Why Resilience NSW was doomed from the start

Why Resilience NSW was doomed from the start

Some emergency services confirmed on Friday they were provided with core recommendations from the report relevant to them and will review those findings.

Former premier Gladys Berejiklian created the disaster management agency in response to the Black Summer bushfires, installing Fitzsimmons as its boss. It has since faced scrutiny over its role, budget and employee-related expenses amounting to $38.5 million for 245 staff.

But former fire chief and climate advocate Greg Mullins said Resilience NSW did not have the easiest start. After forming on May 1, 2020, the disaster agency was forced to begin operating immediately – coordinating recovery in the aftermath of the bushfires. Then it was forced to respond to major flooding events and a COVID-19 pandemic.

Mullins said when the disaster agency was first formed there had been many former emergency leaders who supported the move. “It was the first state government that had acknowledged out-of-scale disasters were happening because of climate change,” he said.

But he said the agency was tasked with a massive remit: to look after resilience and recovery. “They are both very difficult long-term jobs. Our concern is that dumping [the agency] after two years and blaming the boss could put us back behind the eight-ball as we get more and more consecutive disasters.”

NSW has battled two years of back-to-back disasters, including bushfires, a pandemic and floods.Credit:Nick Moir

Mullins said the new approach to resilience will need closer inspection once the report is publicly released, but many former emergency service commissioners will be prepared to be highly critical of its findings if they feel the approach does not do enough to prepare communities. But Mullins, like many others, still support Fitzsimmons and said he was the best person for the job.

“They better have a bloody good reason to lose the expertise of someone of his caliber… Good luck to them to find someone better, they won’t.”

Former ACT Emergency Services Authority commissioner Peter Dunn said the approach to resilience and recovery needed to be community-led rather than the centralized approach that had been favored by the government. He worried that recommendations to appoint a new police commissioner risked further centralising the disaster agency and would take control away from communities.

“We have gone in the exact wrong direction with the wrong lessons and prepared for the wrong disasters,” he said.

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Dunn suggested more funding was needed for communities to control how they would prepare and respond to natural disasters. The Productivity Commission estimated last year that 97 per cent of disaster funding is spent on recovery and clean-up, while only 3 per cent is spent on preparing communities, mitigating and resilience.

Lismore City Councillor Elly Bird said the community’s experience with Resilience NSW post-floods had been a mixed bag. She praised the efforts of officers on the ground who had done the best they could help the community, but she said that there had been frustrating experiences where bureaucracy had delayed urgent help.

For example, in the days following the floods, Bird said an organization offered 1000 volunteers to help with the clean-up and recovery efforts but Resilience NSW needed to grant permission. Despite her best efforts, Bird was unable to secure the necessary approvals. She said another model of adaptation, preparedness and resilience should be utilized.

“The model of external agencies coming into a community and telling that community what needs to happen is fundamentally flawed,” she said. “Even before the existence of Resilience NSW, the best approach in an emergency is a community lead recovery. But over many events, it doesn’t seem like the government understands or is able to enable an effective community lead response.”

“A dollar spent in the community is much more effective than a dollar poured into government. We need to resource communities because communities will first respond and always step up to support themselves and each other to recover.”

The inquiry’s findings will also recommend that responsibilities like emergency accommodation in evacuation centers should be assigned expertise to the Department of Communities and Justice, which has daily in dealing with people in crisis. Increased funding will be critical to supporting this, the report will advise.

The office which replaces Resilience NSW should instead focus on the response in the first 100 days after a disaster. Other recommendations in the report will include strategies to address the future management of flood-prone areas.

The report and the government’s response will be publicly released later this year.

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