important factor in treating people in the event of a disaster is
to avoid casting them as victims. Most treatments focus on helping people regain a sense of
control over themselves and/or their environments, which is perhaps why cognitive-behavioural
models of treatment (including stress modulation and desensitisation) seem to be the most
Although Benyakar and Collazo (2005) recognise the importance of treating the ‘hidden
damaged’ as well as the obvious cases, they also recognise that many behaviours during a disaster
may be ‘bizarre, but normal’. Thus treatment is best delivered by presence, rather than on
demand, and with great sensitivity.
Gordon (1997) recognises the risks of doing too much in the early stages of a disaster, and notes
that many people have suggested that it is better to let normal social support mechanisms play
their role. Post-traumatic stress disorder only affects around 10–25% of the community impacted
by a disaster (although possibly more after a terrorist attack). Gordon (2007) calls for caution in
applying techniques developed for post-traumatic stress to other individuals who may be affected
differently (see Table 4 for a summary of helpful and hindering responses to trauma).
But Gordon also highlights the risks of not doing enough if someone does develop more serious
post-traumatic stress symptoms. He suggests that the key factors in ‘psychological first aid’ is to
promote consistency and regularity, maintaining as much as possible normal social and cultural
routines. Like Benyakar and Collazo (2005), Gordon sees specialist services as being most
effective merely by being present and trickling relevant information into the situation and
promoting attitudes most likely to advance resilience and recovery.
Active communication Passive communication
Organising Saying the same things
Cognitive work increasing
understanding or meaning
Reiterating or ruminating on
Revealing more, adding new
details, making new
Going over the same ground,
expressing emotion without
Sympathy—offering more of the
General positive emotions Exhibit negative emotions
Aiding control Indiscriminate unregulated
Table 4: Helpful and hindering approaches to support following
trauma (Gordon 2007)
Gordon (2007) outlines a number of strategies to help prevent some of the negative effects of
• Preventing debonding—Planning for a disaster prevents the worst of these social effects.
Communities that have planned together for an emergency (like community fireguard
groups) remain intact during and after the emergency as they have established patterns of
behaviour and communication processes that are relevant to the disaster. Following a
disaster it is helpful to allocate appropriate roles and tasks to help people re-establish
their place in the community and to make contact with those who have been
disconnected as soon as possible.
• Reducing fusion—Preserve pre-existing roles and integrate them into emerging needs.
Provide information. Encourage checking and validating, through informal and formal
processes. Promote emergent groups particularly those with inclusive, rather than
exclusive identities. Encourage community advocacy and self-efficacy.
• Anticipate cleavages—Identify differences before they become divisions and consolidate
information and involvement of all groups. Map pre-disaster cleavages and identify how
the disaster will affect it. Identify information gaps and initiate community consultation
• Mitigate cleavage planes—Promote facts, promote community cohesion and promote
self-management. (Gordon 2007)
The role of service agencies in promoting resilience and coping and recovery at the individual and
community levels is summarised in the final chapter of Gow and Paton 2008a (by the editors). A
failure to provide appropriate leadership during and after an emergency has been well-recognised
as adding to the impact of the disaster (Kapuchi and van Wart 2008).
Kapuchi and van Wart (2008) review the consequences of poor emergency services leadership on
natural disasters using case studies of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. They identify failures to plan
and prepare, failure to adapt and expand capacity, failure to restore communications rapidly,
inflexible decision-making, weak coordination and lack of goodwill as major contributors to the
While Benyakar and Collazo (2005) notes the inherent paradox in organisational training for
disaster, in that it is impossible to train for unforseen circumstances, Bartone (2004) argues
however, that resilience can also be trained or promoted through leadership and management
practices. Hardiness predicts leadership in military cadets. Hardy leaders create stronger group
cohesion. According to Bartone (2004), techniques for promoting hardiness are:
• Lead by example.
• Facilitate group sense-making of experiences.
• Seek out meaningful/challenging group tasks.
Daniels (2008) provides an overview of military training for resilience. Coping strategies by
emergency services volunteers are summarised in Gow et al. (2008) and by paramedics in
Shakespeare-Finch and Scully (2008). The importance of effective community leadership in
recovery is outlined in Wright and Barone (1994).
Crichton (2001) stresses the importance of what she calls non-technical skills in organisational
responses to disaster—particularly skills of co-ordination, communication, decision-making (by
teams or individuals), situation assessment and stress management. All of these skills, as much as
any specialised technical response to the situation, can have a major impact on the way in which
the incident is handled. Crichton argues for the use of Tactical Decision Games to build up
organisational skills in these areas. This is based on the observation that both experience and
training increase familiarity and certainty under different circumstances, improving people’s
responses and reducing their vulnerability to stress and stress-affected decisions. Training in non-
technical skills promotes adaptability and enhances judgements, while training in technical skills
reinforces expected procedures.
Arvai et al. (2006) noted that both the community and members of fire protection agencies tend
to overemphasise the uncontrollable elements of a fire (such as drought, wind, temperature,
climate) and underestimate the controllable elements of a fire (such as resources, communication
and detection). Whilst this may be accurate in individual cases, systematic underestimation of
controllable factors may be dangerous for future risk management planning.
Both psychological and physical preparation have a strong influence on how people are likely to
respond in the event of a fire. Bushfire survivors who had a plan and had undertaken preparation
frequently report not having time to panic, as they were too busy implementing their plan and
protecting their property. Bushfire survivors who were neither psychologically nor physically
prepared frequently report panic, indecision and fear—and frequently appear to make unsafe
decisions which put their lives and properties at risk.
If prepared individuals report less emotional stress during a fire and are more likely to make
decisions that reduce their risk of loss of property and life, then they would presumably be at less
risk of distress and trauma after the event. Thus both psychological and physical preparation in
and of themselves seem to be a potent protective measure against emotional stress both during
and after a fire.
The issue of explicit preparation for the psychological effects of a fire experience is more complex.
It could be argued that increasing people’s understanding of what a fire front will be like to
experience (heat, noise, smoke, darkness, embers, duration etc.) may enhance their ability to cope
with those events when they occur in reality. Putting aside, for the moment, the feasibility of
exposing people to extreme heat and smoke, particularly for an extended time, we must consider
whether it is helpful to elicit deep-set emotional responses to an emergency situation.
Individual responses to an emergency differ dramatically and it is impossible to simulate how any
individual will actually respond to a genuine disaster, compared to how they think they will
respond. An individual who adamantly declares that they could not or would not under any
circumstances perform particular actions may find themselves performing the same actions with
great speed and skill when their lives and the lives of others are threatened. On the other hand, a
confident, seemingly well-prepared person may, in the face of adversity, find themselves
overcome by fear and respond in a quite different way to the one they expected. Is it helpful (even
if it were possible) to expose individuals to these home truths prior to a disaster? Probably not. Is
it worth attempting to strengthen the confidence of the first party and shore up the weaknesses of
the second? Certainly.
There are many areas of CFA operations and community safety which substantially contribute to
psychological preparedness for bushfires. In particular, the nature of our volunteer fire brigades
within communities has significant repercussions across many levels of preparedness. More
directly, programs like Community Fireguard currently provide much of the basis for
psychological preparedness, without having been explicitly designed with that in mind.
However, there are many areas where an understanding of psychological preparedness points to
areas of expansion and future growth. Some of these will present significant challenges for the
future. For example it is clear that real fire training is likely to significantly improve people’s
ability to prepare and respond effectively to fire. And yet, even among volunteer fire fighters there
are restrictions on exposure to ‘hot burns’ (otherwise known as fires) for training purposes.
An increasing climate of litigation or fear of litigation promises to further impede practical
community safety measures to promote preparation, and particularly psychological preparation
for fires. However, litigation fears are impediments which need to be overcome, not used as a
barrier or excuse for inaction. Our legal system is fundamentally intended to promote
community safety. It would be an ironic perversion of law if the fear of litigation was allowed to
prevent us from keeping ourselves safe.
This review has overwhelming revealed the importance of normal social bonding and community
processes in promoting preparedness and recovery. Models of community engagement might be
further refined by allowing a greater flow of information and education up from the community
to the fire agencies. The CFA currently has an astonishingly wide basis of grass-roots connections
in the community through its Community Fireguard program and volunteer fire brigades, which
provides a unique opportunity to promote a genuine two-way model of engagement.
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e concept of psychological preparedness is rapidly gaining currency
amongst agencies involved in disaster response. is report seeks to clarify
what is meant by psychological preparedness in the context of bushres
and what implications the concept has for community safety programs.
e report examines how existing CFA programs impact on psychological
preparedness and identies approaches to further enhancing and strength-
ening community safety programs in the future by incorporating an
understanding of psychological issues.
Dr Danielle Clode was project ocer for the psychological preparedness
research project in Community Safety, Country Fire Authority (Victoria)
What is psychological preparedness and how does it aect
our response to bushres?