Academic journal article Rural Society

Beyond the Call of Duty: The Integral Role of Rural Local Government in Emergency Management

Academic journal article Rural Society

Beyond the Call of Duty: The Integral Role of Rural Local Government in Emergency Management

Article excerpt


In Australia, the roles and responsibilities for emergency management are clearly outlined; constitutional arrangements stipulate that States and Territories have jurisdictional responsibility for emergency management. Each state and territory is founded in partnership, not only with the Commonwealth, but with all levels of government and business, industry and community (Australian Emergency Management Institute, 2014, pp. 3, 4). Local government is integral to local disaster mitigation and management although overall arrangements are defined by State and Territory law. Local government are considered a lead agency during emergencies and recovery periods (Australian Emergency Management Institute, 2011, p. 4). The responsibility placed on local government by state government during emergencies recognizes the strength of relationship between local government and the local community, and of the established understanding of local resources needed during an emergency (Australian Emergency Management Institute, 2014, pp. 6, 7). It is for similar reasons that local governments globally are assigned to integral roles in community disaster planning and response (Henstra, 2010).

Recently, devastating disasters in Australia have shifted emergency management policy and broadened frameworks to become more sustainable by focusing on preparation, mitigation, response and recovery (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012) as emphasized during the Victorian Floods Review (Comrie, 2011) established following severe flooding in Victoria in 2010 and 2011 causing far reaching damage, cost and community disruption (Comrie, 2011, p. 19). This report highlighted emergency management shortcomings, including a lack of overarching policy or framework and no centralized operational control which led to an uncoordinated approach to large scale emergencies, communication barriers, role confusion, lack of municipal resources and inadequate consideration of local knowledge (Comrie, 2011).

Comrie report recommendations focused on building stronger communities to enhance local response and disaster recovery, aligning closely with national and international disaster prevention strategies and policies for building community resilience through disaster preparedness, response and recovery including the Australian National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012), the Office of Resilience within the National Security Council in the United States, and the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005 by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) (Manyena, 2006; UNISDR, 2005). Thus, to build community resilience, an emergency management approach is required that is coordinated across all emergency response and recovery organizations with clear responsibilities and roles, flexible and adaptive, empowers the community, is well resourced, and enables information sharing using two-way communication throughout the community (Ainuddin & Routray, 2012; Cutter et al., 2008; Maclean, Cuthill, & Ross, 2014; Nicholls, 2012).

The role of local government within the context of disaster response is substantiative and its role will likely grow in response to the predicted effects of climate change and a greater number of extreme weather events (CSIRO, 2014). This research uses a case study to consolidate the current role and responsibilities of a rural local government following severe floods and landslides in the Grampians National Park, Australia in 2011. Data were collected from local residents and business owners from the affected communities and representatives from local government and emergency management organizations involved with the emergency response. This research examines the role of rural local government, consolidating data from different participant groups to establish a comprehensive understanding of local government's role and duties during the disaster and in recovery. Key factors for successfully managing natural disasters (Kusumasari, Alam, & Siddiqui, 2010) are considered to identify how they informed local governments' preparedness for future natural disasters.

Literature review and theory

A broader approach to disaster management (interchangeably termed "emergency management") inclusive of all levels of government and society has become accepted nationally and internationally. A shared responsibility for disaster now requires strong community involvement to establish community safety prior to an emergency. This draws upon the principles of community resilience now evident in the Australian National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (Comrie, 2011, p. 12). This Strategy supports the establishment of strong communities by drawing upon community strengths for longer term support for populations affected by disaster. This recognizes that resilient communities are better able to respond and recover from disaster.

The importance of community resilience has gained significant international attention in approaching disaster planning. The United Nations (see United Nations Plan of Action on Disaster Risk Reduction for Resilience) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) (see APEC High Level Policy Dialogue on Disaster Resiliency) are both seeking to improve disaster resilience for communities to improve long term risk reduction (Prosser & Peters, 2010). Consequently an approach that reinforces local knowledge and ownership for effective response and recovery and increased community resilience has gained universal adoption in Australia and internationally (Coles & Buckle, 2004; McCrea, Walton, & Leonard, 2014; Prosser & Peters, 2010; United Kingdom Cabinet Office, 2011).

A resilient community in the context of disasters is able to "tolerate - and overcome - damage, diminished productivity, and reduced quality of life from an extreme event without significant outside assistance" (Mileti, 1999, p. 4). This includes the capacity to reduce or avoid losses, contain the effects of disasters, and recover with minimal disruptions (Buckle, Mars, & Smale, 2000; Cutter et al., 2008; Manyena, 2006; Tierney & Bruneau, 2007). This requires the community to be closely connected to each other (and to government and support agencies), to be flexible and highly adaptive, sufficiently resourced to respond to disasters and aware of their risks. Resilient communities are involved in, and have ownership of emergency planning and response; they also have clear roles and responsibilities with transparent communication lines between community and emergency management (Ainuddin & Routray, 2012; Cutter et al., 2008; Nicholls, 2012). This requires the adoption of a collaborative approach to emergency management.

This is particularly important for rural local governments that often have limited resources (human and other) yet cover large geographical areas that are sparsely populated. One of the challenges for emergency management in rural areas is the timely and effective response to natural disasters. Thus, collaboration between community, other emergency response organizations and local government is critical to ensuring community safety and prompt recovery. Thus, it is vital for rural local government staff to build social networks within the community through their local sports clubs, school groups and volunteer emergency response organizations, to facilitate effective communication and collaboration (Lebel et al., 2006).

Until recently, emergency management in Australia has been considered by some (e.g. Eburn, 2014) as lacking a "whole of government" and "whole of community" approach (p. 154) with the role of local government currently subordinate to state authority and not empowered to lead the building of resilient communities. A collaborative and coordinated whole of government approach is crucial to emergency management that is effective and responsive (Kusumasari et al., 2010). Local governments can play a leadership role for the community, ensuring access to services required from other organizations, collaborating with other organizations for the community and sharing and gaining local knowledge from the community (Considine & Gigeure, 2008; Hambleton, 2008; Pillora & McKinlay, 2011). Thus, local leaders, particularly those in local government, are key to building resilience in rural communities (Gray & Sinclair, 2005).

Localism is being revived in Australia in regional development (Pillora & McKinlay, 2011), repositioning the traditional approach to public administration towards policy development that is deeply contextualized to and within the local community. Traditional approaches to public management have been heavily reliant on economic approaches to policy development, often at the expense or detriment of social policy and community reflection (Hess & Adams, 2005). Whereas, localism is characterized as strategies "aimed at devolving powers and resources away from central control and towards front-line managers, local democratic structures and local consumers and communities" (Stoker, 2005, p. 2). It enables the development of "trust, empathy, and social capital" and encourages civic renewal, showing community that they have the opportunity to influence their environment and support others (Stoker, 2005). In emergency management, a localism approach could contribute to building resilience, ensuring the community is prepared and understands what to do and expect during a natural disaster.

Localism requires a fresh approach, harnessing a broad range of skilled and multidisciplinary experts to engage with local community to establish new knowledge to address local issues (Bailey & Pill, 2015; Bradford, 2015; Hess & Adams, 2005). Eight features of this new approach have been identified in the UK and Canada to produce a more locally focused and inclusive governance model (Canadian Centre for Management Development [CCMD], 2000; UK Cabinet Office, 2001). They include being forward-looking (planning, forecasting and evaluation), as well as outward looking (awareness of broad government and administrative approaches), evidence based (broad, consider and review existing research), learning (sharing lessons learned), innovate (seek alternative ways to initiate and manage change), inclusion (establish community networks for consultation based upon communication, trust building and listening), joined up (identify and establish joint barriers and objectives based upon supportive partnerships) and review (ensure mechanisms for evaluation and feedback on policy are established) (Hess & Adams, 2005, p. 237). These features also contribute to building community resilience, and are important for emergency management.

Change within the Australian context is gaining momentum. A collaborative, community approach to emergency management has, for example, been endorsed by the State Government of Victoria in the Victorian Emergency Management Reform White Paper (2012). This approach places emphasis on community engagement to strengthen resilience in preparation and response to natural disaster (Coles & Buckle, 2004; Gordon, 2004). This reflects a "ground up", preventative approach in which knowledge at the community level is instrumental for the preparation, response and recovery to emergency events. This necessitates collaboration between services and community, including government, local business, essential services and not-for-profits (Victorian Government, Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2012, p. 4) and acknowledges the current role oflocal government in engaging with local communities, building resilience and disaster management planning (Victorian Government, Department of Premier and Cabinet, 2012, p. 15).

Indeed the recent natural disasters in Victoria (i.e. Black Saturday bushfires in 2009; 2011 floods) have affirmed local government's role as integral for emergency management planning (Municipal Association of Victoria [MAV], 2011) which is both complex and demanding:

Today, much of the focus of councils appears to be moving from response-based resource provision to a more complex community resilience, relief and recovery focus, which is where many councils feel they can best add value. This change carries greatly increased demands and requires a longer, protracted commitment from municipalities. (MAV, 2011, p. 7)

Local government is essential to addressing the broader issues associated with disasters, including vulnerabilities across the physical and economic realms (Kusumasari et al., 2010). Researchers have identified key factors that may enhance the local government response to disaster including the early and decisive preparation for disaster, having higher levels of government support local government to mitigate and respond to disaster, ensuring communities are fully engaged in all phases of a disaster, and when scientific information is shared with public administration (Col, 2007). Others (e.g. Henstra, 2010; Somers & Svara, 2009) have suggested that additional factors are important for local government when responding to emergencies, including initiating measures that reduce the impact of an emergency, establishing strategies for effective emergency response and implementing procedures for community recovery and restoration.

Thus for local governments to assume an effective and central role in emergency management, various key capabilities need to be present. These were defined by Cigler (2007) and further developed by Kusumasari et al. (2010) as institutional (clear roles, responsibilities and relationships between all levels of government), human resource (available staff with adequate training and knowledge), policy for effective implementation (policies for decision making, resource mobilization and engaging with outside organizations), financial (enough financial resourcing to support necessary activities), technical (information systems and communication networks) and leadership (effective leadership able to make quick and appropriate decisions) (Kusumasari et al., 2010). For rural local governments to be effective in their emergency management role each of these capabilities have to be present.

Despite the growing focus on local government in emergency management (Emergency Management Australia, 2014; Galloway, 2013; Kusumasari et al., 2010) its role, particularly in the rural community context, has been under researched. The current research examines the role and responsibilities of rural local government within the community in response to a natural disaster in the Grampians National Park, Victoria, Australia. This research builds knowledge about rural local government capabilities within the context of preparation, response and recovery. It examines how the learnings from this event can inform procedures and planning of local government for future disaster response within the community, particularly in rural areas where there can be considerable challenges to emergency response. The following questions frame this research: (1) What were the roles and responsibilities of local government during and after this disaster? (2) What were the perceptions of the role of local government from within the affected community? (3) What were the consolidated learnings of the role of local government into the future?

The Grampian National Park is located approximately 220 km west of Melbourne and has a geographical range of 168,110 ha. The significant landscape and natural heritage of the Park attracts many tourists. Four rural local government areas share their boundaries across the Park. Major townships include Halls Gap (population approximately 610) and Dunkeld (population approximately 750). Due to the climate and characteristics of the Grampians, natural disasters in the Park are common, with large bushfires in 2006, 2013 and January 2014. Thus, the local communities and local emergency response and recovery organizations have had extensive, recent experience in coordinating emergency response and recovery procedures. This means that they have already established the relationships and networks between emergency organizations and community, making the 2011 floods and landslides a good case study for understanding the critical role local government play in emergency response and recovery.

In January 2011, heavy rains across much of eastern Australia caused extensive flooding. The entire Northern Grampians Shire and the Grampians National Park experienced major flooding causing damage to private property, business, government and civic buildings. Extensive environmental damage occurred within the Park with torrential rains triggering over 200 landslides (Northern Grampians Shire Council, 2013) and causing widespread damage to roads, walking tracks and associated public infrastructure. A map of the Park and surrounding areas, including the 2011 landslides, is presented below (Reproduced from Ollerenshaw et al., 2014).

Research methods

A mixed-methods approach, using a convergent parallel design (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2011), was adopted with data collected using surveys, interviews and drawing upon information from secondary sources (i.e. reports and information documenting the disaster and subsequent recovery efforts).

A mixed-methods approach combining qualitative and quantitative methods enables a thorough understanding of the impacts of the landslides from various perspectives; that is from emergency response and recovery staff, businesses and community members. The advantages of mixed-methods research includes the capacity to address a large complex problem, using multiple methods provides a range of perspectives giving a more holistic understanding of the problem, and the mix of qualitative and quantitative data enables corroboration of findings (Bryman, 2006). However, it does have limitations, as it can be very resource intensive and requires a range of quantitative and qualitative skills, and the ability to integrate the differing data sets and provide a meaningful interpretation (Blyton & McNeil, 2015).

Twenty residents and 17 businesses or community organizations completed a survey about their insights into the social, environmental and economic impacts of the natural disaster; these outcomes however are not the focus of this article. Participants were asked their perceptions of the emergency response at the time of the event, and in recovery and were invited to identify what worked well and what could be improved or modified to enhance responses to future emergencies. The survey was informed by Fieldworx (2013), Blanchard, Jones-Alexander, Buckley, and Forneris (1996), Jia et al. (2010) and Helton, Head, and Kemp (2011). Representatives from key communities affected by the 2011 events (targeting, particularly, residents in the townships of Halls Gap and Dunkeld) were informed about the research via flyers, letters to residents, newspaper advertisements and other forms of media. Survey responses were collated and analysed using descriptive statistics, such as proportions of respondents for each response. This was the only analysis appropriate due to the low numbers of responses received.

Interviews were also conducted with staff from emergency response and recovery organizations (referred to as "emergency organisations") and from community, health and tourism organizations about the January 2011 emergency and recovery efforts. Twenty interviews across 15 local and state agencies were conducted with senior representatives from organizations involved in the response and recovery, including State Emergency Services (SES), local governments/councils, Victoria Police, Catchment Management Authority, local and state tourism organizations, Parks Victoria and the Department of Environment and Primary Industries. An interview schedule was developed to elicit information about the events of January 2011 and exploring the impact of floods and landslides from the organizational perspective by soliciting perceptions of the emergency response at the time of the event and in recovery, together with an assessment of costs to the community and/or their organization. Interview transcripts were thematically analysed (Saldana, 2012) to gain insights into the impact of the disaster at the time of the event and during recovery. To ensure greater reliability, the researchers independently prepared themes and structures and then cross referenced these against each other (Saldana, 2012).

Low levels of participation by community members was a limitation of this research. This was not unexpected given the small target demographic and the time - nearly two years - that had elapsed since this event. However, using a mixed-methods design (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2011) ensured the data collected provided valuable insights into the experiences and impacts of the landslides during response and recovery. This study was overseen by a project steering group and included representatives of the project partner organizations. Ethics approval for this research was obtained through Federation University Australia's Human Research Ethics Committee (Approval number: A13-095).


The surveys and interviews revealed that for both residents and emergency organizations the impact of the floods and landslides in January 2011 was significant, unexpected and challenging: We were aware of floods but we were not prepared for landslides (representative from an Emergency Response and Recovery Organisations, ERRO 11). While preparation for bushfires occurs annually it was clear from the comments received, (particularly those from the community) that the nature and scale of this disaster meant many were unprepared: It's hard to prepare for an event like this (Business/Community Member, BCM 10). Those emergency organizations that had implemented their emergency response plans early and considered themselves "well prepared" for natural disasters, including floods, stated that the sheer scale of the event was overwhelming: We are prepared 24 hours/7 days for these events but the size of the event was huge (ERRO 5); It was beyond a normal event. There was widespread damage throughout the Park (ERRO 1).

Role and responsibilities of local government before, during and after the natural disaster

The role of local government in the emergency response to the 2011 event was as a support organization for the SES - the named lead agency for floods in the Emergency Management Manual Victoria (EMMV) (as landslides were not included in the manual) (Emergency Management Victoria, 2014). Thus, council staff stated their priority was to ensure the safety of the community following the disaster: Our principal motive in the response phase was to ensure the community was safe. In recovery, Council's contribution was to ... help communities to get back on their feet (ERRO 11). This was reinforced by members of the community who commented that "the response from local council... was very helpful considering the vastness of the event" (Local resident; RES 24).

During the disaster and in the days following the duties of the local government were reported by various respondents as: opening relief centres ... providing sand for sandbagging and pumps for local business. Council worked to back up the emergency services on the ground (ERRO 6); Staff were involved in road closures and placing warning signs (ERRO 8). Another participant commented that: Local government has a strong role. They open up the municipal emergency coordination centre - they provide support with resources and forward planning for recovery (ERRO 5). A publication of stories about one community's recovery after this disaster further details the services and supports provided by their local council to the community, including: working with communities to repair the flood damage to community buildings; petitioning for state and federal funding to support flood recovery efforts; coordination of volunteer groups to assist with recovery efforts; advocating on behalf of community groups for government funding for repairs of facilities; assisting flood affected residents to claim financial and social support; working with businesses to assist with floods recovery; holding community events to support their recovery; collaborating with government agencies to reach people needing help; and repairing council assets (Northern Grampians Shire Council, 2012, p. 2).

Some staff from the emergency services and recovery organizations also commented on the breadth of the response from local government: Council truly did what they needed to do: They showed great dedication and effort over and above the call of duty (ERRO 5). Another commented that the role of local government is evidence that local government should take a leading role in the regional response during disaster: Local government did an excellent job but they need to be more integral to the incident management role (ERRO 7). Further, a number of factors were identified as enabling or hindering councils and other emergency organizations, in their role during the response and recovery. These included past experience with natural disasters, interagency cooperation and communication, roles of workers and their health and safety. These are discussed here.

The importance of past experience with natural disaster

Feedback indicated that the contributions made to the emergency by those with previous experience of natural disasters were highly valued. Experience in a professional capacity or through personal involvement in a natural disaster emergency (or both) were "assets" to the response efforts for both councils and other organizations. Council staffwas identified as having crucial insights about the event, and in some instances, enhanced the organizational response. Importantly, representatives from some emergency organizations commented that since the 2011 event, some staff members had moved jobs thus taking their valuable knowledge and experience with them. This was viewed by some as having a potential impact on their organization's ability to respond to future emergency events, as well as potentially impacting on interagency relations in the future: Levels of cooperation between agencies was excellent in the early days of response ... we can't take that for granted in future with personnel change having occurred in many agencies in the last 2.5 year period (ERRO 11).

Interagency cooperation and communication to the response

Many participants commented on the strength of interagency partnerships, the goodwill of staff, and the positive response to service coordination during the emergency response. One example of strong interagency coordination occurred between local government and the SES. The strength of the interagency relations was important to the level of cooperation between all agencies: The people involved were well known to each other and reasonably rehearsed in the things they do (ERRO 11). It should be noted that not all interagency communications were reported as working well for this event. Some concerns were raised about role blurring, loss of communication and interagency confusion. These concerns however were relatively isolated and therefore have not been explored in detail in this article. Feedback suggested that a possible cause for these difficulties was because landslides were not included in the EMMV. This meant that there was no guidance for an appropriate interagency response: Landslides aren 't recognized in the Emergency Manual so there is no dedicated response (ERRO 6).

Workers roles and health and safety

Staff from local government, and other emergency organizations, reflected on the pressures placed on staff following this disaster. Some reported that staff had undertaken two roles within their workplace during the event - their usual role, and an additional role that was assigned to them following the disaster. In some cases this was because organizations were short staffed, as the floods had occurred during the summer holidays when many staff were on leave: "the first 48 hours were chaotic as only one staff member (from a particular department within the organisation) was working due to the majority of the team being away on holidays" (ERRO 3). Some staff worked extended hours over a prolonged period during the initial response phase, and in many instances, well into recovery, placing a high level of pressure on these staff: "the flood event took a real toll on the staff member working at the time of the event" (ERRO 3).

Further, according to one participant, some staff members in their organizations were performing their work duties and then volunteering with the response effort after hours: "some staff were performing their work roles while also volunteering to assist with flood relief on their own time" (ERRO 15). Concerns were raised about the potential impact to health and safety for staff who were emotionally and physically exhausted. Such dedication to duty was viewed as a consequence of being embedded within their local rural communities. This was both an asset - and also a potential liability - to the emergency response itself.

The perceptions of the role of local government from the community

Responses from the community reveal that the support received from emergency organizations, including councils during this event were highly regarded. Residents commented on the strong communication, coordinated support and overall assistance during and after the event: We had immediate help from Parks Victoria and swift help from Council (BCM 9); Information was good from Council/Police/SES in short-term (BCM 13).

During the recovery phase, residents commented that other activities, facilitated largely by their council, had supported the rebuilding. These included community meetings and events, and the information received: Local Council kept businesses informed through community meetings and information (BCM 19). However, some comments suggest that the communication between emergency services and the community was occasionally limited in scope and intention: Information flow was strong however perhaps a greater willingness to listen to community opinion in relation to the scheduling, prioritizing of repair work would have served the business community better (BCM 8).

Reflections from the community acknowledged the outreach and support received from local government employees during the disaster: Council's ability to be there and assist (RES 7). This was despite some in the community having unrealistic expectations of what their local government could do. There was also some community frustration, reported by staff from emergency response organizations, about the length of time it took to open roads and reinstate various services and amenities: There was a lot of community concern about moving the response more quickly so tourism would not suffer but the extent of damage was major and could not be repaired quickly (ERRO 1). It was suggested however that community frustration was reduced when residents visited the flood and landslide sites and could see the size and scope of the damage: This first-hand knowledge of the damage was really helpful for the community to see the extent of the damage (ERRO 1).

What were the learnings about the role of local government?

An assessment of the capabilities of councils to respond to this natural disaster is presented in Table 1. This assessment suggests that there were strengths in institutional, policy, financial and leadership capabilities. However, there were also some weaknesses in policy, human resources and technical (particularly communication). This highlights areas for improvement for future natural disasters. These learnings, if addressed, will enhance the role that councils play in emergency management. They were that: (a) landslides are not in the EMMV, which caused issues with role clarity; (b) a better understanding of the risk of landslides is required, given the unexpected nature of this event; (c) during peak holiday times, staffing levels can be low causing remaining staff to take on more work during a disaster; (d) communication with the community needs to be clear and two way, and ideally from one lead organization, to prevent confusion; (e) local governments can play a central role in linking community with other emergency organizations through their connectedness with community; and (f) local government can play a role in building community resilience to natural disasters, through their support, and through their preparation, planning, response and recovery activities.

The local governments in the region have already implemented organizational changes based upon these learnings to improve their preparation, planning and response for future natural disasters. For one local government, a raft of new initiatives was rapidly implemented, including the development of new documents providing information about landslides. Interim guidelines were also developed to address the risk of landslide damage from future extreme rainfall while advice from geotechnical consultants about future landslide susceptibility was also sought and a Landslide Susceptibility Policy was subsequently implemented four months after the disaster occurred (Northern Grampians Shire Council, 2011).

Several additional projects were commissioned to inform planning for future disasters. This included a project to improve warning systems for landslides, an erosion mapping overlay assisted with planning proposals and the feasibility of raising houses in one township to reduce the impact of future flooding, and research was commissioned to examine the social, economic and environmental impacts of the natural disaster events of 2011, the findings having informed this article.

Some organizations have also implemented new staffing protocols to reduce potential gaps in staffing that were experienced during this event. For example, at least one council has implemented a staffing policy whereby three municipal emergency resource officers are listed on rotating rosters to ensure a dedicated emergency response staff member is available every day; 24 hours a day.

The need to build community and individual resilience was also raised as an area requiring greater attention: Community ownership of the localized risks. Community resilience (BCM 7); We need to establish a resilient tourism business that is prepared and can respond to a crisis and any event (representative from a Community/Health/Tourism Organisation; CHTO 16). Yet, at the time of conducting this research, actions for building resilience had not been implemented. Community members suggested three broad areas were needed to build resilience, including the need for stronger community leadership, ownership and responsibility, broadening and improving community communication, and greater collaboration between community and agencies for planning, preparation, response and recovery.

Discussion and conclusion

This case study has shown that rural councils play a critical role in the response and recovery of the January 2011 event in the Grampians. Through a localism approach (Bailey & Pill, 2015; Bradford, 2015; Hess & Adams, 2005; Stoker, 2005) councils were integral in providing services and support for communities during response and recovery phases by opening relief centres, road management, coordination of volunteers, working with communities to repair damage, gain state and federal funding for assistance, working with government agencies to reach people needing help, and holding community events to support recovery. Thus, they are integral in linking the community with other emergency organizations and levels of government to ensure communities could recover from the impact of natural disaster.

Essential to the response of local government and other agencies, and consistent with past research (Kusumasari et al., 2010) was the knowledge and experience of staff, particularly those with previous experience in natural disaster response and of the existing strong, interagency relationships. These critical factors contributed to a successful response in this region. Thus, staff knowledge of disaster management and development of strong interagency relationships should be a priority for local governments to ensure effective emergency management. Further, the strong connections with the community and the key agencies, particularly evident in rural communities where councils network within the community, and are often the hub of the community, also contributed to the effective response and recovery. Formalizing these collaborative approaches - as outlined in the Comrie report (2011) - would be beneficial.

Establishing new guidelines and protocols to respond to future threats of landslides have been implemented by some councils in the region, providing valuable directions for disaster preparedness and planning. This ensures past experience informs future responses and reflects many of the areas of focus that the international literature recommends addressing in advance of a disaster (e.g. Col, 2007; Henstra, 2010; Somers & Svara, 2009). In addition, councils are demonstrating their commitment and skills to learning and innovation (Hess & Adams, 2005) by transferring this knowledge to future disasters planning. The community's involvement in the development of these new guidelines and protocols demonstrates a collaborative approach to emergency management, adding to the community's resilience (Ainuddin & Routray, 2012; Cutter et al., 2008; Maclean et al., 2014). This will make the community safer and ensure the local response is consistent with recent recommendations for emergency management (Comrie, 2011; Cutter et al., 2008; National Emergency Management Committee, 2011).

Rural local governments are well placed through their established roles and commitment to community to further build community resilience to natural disaster. One way local governments, together with other emergency organizations can achieve this is by working with communities to develop "flood and landslide ready plans" for residents and businesses, similar to "Fire Ready Plans" that have been implemented in Victoria since the 2009 Black Saturday Fires. Not only will this build community resilience to floods and landslides, it will develop ownership and leadership before and during such events, ensuring improved whole-of-community preparation. However there are practical and financial considerations pertaining to extending responsibilities of local government, as identified by MAV (2011). For local governments in rural areas, considering the upfront investment of emergency management planning and staffing may be restricted for local governments with small populations, smaller budgets and fewer staff. Further petitioning of state and Commonwealth governments by peak organizations to support local government to finance these activities may be required.

In conclusion, this case study, although limited by a small response size, provides insights into the role of local government during emergency response and recovery, and identifies their capabilities. The findings suggest that local government is critical to the emergency response and recovery due to their embeddedness within their communities. Rural local government, particularly in those communities that have adopted localism in their approach to regional development are in the ideal position to centralize communications both during an emergency, and in preparation for future disasters. Formalizing this role across emergency responses would facilitate role clarity, ensuring clear communication and further developing the trust between the community and their council. This will build and strengthen the connections between council and the community, thus further enhancing community resilience. The challenges faced by these councils during this natural disaster event highlight areas for improvement for these and other rural councils to effectively perform their role in emergency management. To fully understand the role of councils in building community resilience further research is required. Longitudinal research following natural disaster would further contribute to an understanding of the development and maintenance of community resilience in rural and regional areas.


The authors acknowledge the support from all research partners, research participants and from colleagues A/Prof Peter Dahlhaus, A/Prof Jerry Courvisanos, A/Prof Helen Thompson and Jennifer Corbett from Federation University Australia, and Dr Helen Sheil and Anthony Miner.


The study was funded by the Natural Disaster Resilience Grant Scheme (Department of Justice Victoria) through a partnership with local councils and emergency organizations; project partner organizations (including emergency organizations) also provided financial and in-kind support.



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[Author Affiliation]

Alison Ollerenshaw*, Michelle Graymore and Kelsey McDonald

Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation, Federation University, Australia

*Corresponding author. Email:

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