Every summer, Ben Pettingill and his family and friends head to Mallacoota, a small town on Victoria’s east coast. But last year’s visit turned into a nightmare when a huge bushfire hit on 31 December, causing the sky to turn an apocalyptic shade of red and triggering an outpouring of concern around the world.
In pitch-black darkness caused by bushfire smoke, Ben and his family headed out in a boat onto the lake. They remained there for hours, heads wrapped in towels to protect them from the smoke, putting out live embers blown about by gale-force winds.
Things were made harder by the fact Ben lost 98 per cent of his vision a decade ago because of a generic condition.
“It was very scary,” the 25-year-old told SBS News. “No one could see what was happening back onshore and reports were coming through of buildings being burnt to the ground. We weren’t sure what to expect [when we got back to shore].”
After returning, they found Mallacoota had lost power. The Australian Defence Force would soon arrive and take control of the town and a Navy ship would start evacuating people by sea.
But due to his low vision, Ben was deemed by the Navy to be unfit for evacuation by sea. Instead, he and his family would end up being flown out of Mallacoota – still smoky and without power – six days later.
Ben said all the emergency services who came to help were “absolutely fantastic” and “faultless”. But he was frustrated to be “handcuffed” to other people’s interpretations of crucial information that was relayed visually, such as the location of evacuation points and the direction the fire was travelling.
“I was fortunate that I was there with my wife and my family, but if I hadn’t the stress levels would have been much higher.”
Experiences of people with disability in emergency situations, like Ben’s, have led to a call from Vision Australia for a dedicated hotline for people with disability to be established.
The not-for-profit surveyed clients in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires and found one in three respondents couldn’t access the information they required to effectively manage themselves.
Ninety per cent believed a hotline would have benefited them greatly.
The Department of Social Services set up a coronavirus information hotline for people with disability earlier this year, and Vision Australia spokesperson Chris Edwards said similar services across Australia for other emergency situations would be very helpful.
Mr Edwards said mapped, pictorial and colour-coded representations of critical information can be difficult for people who are blind or low vision to navigate.
“What a hotline would do, is people who have got concerns, they can contact someone who understands the types of issues they might be facing and the access to information they need, and be able to guide them and support them in a better way,” he said.
Ben said his experience in Mallacoota would have been helped by something like a hotline.
“There were people coming around the town handing out maps with circled areas [designating] evacuation points. That’s completely inaccessible to me,” he said.
“But if there’s a number I can ring up and say, ‘where’s the evacuation point?’, ‘are there any services to pick people up and take them there?’ – questions there may have been information on, but I couldn’t access – that might not [happen again].”
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which handed down its report on the Black Summer bushfires in October, called for a national standard for information as well as an alert system that takes better account of people with disability.
“Events during the 2019-2020 bushfire season, and during other emergencies, have shown the limitations of the current technology and demonstrated that there is a need for an alert system that can better account for people with disability,” the commissioners wrote.
“All governments need to continue working together to ensure that the system is suitably funded and uses the best available technology to improve the communication of warnings across Australia, including to people with disability.”
‘Not even back of mind’
While research on the impact of emergencies on people with disability is limited, the World Health Organization and the United Nations have both noted people with disability are disproportionately at risk and overlooked in times of disaster.
“It’s really only been in the last decade where we’re starting to see some information coming out about what are the met and unmet needs of people with disabilities in disaster situations are,” said Michelle Villeneuve, an associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Disability Research and Policy.
“And even that is challenging because what we get is mostly a small number of case studies and small bits of information that has more of an advocacy bent, rather than an evidence base.”
She said the Black Summer bushfires and COVID-19 have highlighted problems in existing structures, including communication needs.
“We certainly have learned from these more recent experiences … how difficult it has been for people with disability to access accurate trusted information in formats that they can understand and use.”
Some submissions to the bushfire royal commission also expressed concern some evacuation centres were not always appropriately equipped for people with disability.
The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability also heard “no agency of the Australian government made any significant effort to consult with people with disability or their representative organisations” during the early stages of the pandemic.
“The failure to consult during the critical early period contributed to the Australian Government neglecting to develop policies specifically addressing the needs of people with disability and the challenges confronting them in an emergency unprecedented in modern times,” a report handed down last month read.
Ms Villeneuve said people with disability have not been part of conversations around emergency planning for too long.
“That’s the root of the challenge here for people with disability and emergencies – because they haven’t been at the table, their needs are literally not considered at all. It’s not front of mind – it’s not even back of mind.”
“Different people with different disabilities also need different forms of information in different ways.
“When we put all these challenges together, it’s pretty hard for the emergency services sector to know even where to begin to help.”
Mr Edwards said any new emergency information mechanism must involve people with a disability and advocacy groups from the start.
“We would call upon the government to implement changes, like a hotline, but at the same time, work with people with disability and disability groups to actually ensure it is going to meet their information needs and supports.”
What arrangements are currently in place?
State and territory governments are responsible for emergency communications, though the federal government’s Department of Home Affairs works with the states via its Emergency Management Australia division.
In response to questions about whether it might help facilitate the setup of a hotline, a Home Affairs spokesperson said the department, in collaboration with the states, was helping facilitate a review of emerging phone technologies and their efficacy for use in future warning systems.
“The review is intended to identify and trial technologies to improve the telephony-based dissemination of warnings across Australia, including to people with disability and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities,” they said.
The NSW Government said it was undertaking “a significant scope of work” to improve emergency awareness and support for people with disability, such as initiatives to help people with preparedness and identify gaps within existing protocols.
“The government is determined to continue using recent learnings to improve our approach to preparedness, response and recovery, and ensure we keep everyone in our community safer than ever before,” Resilience NSW executive director Marg Prendergast said.
Emergency Management Victoria said the 2020-21 state budget included $4 million over two years to enhance the VicEmergency app. “A key upgrade will see an expanded functionality, making emergency warnings information easily accessible for culturally and linguistically diverse communities and the visually impaired,” a spokesperson said.
A South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission spokesperson said it was improving disability access to its services through an inclusion plan. The state’s existing emergency hotlines are also all currently designed “to be socially inclusive of people living with disabilities, as well as people with cognitive, cultural and linguistic barriers”, they added.
The WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services said it already has a 24/7 emergency hotline available, though it is not specific to people with disability. “During emergencies, a call taker service is activated on the hotline which allows members of the public to speak to an operator and ask questions about the incident,” a spokesperson said.
People who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech impairment can also use the National Relay Service during times of emergency.
Each jurisdiction said it would engage with the disability community on any reforms.
Tasmania, Queensland, the Northern Territory and the ACT did not respond to a request for comment.
To report a fire or emergency call Triple Zero (000).