Each summer in Australia, bushfires pose a significant threat to many Australian communities.
An important tool for preparing, reducing the risk of death, injury and property loss is a ‘bushfire survival plan’. Yet people who have been through fires report that when the fire is upon them, they are surprised, astonished or simply rendered unable to think clearly or implement their plans. They were not prepared for the overwhelming experience of the fire. Not only the threat and fear, but the unexpected intensity of sound, heat, smoke, the lack of visibility or ability to communicate and disorientation in familiar environments made it hard to think or make good decisions.
These problems are a result of the state of mind caused by extreme situations. Bushfire education and planning needs to address this in order to be truly effective. Current preparedness activities have not included information about how the actual experience of an emergency may affect the person’s capacity to enact even the best prepared plans. Community members who have been through fires have asked on many occasions “how to I make a plan when I don’t know what I am planning for?
Research indicates that threat and stress cause a state of heightened arousal which reduces the ability to function effectively, make sound decisions and carry out logical and effective actions. The main effects are to “specialise” people for simple physical survival and to this end, they become narrow in their attention, focus on details, lose overview and the ability to make and carry out strategic decisions.
Many people have found this unexpected reality caused them to disregard plans, intentions and decisions made without understanding the impact of the actual bushfire threat. They found themselves dithering, unable to shift focus and solve unexpected problems such as why their pump will not start. They then find it hard to think ahead, weigh the options and make good decisions; instead, they find themselves doing simple impulsive things that in a calmer state they know are ineffective, unwise or even dangerous.
A key factor in creating this state is not being familiar with the experience of fire and the state of high arousal. Any familiarity with the aroused state of mind helps people realise the need to manage their state and if they have been taught simple strategies they can preserve their effectiveness.
The real-life events of two families during the 7 February 2009, Victorian bushfires have assisted in the development of an immersive bushfire experience developed by Emergency Management Victoria (EMV).
Their first-hand accounts, identified a ‘gap’ between people’s expectation of bushfire and the reality. The gap of experience is a serious flaw in any plan, since it may lead to being unable to implement it.
Psychological or emotional preparedness bridges the gap between expectation and reality. It determines the extent to which people can anticipate what it would be like to be in a threatening situation, as well as their ability to effectively manage thoughts, emotions and behaviours and appropriately respond to danger.
The immersive bushfire experience, being trialled in a specially built and fitted out prototype trailer, introduces the experience of bushfire and heightened arousal under threat, by exposing people to what it would be like to be in a fire. It is guided by the stories of people who experienced bushfire. Some actively sought the opportunity to guide the design and delivery of the project, as a way of sharing that experience.
Dr Rob Gordon, a psychologist who has worked in disaster recovery for over 30 years has been a key adviser and partner in the design and development, and ensuring duty of care is maintained.
In addition, community leaders in Kinglake, Emerald and Warrandyte have worked alongside EMV and contributed their knowledge, skills, local connections and experience to the design, direction and evolution of the project.
Behind the current mobile prototype are four years of research, and progressive development of theory and design and community testing. This collaborative effort has brought together a multidisciplinary team of designers, producers, sound and lighting engineers, educators, psychologists and local Victorian community leaders.
A preliminary prototype of the immersive bushfire experience was developed and tested in 2015 and 2016 with members of the Kinglake and Emerald communities. Findings were used to progress the experience to its current stage of development, which comprises a full mobile sensory learning space staffed with facilitators trained to deliver the experience in a collaborative, safe and supportive way.
Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the experience was designed to reduce the gap between what people expect and plan to do in bushfire situations, and the reality which often negates these plans.
"It introduces the experience of fire and includes the strategies to manage emotions and keep them at a level where they do not interfere with effective decisions," Mr Lapsley said.
“If we can assist people with building their emotional preparedness before ever facing a bushfire, we know we can have a real effect on decision making under threat and reducing the impact and consequences of short and long term trauma associated with the loss of life and property.
"Emotional preparedness (in conjunction with physical preparedness) can help save lives and reduce trauma."
Many people discuss and develop a plan at their kitchen table looking over a horizon of trees, grasslands or the neighbour’s house.
“However this is not the environment they will be in when the plan needs to be put into action,” Mr Lapsley said.
“It will be windy, hot, dark, smoky, frightening and confusing.”
Dr Gordon said the immersive experience focuses on working through decision-making in stressful situations and mimics the visual, auditory and sensory impacts of a bushfire threat.
"It will show participants how their mind and body react differently to what they expect and want, and plans will be hard to implement in the heat of the moment," he said.
"But with familiarity and advice, they can anticipate and build arousal management into their plan and preserve their best abilities."
This experience replicates lessons learned from the many stories of what actually happens in a bushfire. It is designed to activate, augment and lead people toward additional information sources, community engagement programs (e.g CFA Community Fireguard) and inspire them to gather their own resources – all with a much better sense of what they are planning and preparing for
The Immersive Bushfire Experience will be tested in a number of closed rehearsals sessions in March and April 2018 in Emerald, Warrandyte and Kinglake.
We will also use evaluation and systems that have been adapted and tailored to test the effectiveness of this experience. Feedback and results from the rehearsals will inform the final program roll-out.