The importance of neighbours in emergencies

By Jamie Devenish, Manager of Emergency Management Planning at the Victorian SES

In 2018, members of three emergency management agencies: Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES), Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Red Cross, attended an inspiring presentation in Melbourne from visiting US researcher Dr Daniel Aldrich on the importance of social capital in disasters. Following the 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami that killed around 17,000 people, Dr Aldrich and his team examined the deaths and survivability factors along the affected Japanese coastline. Their findings noted that the pockets of community with a high degree of social capital and connections to those that lived around them, fared much better, both in surviving the Tsunami as well as for those that did survive in recovering from the disaster afterwards. There are some incredible stories of neighbours collecting known elderly, immobile or vulnerable people on their way out as the alerting sirens activated and community quickly sought higher ground.

After Dr Aldrich’s presentation, members of the three agencies discussed what we could do to try and create better neighbourly connections in Victorian communities. Neighbour Day is the perfect pre-existing campaign as the annual day of celebration of community. Combining Dr Aldrich’s post-disaster research with the existing Neighbour Day campaign, the three agencies have joined forces for Neighbour Day 2019 to form the ‘VICSES, CFA & Red Cross Neighbour Day Challenge.

For emergency service organisations, the campaign is built on the premise that proactive engagement with neighbours, leads to more enduring connections and higher social capital which results in better community outcomes before, during and after emergencies. In the Victorian emergency context, it might be a bushfire or a flood where those neighbourhood connections will be so important, or even a single house fire or fallen tree on a house during a storm. A neighbour simply informing those responding on arrival as to who lives in the affected property and where they might be, can be invaluable information which is not possible without a neighbourly connection.

So in 2019 a coordinated social media competition (the Neighbour Day Challenge) will encourage all members of the three agencies (around 80,000 volunteers and staff) to connect with their neighbours. By leveraging off an existing Red Cross partnership with PFD Foods, we’ve been able to offer some prizes as an incentive to our members to participate. A targeted evaluation of select member participants will help measure whether the single-day activity has led to any lasting connections with neighbours.