We forget the lessons of past disasters at our own peril
In the context of the recent bushfires across Australia, the telling reflection that “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it” has particular importance.
There needs to be an effective response to this crisis that must be informed by the lessons learned from previous disasters. These lessons are frequently forgotten with the passage of time due to the infrequent occurrence of major fires. This leads to tragic consequences. This propensity to forget relates to how the human brain deals with traumatic stress. The scientific understanding of this amnesia can inform how past experience needs to be systematically addressed to counter this forgetting.
There are two sources of knowledge that are critical to consider at the present time. The least remembered is the collective testimony of survivors that demonstrates how extreme threat can disorganise rational behaviour. This disruptive impact of extreme stress has major implications for the nature of the warnings and advice that may be given to those at risk in these circumstances. The second source of information is the brutal collective statistics of destruction which tell us that similar fires have happened before. The 1983 Ash Wednesday was one of the most rigorously studied disaster in the international literature, at the time, and documented the long-term psychological cost to the volunteer firefighters. Despite this fact, it remains the case that mental programs for volunteer firefighters still do not reflect optimal evidence based practice. Is this an acknowledgement of the knowledge and costs to the volunteers who protect us from these fires but suffer injuries as a consequence these disasters? Equally there is a propensity to not optimally use past lessons in the services put in place to assist the mental health recovery of affected communities.
To put the current crisis in context, Australia has previously experienced bushfires that have been highly destructive in terms of life and property, even more than those which we most recently faced. Understanding the human elements of our behaviour and response to threat are critical concerns to understand and to develop rational policy and action. We need to better consider the psychological factors that contribute to poor threat appraisal both by decision-makers in authority, as well as individuals facing threats to themselves and their property that sometimes tragically leads to deaths. There is an underestimation of how chaotic decision making occurs in the face of unimaginable horror and threat. We do not want to face this as it makes us feel out of control.
Too readily, words such as unprecedented, unforeseeable and unimaginable are used to describe these events. This language means that accountability is minimised, and poor planning decisions are left unchallenged. Past lessons are not used. There are two recent examples in Australia's history. In 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, the majority of 173 deaths occurred when the strong south-westerly change turn the side of the fire burning from north to south into a much bigger fire burning to the east. Those responsible for managing a disaster did not warn those at risk of the predictable threat. This was not due to lack of knowledge as these were almost identical circumstances to the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires. The subsequent Royal Commission and the comments of the Victorian Premier did not sheet home the extent to which prior experience had been forgotten and not used. It was as if the Commission could not face the gravity of the error of judgement.
The recent successful damages claim for the 2011 Brisbane flood against the operators of the Wivenhoe Dam that was built specifically to control the flood risk in Brisbane as a consequence of the 1974 flood. This error of judgement similarly highlighted the same failure of decision-making despite the obvious impending threat that Brisbane faced on that day.
During the recent bushfire crisis, clear warnings were given to those in Gippsland to evacuate prior to the disaster which unfolded, leaving at least 3,000 people trapped in Mallacoota. The focus of the news reports that have followed has been on the evacuation of those trapped rather than asking the question as to why the warnings were not heeded or whether the warnings were not given in a manner that conveyed gravity of the predicted threat. Other examples, include the failure to evacuate the occupants of the Grenfell Tower in London by the fire authorities during the time the building was known to be on fire, and similarly the failure to evacuate the second tower of the World Trade Centre on the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks with tragic but well known consequences.
The psychological costs of disaster are as important to consider, as the environmental damage and property damage that bushfires cause. They are well documented. Equally the minimisation of risk and facing the reality of the past memory of similar events needs to primary focus for the development of rational policy for future of more effective strategies for national survival. Simple focus on important current issues such climate change can distract from learning from the past. The impact of threat on human decision making is a science that must be part of the current appraisal of a rational response to these fires but is seldom addressed in public discourse.
This propensity to forget in the short and long-term the consequences of disaster must be faced if we are to be better prepared for the future.
Professor (Alexander) Sandy McFarlane AO
Adelaide Medical School
Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences
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