Communicating bushfire safety in Australia: the challenge for government of increasing community participation
Faculty of Education and Arts
School of Communication and Arts/Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts, Technology, Education and Communications
Bushfires are a major part of the Australian natural disaster landscape; causing severe property damage and loss of life. Since 2009 there have been four major bushfire events in Australia warranting government inquiry. The recommendations from such inquiries are intended to drive future policy and decision making, reflecting a commitment on behalf of authorities to learn from past events. For authorities, ensuring the successful communication of bushfire safety is the key to securing legitimacy, yet communication within the public sector is characterized by politics, legal constraints, media attention and public scrutiny. The perception of risk and the desire to promote an image of competence can inhibit innovation, particularly in relation to public sector internet communications. We should not assume that governments want greater community participation when there is both economic and political risk involved in doing so. Nevertheless, greater community participation in bushfire communications appears to be a key recommendation of the recent bushfire inquiries and which the public sector generally and fire and emergency services organizations specifically, are under some pressure to accommodate. Internet-based communications have a key role to play in filling the gap, but must balance community desire for participation with government requirements to be reliable and minimize risk. As part of preparations for a project which aims to provide greater community involvement in the LandgateFireWatchinternet map service, this article reviews the opportunities and threats inherent in government/community bushfire communication.