Australia’s bushfire crisis underlines need to shift gears, from crisis management to strategic response

HMAS Adelaide bushfire rescue

The world has looked on in horror as huge tracts of Australia have been destroyed by flames this summer. Australian TV news started to pay serious attention in early November 2019. As shocking video footage of huge firestorms emerged, the world started to notice and become alarmed, as ash started falling on New Zealand, and smoke crossed the globe, fouling the skies in South America.

Australia’s Federal Government runs the Bureau of Meteorology, the agency tasked with providing weather and climate forecasts. BOM long range forecasts are essential to many state government agencies, because they help forecast demand for key resources such as electricity and water, and allow projections of agricultural productivity and outputs. The BOM had been forecasting the conditions that led to these recent fires since early 2019, so some forward planning was able to be carried out.

By May 2019, pre-emptive “hazard reduction” burns were blanketing Sydney in a thick pall of smoke, creating backlash and political heat. This relatively minor amount of smoke coincided with mass fish kills in drought impacted NSW rivers.

These outcomes were tangible and directly visible to ordinary Australians, and immediately became a lightning rod for political discontent, forcing the newly re-elected NSW State Government into damage control mode. Highly visible outcomes transformed “hazard reduction” burns and environmental water flows into political hot potatoes.

Coinciding with this, a major reshuffle of State Government agencies started in May 2019, implementing large cuts to most government agencies and service delivery programs, and major organisational changes. Fortunately, one of the few agencies to emerge relatively unscathed was the NSW Rural Fire Service.

As 2019 progressed, bushfire and drought related crises just kept impacting NSW communities. Eventually cascading to form a national mega-crisis of unprecedented proportions. Scale and public visibility have been the hallmarks, with a large proportion of Australia’s entire population now seeing direct impacts in their daily lives. Regional areas have dealt with fuel, food, electricity, and transport disruptions, while major cities have faced business disruptions caused by choking levels of smoke.

Australia’s reputation has been severely damaged, and is likely to be impacted for years to come. Media headlines around the world have focused on the dangerous levels of smoke blanketing our cities, the large-scale destruction of our wildlife, and the Australian Navy needing to carry out mass evacuations of tourists.

While very short-term management and planning horizons are clearly appropriate for emergency response situations, it is critically important for leaders to lift themselves out of a purely reactive stance. Disaster relief is critical, but large scale destruction of infrastructure and the economic unravelling of communities cannot be dealt with using a short term planning horizon.

In a crisis, people look for leadership. If you want the community to follow your lead, they need to be able to understand where you are heading, and how to work with you to address the issues at hand.

Even in the depths of a crisis, effective leaders are able to recognise that a portion of their planning and resources need to be allocated to the bigger picture. Strategy needs to be recalibrated to reflect the new reality. Community confidence must be rebuilt by clear communications and decisive actions.

The following practical steps can help leaders shift the dial from reactive to strategic response.

  1. Build a coaltion of the willing
  2. Revise your strategic plan, focusing on short and mid-term horizons
  3. Co-ordinate your response
  4. Ramp up community engagement

Start by looking beyond your immediate team or organisation. Find stakeholders and partners who can help. Open lines of communication. Ask for help. Look for ways to help other organisations. Share.

Once the makeup of your coalition of the willing becomes clearer, re-prioritise and re-allocate. Sharpen your focus. What is your new Business as Usual? What resources can you access? Can you narrow your portfolio of service delivery? Formulate revised action plans, timelines, and expected outcomes. Iterate.

Improve linkages with partners. Accelerate your speed to market. Don’t re-invent. Don’t try to deliver a total solution if you can partner. Specialise where needed.

Speak more plainly and frequently with the public, partners, and key stakeholders. Give people regular opportunities to contribute. Explain tough decisions. Set realistic expectations. Look beyond the short term, and build hope for a better tomorrow.