Working as one before, during and after emergencies

The Victorian Council of Churches (VCC) is one of many examples of how Victoria is leading the way in emergency management reform and towards a shared goal as a sector to ‘work as one.’

The VCC Emergencies Ministry program is made up of chaplains and personal support volunteers who work to provide psychological first aid and emotional spiritual care to people affected by emergencies and disasters.

The Council has grown expediently in the past six years from 280 volunteers in 2009 to around 1800 today.

VCC State Manager Stuart Stuart attributed this to much of the work the Council had done following the 2009 bushfires to become a more coordinated and integrated organisation.

“We are certainly now better connected with government, agencies and the key players within the emergency management sector,” Stuart said.

“There were many learnings out of the 2009 fires and now that we are better integrated within Local and State Government arrangements, we have also seen growth in our capability and capacity.”

Under Part 7 of the Emergency Management Manual of Victoria, VCC is tasked to work in the space of relief and recovery by providing personal support, psychological first aid and emotional spiritual care.

Stuart said although all volunteers were attached with a faith, providing these services to affected individuals and communities, was not about religion.

“VCC volunteers operate by a code of conduct which says they are not there to preach or ‘convert’ anyone,” he said.

“They are there for the individual and the whole community; those of faith and those who do not hold to a religious belief.”

This involves the provision of information, practical assistance, emotional support, assessment of immediate needs and referral to other agencies and services required.

Stuart said VCC is able to “value add” to this through its ability to provide emotional spiritual care.

“We can provide faith-specific services when requested and we are able to do this through the diversity of our volunteers who are drawn from a variety of faith communities,” he said.

This includes the Jewish Christina Muslim Association of Australia, Islamic Council of Victoria, Buddhist Council of Victoria, Hindu Community Council of Victoria and Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria.

“VCC places a strong focus on religious diversity and above and beyond faith, we look for volunteers who are compassionate, mindful and non-judgemental,” Stuart said.

Alongside other relief agencies such as Red Cross, VCC can be activated through Municipal Emergency Management Plans. Red Cross and the VCC can be deployed at short notice to relief centres or incidents sites. Volunteers may also provide personal support in a variety of other settings including at outreach activities, community meetings and events.

Since its establishment in 1977, VCC has attended emergencies including the Gippsland floods, Anthrax outbreak in Shepparton, sieges in Doncaster and Mitcham, Port Arthur massacre, Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday bushfires and the MH17 and MH370 air disasters.

Outside of emergency and incident response, VCC also assists the Department of Premier and Cabinet in the coordination of State services of worship and in the organisation of public memorials and gatherings to support the recovery of affected communities.

Due to its affiliation with various faith organisations, VCC is also well connected with Victoria’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities. These existing relationships are vital for government, departments and agencies to be able to link in with and educate CALD communities who may be harder to reach through more traditional engagement.

As VCC has come to a point where it has built its capacity and capability and firmly established itself within the emergency management system, the Council is now having a national influence.

Stuart is working with the National Council of Churches Australia and his New South Wales counterpart to develop a set of National Guidelines for Disaster Chaplaincy services. This would include a set of standard operating guidelines, a standard code of conduct and basic training modules that could be run anywhere.

“The VCC Emergencies Ministry is a genuine growing entity and as we continue to expand and learn and build our capability and capacity we want to take the other states and territories along with us,” Stuart said.

“The Emergencies Ministry program is diverse in culture, gender, race and religion and while we are something unique within the sector, we are also part of the sector and share that same mission to support people and communities affected by emergencies and disasters.”

To learn more about the VCC Emergencies Ministry program or becoming a volunteer, see www.vcc.org.au/what-we-do/emergencies-ministry (External link)

Victorian Council of Churches quick facts:

– The Victorian Council of Churches (VCC) Emergencies Ministry program was established in 1977 as a result of a hail storm in the north west Victorian town of Redcliffs.

– Today, VCC has 1800 Chaplains and Personal Support volunteers who are supported by three full time office staff.

– 55 per cent of VCC volunteers are female and 45 per cent are male

– More than half of VCC members are aged 60 years and over while 35 per cent are aged between 50-59, 12 per cent between 40-49 and 3 per cent between 30-39.

– In 2014, VCC trained more than 700 people. This included 157 local government staff across 11 municipalities.

– In a commitment to become a genuine, multi-faith program and to make volunteering accessible to all cultures and religions, VCC has held training sessions in faith community centres. This has included at Buddhist and Islamic centres, temples and in mosques.

Multiculturalism in Victoria:

–26.2 per cent of Victorians were born overseas in more than 200 countries

– 67.7 per cent of Victorians follow 135 faiths

– The three dominant religions are Western Catholic, Anglican Church and Uniting Church

– Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism have all experienced significant growth rates

– Religious diversity is becoming more visible. There are now mosques in most regional cities (three in Shepparton), two Buddhist monasteries in Bendigo and Shepparton is also home to Victoria’s oldest Sikh gurdwara

– In Mildura, 10 per cent of the community speak a language other than English at home