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Putting people and communities at the centre: a more humanistic approach to disaster response

By Steph Meyers, Damon Taylor and Chelsea D'Angona

The key theme of our 2023 State of the State report is that complexity, uncertainty, and disruption define the headwinds into which we must fly, and we need look no further than the weather-related events that our country has endured this year for evidence of this.

Climate change and extreme weather-related emergencies - be they local, regional or national - are here to stay. Organisations with a role in response or recovery are now having to adapt to a continuous and concurrent cycle of response and recovery. Of course, this has implications for the workforce and resource allocation, but the people and communities who are impacted must remain at the heart of any response.

How do we ensure, that in the critical minutes, hours, days and weeks following an emergency – when pressure and stakes are high – that our response remains people and community-centred?

Here are a few ideas:

1) Create a shared understanding of impacts to people and places: Having the best possible understanding of the situation enables a faster and more coordinated response. To do this, decision makers at all levels need access to data and information that is not only timely and accurate but shared across the various organisations involved in the response. A Common Operating Picture (COP) brings together multiple layers of data, including lenses of people, communities, and critical infrastructure through near or real time data feeds. A COP provides decision makers with a single source of the truth for timely and consistent decision making.

One critical data layer relates to people and communities. We know that some parts of our community are disproportionately impacted by disasters due to their increased vulnerability. This includes those who occupy high-density housing areas, Māori and Pasifika communities, and those living with disabilities. We also know that iwi and hapū can play a critical role in community response. When data layers like iwi boundaries and demographic information are built into the COP, response teams can quickly identify where additional or specialised support is required.

2) Take a trauma-informed approach: Being involved in a disaster is traumatic, often involving significant losses in terms of lives and property. We must remain sensitive to this and avoid re-traumatisation by having those impacted relive their experiences every time they engage with a different agency or organisation to understand and access the support they need. Smart tools, powered by AI and workflows, can be used to better connect people with the assistance they need, reducing burden and ensuring quicker and more equitable access to those who need it most.

3) Harness the power of community volunteers: Disasters often bring out the best in people, with communities coming together to support response and recovery efforts in times of need. This energy and willingness to help are valuable, and often locals are best placed to respond, but it does bring challenges and risks for those on the ground with official responsibility.

A more proactive approach to identifying, engaging, mobilising, and managing volunteers would enable better utilisation of this valuable part of the response workforce. In all disasters, volunteers will be present on the ground, whether they are existing groups or individuals, and they will not necessarily wait for direction before becoming involved. A proactive approach can ensure that volunteers are well-managed, tasked appropriately, and operating safely. This could include pre-prepared job descriptions for volunteers that can be promulgated in advance, the establishment of a national disaster volunteer database which records qualifications and levels of training, legal waivers, and online safety briefing videos.

4) Build a resilience capability into your organisation: Since COVID-19, we have seen an increase in specialised resilience capability dedicated to helping organisations anticipate, respond, and recover from unexpected disruption. While resilience leaders often find themselves with lean teams, as organisations face resource constraints requiring prioritisation towards shorter-term operational needs, it is a positive step having a voice of resilience represented at the leadership table to ensure it remains a focus.

Resilience leaders can be charged with establishing the resilience strategy and plans including the establishment of coordination patterns and protocols between responding organisations and impacted people and communities to ensure their needs are understood and that localised assistance can be provided quickly.

5) Don’t lose sight of critical BAU: Stopping something to mitigate an imminent risk, may have more severe consequences down the track. Know what’s mission critical for your organisation and the people you serve and prioritise it before people are pulled into a response. This knowledge will help you make choices about what to start, stop and continue when emergency response becomes all consuming.

Putting people and communities at the centre of our emergency readiness thinking and actions now will ensure that we are better equipped to respond to the next emergency quickly and in a way that supports our most vulnerable and optimises outcomes for those most impacted by the event.

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