Victorias Bushfire Response, whats next?

This was the first session of the Advocacy Sector Conversations forum held at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre on 11 February 2020.

Over view

Tanja Surwald, Manager, Policy and Programs, in the Emergency Management section at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) presents on their work and response in assisting people with disability in the affected areas, recovery efforts, and where to go to get help if needed.  The Department is interested to  hear from disability advocates about what additional support is needed on the ground.



Links to references mentioned in this session can be found at the end of this post.


Transcript & Audio


Welcome everybody to the first Advocacy Sector conversation for 2020.  My name is Melissa Hale and I’m the coordinator of the Disability Advocacy Resource Unit.  Thank you everyone for coming today.

Our forum today is being held on the traditional land of the Kulin Nation and I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners.  I would also like to pay my respect to their elders past and present and elders from communities who may be here with us today.  I would also like to welcome those of us who have joined online.

Just a few little housekeeping things before we start today’s forum.  The toilets are on either side of me.  The male toilets are to my right and the female to my left, accessible toilet also to my left.  Lunch will be at 12-1 pm and afternoon tea at 2-2.30 pm.

Really important today with question time make sure you wait for the microphone.  The reason for that is when there is a microphone the people on live stream can hear you.  Also, if you’re on live stream today there is a phone number on the screen, you can text to ask your questions and I will ask them on your behalf.

Let’s jump straight into it.  I would like to introduce Tania Surwald, the Manager of Policy and Programs at Emergency Management at the DHHS.  She will talk to us about Victoria’s bushfire response and what’s next.  Thank you.

Thank you very much Melissa and thank you all for having me here today.   Andrea Spriteri who was invited to talk here todays passes on her apologies.  We’re a little busy at the moment and she very much wanted to be here but hasn’t been able to make it.

Please be patient with me, it may well be that I can’t answer every question but we are very keen to hear all the questions and take anything we can’t answer today on notice back with us to the Department to respond to later.

First of all, just a little bit about the current situation and the work that we’ve been doing over the last month or six weeks.  There’s still three significant fires in Victoria and the amount of hectares that have been affected and communities that have been affected are enormous, 1.5 million plus.  The initial impact assessment data has told us that there are 405 residential and 653 non-residential structures but we know this number may well increase.

Secondary impact assessments, which involve building surveyors, environment health officers and others visiting each property within the fire scale to verify the impacts to the property.  Reestablishment payments, insurance and income tested, ongoing air quality monitoring is part of what we’re doing and it remains a concern.  I would say water quality as well.

The Victorian Bushfire Case Support Program, which provides a single point of contact for people who need help to understand and access supports available, we know that accessing supports knowing where to go to is really complex in a situation like this.  We’re trying to simplify that as much as possible.

Support coordinators provide that single point of contact for those who need it and work with local residents to link them to the supports that they need.  There’s a bit of information there on the case support program.  Some of you may be familiar with that after the Bunyip fire as at the start of last year and we’ve found this is an easier way for community members to find the things that they need.

We’re in the process now of a transition between relief and recovery.  We still have some relief activities.  We know some communities still require relief services such as resupply of food and essentials.  And there are some communities that are still cut off with road access or have limited access.

Mallacoota just went back on mains, power just recently so it’s still a very slow process in some areas but in other areas we’re moving to a recovery focus.

Part of that transition involves the establishment of Bushfire Recovery Victoria.  Bushfire Recovery Victoria and the Department are still focused on providing housing and accommodation.  The Community Recovery Committees are something that Bushfire Recovery Victoria will be leading and doing so at a pace that is comfortable for communities and follows their needs.

The clean-up has started and that is also being led by Bushfire Recovery Victoria, which is a new permanent and dedicated agency to recovery that is still being built up.  They’re still trying to establish their processes and their staffing.

Part of what they’re also doing is managing the Bushfire Appeal Fund for Victoria and I’ve put a link here to access if people want to have a look or contact them.  Melissa any of these links here we can provide to anyone today, thank you.

Separate to responding to the bushfires but related to the work that we’re doing is some work that my colleague Deb who’s here today is starting to put together.  We’re looking at increasing the resilience of people with disability in emergencies.  This project to co-design a new model for engaging people to undertake emergency planning and what a model like that might look like.

This is only just beginning so we will certainly be coming back and asking for advice and input all the way through.  I just wanted to flag that this is something that we’re looking to do this year.

Reviews and research, this comes up quite a bit the evidence base.  So much of what we do is based on beyond bushfires and all of the learnings from 2009 including the vulnerable peoples register which came out of the Royal Commission into the 2009 fires.

We are also doing a review on the policy around vulnerable persons and we’re also looking at where they’re at the experiences of the vulnerable persons register, which are in these fires and these events.  Make it still fit for purpose or how we could be considering vulnerability and responding to that.

We’re also waiting for papers that we believe are imminent to come out of Morwell.  We understand there will be a difference between the event at Morwell.  Every emergency event is different but we hope that the work that has happened in Morwell to map secondary effects of an emergency event might provide us with a model for considering that in this event.

We’ll also follow up with researchers including the group who have done beyond bushfires but we know there are other researchers like Claudia Mark who we will speak to about building that evidence base for how we support people in emergency events.  These are some of the other areas for information that we can send out, thank you Melissa.

Finally, what we’re really keen to do is have a discussion with you all and hear from you all.  We know that advocacy groups are actively supporting families out in North East and East Gippsland, in relief centres and moving into recovery support.  We want to hear from them and I’m looking at Adrian.  Also how we can better support the work that you’re doing.

We’re keen to understand better how the NDIA role in supporting clients during evacuations in Victoria, how it worked and if there is any outcomes from this or these experiences that we can take back and work with you on, improving.  We want to know about actions taken to ensure a service continuity for NDIA participants.

That is a very short catch up on our situation and I’m now keen to hear from you.

Thank you for a brief presentation.  I’m keen to get involved and to see where you’re headed particularly with ongoing consultation with people with disabilities because I think we’re a key cohort that’s getting missed in emergency situations.

I have three questions sorry.  I’m keen to hear more about information access in the bushfires.  There was not a lot of information given out across a variety of channels including social media; sometimes interpreters weren’t always visible on screen etc.

I’m also keen to hear about Bushfire Recovery Victoria and if there are people with disabilities on that and if they are key people leading this approach.  And if there’s any data being collected on the long-term health impacts of experiencing bushfires and emergencies and also the impacts of not having access to medications or supports in an emergency situation.

And where the responsibility lies – there seems to be some confusion whether it is with the State Government or whether participants should be looking to the NDIA.  As we know, NDIA doesn’t fund what ifs in your plans it only funds goals in your plans and obviously an emergency is a what if and not a goal.

I think there’s some confusion around who should be providing Victorians with disabilities with key supports in emergency situations and I think it should lie with the State Government.

I’ll start with the quickest answer I can give you which is about Bushfire Recovery Victoria.  At the moment, the only permanent staffing that we know of is the CEO.  Everyone at the moment is temporary and for three months while they establish themselves.  I’m not sure what the staffing make up is at this point because as far as I know they’re still recruiting all of the time.  For a lot of those staff it’s just three-month recruitment.

In terms of whether any staff of disability are involved in Bushfire Victoria Victoria or leading any of that work I can’t answer that.  What I would say is it’s changing quite rapidly the staffing profile.  Certainly that’s something I will bring back for Andrea to raise in the meetings that she has with Bushfire Recovery.  They’ve established a few committees and task forces to set them up and that will be raised.

Information access is a really good question and it’s something that you would think we would collectively be better at.  I said collectively because this seems to be – it’s such a crucial thing in an emergency and for myself I felt that we were getting better at it as a state.  The app that tells you about where things are and provides updates that is certainly a big step forward compared to where we were in 2009.

There was I think this has not been the first time that it’s been raised about a lack of accessible fact sheets or directions or information.  Again that is something we have dedicated communications resourcing and it was raised by Bushfire Recovery Victoria already.

What we’ve prepared in advance, there is some things we know is going to be applicable to every event and some things that can only be determined during an event because it’s only specific to that emergency and how we can be more prepared for our communications.

That is something that is certainly being discussed and on the agenda but it’s something else we can take back as well.  It would be really good to hear what kind of communications you feel were missing or what would’ve been helpful so we can ensure that’s part of our review and evaluation.

In terms of the long-term impacts, health impact, I think that’s something we’re all – I don’t believe we have a system that maps and measures that.  Certainly that is something that’s been raised by a lot of communities who are both affected by these bushfires, how about we go about measuring that.  That’s why we’re looking and waiting for the Morwell report because I think that’s one of the first events where they’re really invested in trying to determine what those secondary impacts were.

I know that California has done some very good work on that exactly on trying to map what the long-term health effects might be from these events and how we can quantify and capture those.  Certainly that is something that we’re interested in and at policy team level where we can work with researchers to start to put an approach for that together.

I will just as an aside say we would work with our health protection colleagues and public health colleagues to do that.  At the moment, they’re very focused on coronavirus.  That might be a conversation that we have a little later in the year.

Last of all, the confusion around who is responsible is really the person and what we’re trying to take back to the NDIA.   The medications one, this is a fraught space anyway with medications because PBS and community pharmacy, are Commonwealth funded programs.

The state did put in place a few things to try and ensure continuity of medication access but obviously this is an area that we can do much much better and that we have seen there are some clear gaps in planning and preparation.

Those are particularly conversations that we want to have with the NDIA and at a state level with all of our groups.  I can’t answer that today but it’s one of the most important ones to take back so thank you.

It’s Heidi from Office for Disability.  Mine was more of a comment around engaging advocacy organisations in some of the work that you’re doing.  I was going to advocate for including self-advocacy groups in that as well.

There are some really strong groups operating out of Gippsland that would have great insight into some of those informal social supports that are really valuable for people with cognitive disability.  I would be happy to get you some names and details but Adrian might have links there as well.

Great thank you.  I think the community recovery groups that Bushfire Recovery Victoria are going to support the establishment of, will go to communities and ask them to involve themselves and nominate.  We can certainly make that an explicit part of those conversations, thank you.

Good morning, my name is Adrian I work with Gippsland Disability Advocacy, my role is the Executive Officer.  Probably just more information sharing just for everyone’s benefit.

We’re the disability advocacy organisation funded to look after the Gippsland Region.  Just to put into context our funding and services agreement with the National Disability Advocacy Program is to work with 160 clients annually with the Office for Disability our funding and disability targets are to work with 20 clients, all up it’s 180.

We had some presence at the relief centre.  To put into context on one day alone we picked up again working with 19 new clients and over the course of the next two days we picked up 16 new clients.  It was in effect 35 new clients in three days.  You can really quickly see the challenges from the funding constraints when we’re working with and having these crises.

What I will say and some of the learnings that I think is really important is the local intelligence and having people who are close to the area and work in those areas is just pivotal in a crisis.

I will give you an example that’s well documented so I’m happy to share it.  There was a family of ten that we began working with.  This family I think seven children have disabilities in the family of ten.  They basically presented to one of the relief centres that we were at in Sale.

The benefit of being local and really narrowing our community was the fact that one of our advocates Sam was able to engage with the local Grammar School, Gippsland Grammar School in January at that time of year.

They’ve got boarding, rooming houses in there.  It was able to engage and advocate for there where we were able to get that particular family in the Grammar School.  They stayed there for close to the full month of January.

You could imagine that family that’s been displaced, with seven children was always going to be difficult.  I think it’s really imperative if we know our surrounds.  We worked across the three relief centres Bairnsdale, Sale and Morwell, which was down the line.  Essentially, what ended up occurring the Bairnsdale Relief Centre became too big and there was more relief centres open up down the highway towards Melbourne.

With regards to the NDIA what we found is they were surprisingly really of great benefit.  They dropped a lot of the red tape for people impacted and started to release some of the shackles and help people who were in need.

One very real issue that occurred was that particular office in Bairnsdale was closed for a number of days predominately because they had staff impacted.  I think they had six staff in the office and three or four were impacted themselves.  They were closed for a number of days, which was a bit of a problem but we got through that.

Just overwhelming, a real learning out of this for disability advocacy organisations and all of us in the sector really is to have strong vibrant and positive relationships with our peak bodies.  At times like this, our peak bodies have far greater capacity or influence to be able to talk to people within Government to make some immediate or substantial changes.

We were lucky we had really good support through VCOSS Victorian Council of Social Services.  We also had support through DANA Mary Mallet; she’s the CEO of Disability Advocacy Network Australia.  On the third day, so once we’ve picked up 19 clients and over the next two days 16 I literally started getting scared about how we were going to manage this.

The other thing is the unknown; we don’t know if we’re going to be there for the month of January or just a couple of days.  Those particular organisations have access to decision makers within Government that we probably just don’t have.  That was really important.  I think that’s just a key message is to have those really strong engagement with those communities.

The other thing I will just make a broad statement, I reckon we received probably ten to fifteen contacts from different organisations just saying hey you’re in Gippsland we’re thinking of you, we understand it must be really difficult at this point in time.  I just think the sector overwhelmingly just put their arms wrapped them around us to say if there is anything you guys need which was really lovely.

The other thing we did and I think it’s important was by having presence at the relief centre, just started to engage with the first port of call at the relief centre is Red Cross.  Anyone who presents there for the first time need to get ticked off by Red Cross and it’s just come to me now.

What was really important, as Red Cross were literally doing the tick off asking five or six questions were able to get them to adapt their intake form for want of a better word and just to say there is a disability advocate here, are any members of your family, do they have a disability and would you like to engage with a disability advocate if so literally yes yes and they walked them straight to us.

That’s something that Red Cross had to just adapt, a minor change and that was a positive.  There’s no use having disability advocates in a relief centre where nobody knows they’re there and the most important was the intake situation.

I’m happy to take any queries.

Can I just quickly acknowledge Adrian and your team.  Not only they all live in the Gippsland area, they were all probably impacted by the bushfires.  Right in the middle of it, they’re out in the centres helping people with disability.  Really thank you for everything you’ve done.


I’ve been involved in the disability movement for thirty years and you would’ve thought there would be some already plans for you know what I’m saying.

For our planning, I think what we find is that our planning is usually in response to an event we’ve just had.  Our plans usually seem to relate to what has happened previously.  There is always going to be something unknown in any new event.

I think what we are keen to know is how planning has changed since the NDIA got involved and certainly we’re looking at how we can support better planning because we don’t have the same line of sight to what planning happens in communities and what planning happens for clients through the NDIS.

It’s an area we want to strengthen absolutely.  Deb correct me if I’m wrong, we’re doing some work with Red Cross about how they can be doing more planning with clients and service users as well.

I’m Rosalie O’Neil and I live in the Shire of Wellington.  I did go when we had the meeting at the airport when we were talking about emergency evacuation and disabled people.  I wasn’t involved, my mum was really sick so I ended up going across to Perth on the 4th of January.

In Wellington, we have a fantastic council and we’d actually done a test drive of the evacuation centre two years prior.  We had a really good idea of what to do and what was needed.  The Red Cross were fantastic as an organisation but we discovered they needed training in a lot of the way they wanted to do the intake form was by handwriting.  We found that to be a very very slow process.

The Red Cross in our area were trained to work better with computers and we also learnt things about animals where they could go.  I think that’s really important that the councils do get on board and do do these scenarios where you do actually give it a try because we discovered things like everybody wanted access to paper and cords and to charge their phones.

There was a lot of bits and pieces that came out of it and our council Sheryl McCue she has been huge in this area.  She’s been advocating for ten years as a council staff member that you really need to practice.

Thank you.  We know councils all do things slightly differently.  I think hearing best practice examples are really helpful to take back.  I know that Bridgette you would meet with MAV and we meet with MAV also, the Municipal Association of Victoria, which is your local council peak body I think, to talk about some of these.

That is a terrific case study that would be wonderful to take back in discussions with them and say this is how it can work.  That is something we have noticed that places like Toowong where the Shire is very small and were affected by fires, that they struggled a lot themselves.

They’re there to provide support and information and advice but also many of those staff were affected by the fires themselves and they hadn’t had a lot of previous experience with some of these events either.

It’s something that we’re well aware having some further support and work for council members themselves.  That’s a great story.

I’m going to be a bit cheeky, and ask a question as me Melissa the deaf person rather than me the other person.  I live in the Yarra Valley and I’m on a bushfire zone.  At the back of our minds there is always a worry if there’s a bushfire what do we do blah, blah.

What worries me is those lines there, what is the NDIAs role in supporting people doing evacuations and that sort of stuff.  I would hate to think the NDIA has any role in this.  If something happened to me or my family and I need to get out and I need to evacuate and everything the idea of the NDIA having any involvement in this drives me up.  Anything to do with the NDIS at the moment is just overcomplicated.

If a person without a disability needs to get out and they get out and needs help for some reason like they’re asthmatic and need a asthma pump or something someone will get them an asthma puffer and all is good.

If I need to get out and my implant gets lost in the fire and I need an Auslan interpreter why can’t people just make that happen, why do they have to go through the NDIA to make sure my plan is activated so someone can get me a Auslan interpret?  Why a separate thing?

I just want to know why are the NDIA involved in an emergency evacuation type of thing, why not just emergency management.

They’re not involved in emergency evacuation it’s more the service continuity if there’s been an emergency evacuation.  I think we’re always trying to test and better understand what role the NDIA have in the planning and in supporting clients either before or after.

Certainly, in an emergency in an evacuation you would be relying on police on local councils, on emergency management sector not on the NDIA.  There is and I go back to the first question we had about the role of the NDIA and the State and whose responsible.

I think there is still that ongoing conversation to really be clear about what the responsibilities are and what the supports are and who can provide them best.  That would be what I would say Melissa and I live in a bushfire zone too so I absolutely hear what you’re saying.  You wouldn’t want to depend on the NDIA to evacuate you at all.

Final question.  I’m also really interested in continuing this conversation, keeping in touch.  I know when you were talking before you talked about the vulnerable persons register and whether that is appropriate for emergency situations.  My understanding is that there is only 1,000 Victorians with disabilities on there and that gets reviewed every six months.

I think there really needs to be another way of registering if you think you need support in an emergency and what that support would look like and how that support would be best provided to you and have additional funding waiting there if it needs to be made available to Victorians with disabilities.  That was more a comment than a question I think but I it needs to be highlighted.

I think that’s a consistent comment that we’re hearing as well.  I know certainly that what the VPO the vulnerable persons register doesn’t do well is capture people who may need assistance some of the time.  They might be fine if their neighbour is home or their family is home but when their family isn’t there, then they need assistance and how do we capture something that’s episodic in nature rather than a binary thing of all the time or not any of the time.

That is something that in the review that we’re doing this year we would like to come back and speak to people about how we might have something else or something that works better, more fit for purpose.

What I will do is send Melisa an email address that anyone can send any questions or comments or ideas or feedback back to that Deb and I monitor.  We can always come back to you and continue talking to you throughout the year as we progress this work if that would be helpful.

The PowerPoint is always available on our website anyway as well as the recording from this session as well.


Thank you.

Any last questions before we break early, or comments, stories, anything you want to contribute.


Thank you always very much for your time and attention and your input.  It’s been really helpful for us and we really hope to keep hearing from you and working with you all.  Thank you so much for all your work.

Thank you very much Tanya for taking the time to share what is happening and also to all of you for sharing your thoughts and stories as well.  We’re going to break a bit early.  Lunch won’t be ready until about 12 o’clock, you’ve got about 15 minutes to chat amongst yourselves and we’ll come back here at 1 o’clock for the next session.

Thank you everyone.


Download presentation Bushfire Case Support Program (off-site)Bushfire Appeal Fund (off-site)

Date published:
Tue 11th Feb, 2020