• Tracey O'Neill

As Australia burns...

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

We are currently in the midst of the worst bush fire crisis Australia has ever seen. I sit here, constantly drawn to social media and television coverage, my heart breaking as I try to imagine what people in these areas must be going through as my country burns. I weep for my friends and fellow countrywomen and men, in some cases whole towns, who are reeling from the loss of lives, homes, business and livelihoods. I cry for the loss of wildlife and what this devastation means for the existence of our koalas and other native animals. I fear for our world and the damage we are doing to her through a pitiful response to climate change.

These bush fires across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have already burnt through more than 5.8 million hectares, killed more than 20 people and more than a billion animals, and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The smoke is impacting New Zealand and can be seen from space. And day after day, for more than three months, these fires have been fought by volunteers.

Along with probably every other Australian, or anyone who has visited our beautiful country, I wonder what I can do to help; I feel so powerless.

Then I realised - one thing I can do is use my expertise as a leader of volunteers to keep the pressure on our governments, businesses, organisations and communities to recognise the significant impact these fires have had, and will have, on volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations. I can lead and encourage conversations about whether our current volunteer-led response to bush fires is sustainable given the prediction that bush fire seasons will only become longer and more intense due to climate change.

Some things for Leaders of Volunteers to consider;

  • Engaging volunteers requires resources, strategic management and planning, training and the right personnel… all of which takes time. The only person I have so far seen make public comment on the necessity for people to prepare early for volunteer engagement during times of emergency and crisis, rather than rock up to help out during an emergency, is Brandon Jack, writer and ex-Sydney Swan football player. Why are leaders of volunteers not the ones spearheading this conversation? Why are we not commenting? Why do we not see messaging in our recruitment campaigns about signing up before an emergency if you think you'd like to help during one, and why aren’t we writing articles about such things as the impact of change on volunteer engagement? Those of us currently not in emergency management or community relief in effected areas should be using this opportunity to encourage people to think how they would like to contribute during times of emergency, and then help them plan how to do that now, rather than wait for an emergency to happen. Because we know just how much time we would be able to assign to recruitment when dealing with an emergency.

  • We are guided by ethical best practice to engage and support volunteers. One of our ethical principles is to ensure that volunteers are not out-of-pocket. But where is the line between being out-of-pocket, and giving a volunteer payment or compensation for things such as loss of earnings, or worse still, loss of their own home and livelihood because they were fighting fires as instructed at other people’s properties and not staying at home to defend their own? Leaders of volunteers need to start to have conversations with local MPs, businesses, our organisations and the wider community about sustainable volunteering given the current state of the world. Predictions are that bush fire frequency and intensity will only increase in Australia – how do we prepare now to ensure that organisations and governments are developing fair, effective and sustainable practices to continue to engage the number of volunteers we will need to provide these essential services? How do we support businesses to release trained volunteer fire fighters for extended periods and ensure that people have jobs to go back to when their volunteering is over, and that businesses don't suffer? Or is it time to demand a different system?

  • Following on from that, there have been calls from some people in government for volunteers fighting fires in rural areas to be paid. But would this mean it is no longer volunteering? Would we risk the engagement or retention of volunteers for whom this role motivates them because of the inherent nature of it being a volunteer role? An article was written by Caroline Barro highlighting arguments against paying rural fire fighters from current and former leaders from New South Wales Fire and Rescue and NSW Volunteer Fire Fighters Association. The only place I have seen leaders of volunteers engage in a conversation about this is on a Facebook post by Andy Fryar – OZVPM. However this is exactly the kind of topic leaders of volunteers should be writing and talking about. And not just amongst ourselves, but publicly, so people can learn from our expertise.

  • Much has been said in the media, and by volunteer fire fighters themselves and their families on social media, about how under-resourced some of our volunteer fire brigades have been during this crisis. From not having the best fire protection masks to protect them from smoke and cancer-causing carcinogens, to towns not having enough trucks to assist in defending property, to volunteer fire fighters only having one fire protective uniform and having to wear it dirty and smelly day after day after day. This is our chance to hit home our message that volunteering is not free. And that volunteers need to be as well-resourced, as well as ensured a safe (as possible) workplace through the provision of Personal Protective Equipment and other required equipment, as any paid person doing a job. The definition of a volunteer is not unprofessional and unskilled. And we need to insist they are resourced appropriately to do their job.

  • In the last week thousands of Australian's across the country have done the only thing they feel they can to support their fellow Aussies – they have donated cash and “stuff.” Many of us in volunteer management, and in the humanitarian and community relief sectors, know that, in times of crisis and trauma, dealing with truckloads of “stuff” is distracting, disempowering and demoralising. Thousands of tons of non-perishable food, new and second hand clothing and toys and books and toiletries and pet food, has been delivered to communities who are trying their hardest to help their neighbours. Those in fire affected areas are not able to get to their homes, do not have power, and many do not have homes in which to store new possessions. They are in relief centres, staying in tents or on the floor of halls and schools and churches. There are two issues that arise; 1) the disempowerment of individuals and communities by forcing what we think they need onto them, instead of allowing them to determine this themselves, and 2) the management, storage and sorting of mountains of items that often, cannot and will not be used, which leads to under-resourced communities needing to find ways to get rid of this “stuff” when the rest of the world has moved onto the next crisis elsewhere. We must use our expertise and voices to implore those feeling helpless to donate cash, or wait to be asked for specific donations. We only contribute to the disempowerment of communities when we imply "here, have my old, slightly stained sweat shirt I no longer wear to keep you warm,” or “I hope you feel loved in this item of clothing that I once thought looked great on me, I hope it looks as good on you." While this may sound harsh, some of these people have lost everything. We aren’t aware of preferences, allergies, medical issues, priorities and other things that would impact on people’s personal decisions about the items they need. And surely, after what they’ve been through, the least they deserve is to be handed cash or vouchers to immediately purchase those things that they, themselves determine are priorities.

  • As I write this blog piece, one week on from the start of the dramatic increase in fire activity across Australia, if you search #AustralianFires and #Volunteers on Twitter you get 31 results. Search #AustralianFires and #Volunteer and you get only 13. We know that activism is an important volunteer activity. We know that united voices ensure messages are louder, clearer and heard more broadly. If leaders of volunteers are to impact the conversations to come, about sustainable volunteering, about effective emergency volunteer management, even about the climate crisis, we need to use our time now to ensure we are linking volunteers to all of our conversations, even if all we do is add is #Volunteer to every post we write about the bush fires so it remains in people's minds that they are at the heart of this devastation. Because they are the most central players to this whole event, and we cannot allow them to be forgotten.

​​Susan J. Ellis, grandmother of volunteering, Jayne Cravens, DJ Cronin and Rob Jackson have all been telling us for decades that leaders of volunteers need to find our voices, rock the boat, and stop being so bloody nice. It is time for us to stand up and share our expertise, to demand that we are included in conversations about the sustainability of volunteering and the impact of global issues on volunteer engagement. We need to take our seat at the table and not wait to be invited.

Over the coming weeks I would like to see more posts on social media platforms, more articles in publications, and more evidence of lobbying our governments for change by leaders of volunteers everywhere. Tackling the issues that have arisen about volunteerism and volunteer engagement during this bush fire emergency is not only the responsibility of those in the rural fire services, or wildlife, humanitarian and community relief organisations… it is the responsibility of each of us to be the voice of our volunteers and our sector, and to lead the conversations that must occur to ensure sustainable, inclusive, effective and world changing volunteer engagement into the future. I hope to see you out there!

#LoVols #VolunteerEngagement #VolMgmt #AustralianFires

Photo credit: David Gray (AAP)

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