Here are three ways engineers can help with bushfire recovery in the short, medium and long term.
The current bushfire crisis has affected the lives of nearly every Australian, and turned the world’s attention on our country.
As we take stock of what’s happened so far and think ahead to next steps, engineers have a vital role to play in making sure insights turn into actions, and actions turn into lasting change for the better.
To understand the roles engineers can play, Engineers Australia asked its members to submit feedback on areas that they see as priorities, as well as how to best put the skills of engineering professionals to work.
Overwhelmingly, the responses focused on how engineers are specialists with skills that lend themselves perfectly to recovery efforts, said Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans.
“The areas they have come up with are very aligned with the priorities that make sense from a very practical point of view, which is exactly what engineers talk about, as well as some of the areas around advocacy and policy,” Evans said.
If you’re looking to contribute resources or skills to relief and recovery efforts, here are three places to start that will have an impact now and into the future.
This one is obvious, and people from around the world have already opened their wallets to aid bushfire relief and recovery. Donations continue to pour in, and current estimates put the figure at approximately $500 million raised.
Companies with stakes in Australia’s engineering profession are also giving, including BHP, Rio Tinto, Qantas and Atlassian, which together donated a combined $5 million.
Many organisations are also taking donations of goods, though response agencies are saying cash donations are the best way to help.
And although it’s not technically a donation, shopping at businesses in areas affected by bushfires is a great way to help communities bounce back. For example, engineer and public figure Turia Pitt started the #SpendwithThem social media campaign to help small businesses in bushfire-affected communities promote themselves.
For a list of places where you can donate, click the button at the bottom of this page.
Engineers have a valuable set of skills that are in demand in times of crisis. Volunteering and offering pro-bono work for organisations and communities that need help can be an excellent way to contribute.
Engineers Without Borders has said that while it is not responding in the initial stages of the bushfire relief efforts, it will “stand ready to assist in rebuilding and providing appropriate assistance when and if required”. Engineers can express their interest in helping with these efforts when the time comes here.
Another organisation encouraging engineers to ‘put their hand up’ and pledge their time and skills is Engineers Make It Happen, run by Partner Housing. You can create a profile listing areas of expertise and technical skills, as well as provide information about willingness to travel. The platform also provides a service for individuals affected by bushfires to ask for engineering advice.
Evans said that in times like this it’s important to “ask the experts”, and many engineers who responded to the organisation’s call-out did so to offer their services and expertise pro bono for recovery efforts.
“People want to be part of making our communities resilient, but in the first instance offering that practical support for communities,” Evans said.
“Any of the physical infrastructure is important as well as just helping people and businesses just get back on their feet.”
She added that it’s important to listen to what relief and recovery agencies are asking for to make sure it’s a “push not pull”, and to use “existing structures, not duplicate, because that will dilute effort potentially and distract people who are already set up to deliver services”. However, as focus shifts from relief to recovery and rebuilding, she imagines engineers will take a more active role.
Another area Evans said members identified as important to bushfire response was long-term policy changes to build resilient systems and reduce fire risk. These efforts would be a long game, but conversations need to start happening now to prepare for the future.
“Members identified long-term policy changes so that we’ve got resilient systems as well. How do we safeguard critical infrastructure? How do we reduce fire risk? What are the things we can do around education and advocacy?” Evans said.
It’s looking likely that there will be a royal commission into this year’s bushfires to investigate the states and territories’ preparedness and the Federal Government’s response to the disaster.
Since 1939, there have been 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management, wrote Associate Professor of Fire Ecology and Management Kevin Tolhurst in a piece for The Conversation. This is the most of any disaster in Australia based on data from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission led to some changes and updates to building standards, and made recommendations for reducing the risk of fires. However, many recommendations from previous inquiries have not been implemented, including some outlined in the National Bushfire Management Policy Statement, which came out of the 2009 Royal Commission.
Tolhurst added that “good fire and land management needs to be done with long-term perspective”. Contributions by engineers and engineering organisations will be crucial to any long-term, comprehensive bushfire response and mitigation effort, as well as making sure recommendations are implemented and efforts are focused on areas that will have the most impact.
From previous reviews and inquiries, several themes emerged as areas to focus on, such as: fuel load reductions; better planning and land use; standards reform; employment, workforce education and training in bushfire management; and emergency management and communications.
These all intersect with engineering.
“We should always look at if we have the right standards in a whole range of areas,” Evans said. She suggested engineers can also participate in task forces and technical societies to participate in this discourse.
“Always think about the role of engineers as implementers, as people who can put in place the right systems and structures to make you successful in an efficient and effective way.”