Schools provide vital link in emergency management

Strathewen Primary School students

29 March, 2017

Emergency management and planning extends far beyond the frontline.

Schools are often the centre of the community, not only physically but as a place where knowledge can begin and be passed on throughout households and beyond.

A school has so many links to the community through students, families and as a community hub.

Recognising this, schools are making a shift towards engaging children and young people to play a role in emergency management with the help of government departments and emergency management agencies and personnel.

The best practice is no longer simply telling them what they will do in an emergency, but involving them in the decision making and planning process.

An example of this is the work Strathewen Primary School (External link) and Anglesea Primary School (External link) has done on their Survive and Thrive Program.

The Survive and Thrive program, which first began as a partnership between Anglesea CFA and Anglesea Primary School, teaches students about fire behaviour and how to live in a high bushfire risk area.

The Pillowcase Project, a Red Cross initiative, is another disaster preparedness program being piloted in Australian schools. It is targeted at eight to 10 year olds, or grades three and four, to build their knowledge and capacity in disaster preparedness.

It was based on the experience of Hurricane Katrina in the US, where students used pillowcases to carry their most treasured possessions while evacuating a university campus. The American Red Cross took the concept of using a pillowcase as an emergency kit and the program quickly grew into an educational preparedness program and has been adapted and piloted in five other countries.

In Australian schools, Red Cross delivers a 60 minute presentation that includes a discussion on the importance of being prepared, an activity to demonstrate how to prepare your mind for the feelings and emotions that may arise before, during and after an emergency, as well as an art activity, decorating pillowcases that are personal emergency kits.

Over 700 children aged between eight and 10 participated in Pillowcase sessions across Victoria in term four last year – they were predominantly in the inner Loddon Mallee and Grampians areas as well as primary schools across the inner south and eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

Carmel Flynn, Executive Director of Emergency Management at the Department of Education and Training, explained that across the sector there has also been a focus on enhancing school’s safety by reducing and preventing risks and having in place a capability to respond to emergencies more effectively.

The Department is equally considering preparedness, response and recovery in an incident and emergency context.

Ms Flynn said the recent focus for the Department has been bushfire preparedness and mitigation.

The Victorian School Building Authority is currently undertaking audits of ‘Shelter in Place’ buildings for 200 government schools. $10 million has been allocated to complete the audits and any required works.  Whilst enhanced infrastructure protections are an important bushfire mitigation strategy, other equally important considerations are:

  • Policy
  • Training
  • Capability
  • Data and systems
  • Landscape

The Departments objective is sustainable improvements across all of these considerations to improve a school’s overall vulnerability to bushfire. 

Ms Flynn also highlighted a sector-wide network that had been formed to share and collaborate on initiatives and activities that will promote children and young people having a role in emergency management in their community. It is also a forum where current work is shared and ways to contribute or work together are explored.

The network, known as SAP Action A4, has representatives from all emergency services agencies, not for profits and departments that is chaired by the Department of Education and Training.

An example of the knowledge sharing through the network is a CFA-led pilot of a website that provided lesson plans for primary school students around disaster management. The pilot has been completed and is now in the evaluation phase.

Another project SAP Action A4 is looking into expanding is a pilot at Surf Coast Secondary College in Torquay being led by psychologist Sylvia Grey. Using the Heroic Imagination Project (External link) as a launching pad, the piloted curriculum aims to teach students that normal people can and do make a difference everyday and that they can be a part of this. SAP Action A4 is investigating this model as a way of linking with Disaster Resilient Education.

Save the Children has also been consulting with members of SAP Action A4 as they pilot an Emergency App prototype to be informed, tested and evaluated by Victorian students.

The pilot app is being specifically designed for the needs of children and their families to give them the information they need to prepare for emergencies and identify hazards.

“The aim of the app is to give a voice to children, and ensure they play a key role in preparing for emergencies,” said Emily Dunstan, Emergency Preparedness Project Coordinator at Save the Children.

“The app is not just about giving information but encouraging action, for example creating an emergency plan and identifying a meeting point.”

It is aimed at grade five and six students aged between 10 and 12 years, in response to the growing trend of digital media being a key source of information for children and the way they share information with their family.

The pilot will start with mapping important child-appropriate behaviours involved in preparing for emergencies and working with children to identify what they need in these situations. The roll out in schools began in term one and will continue through terms two and three.

“The more we work together, the more impact we can have,” said Ms Flynn.