03 Feb 2020
Business' role in disaster response needs to be planned
The Business Council of Australia is to be commended for its focus on long-term disaster assistance and preparedness.
BCA’s Community Building Initiative, supported by The Australian Financial Review, will focus on co-ordinating disaster support from the business community such as providing employment opportunities for volunteers and victims who have lost work as a result of the disasters, additional services for communities, reconstruction support and financial relief. And it will set up an Australian Volunteer Support Trust to be a permanent and ongoing fund to support the children of volunteers who have died fighting these fires and in future disasters.
Many companies have announced they are providing paid leave for emergency services volunteers. But it can do more to enhance its own resilience efforts and its assistance to the community, before, during and after a disaster.
The relationship between business and our disaster management organisations is ad-hoc. But in this new era of disasters we now need a partnership between business and our emergency authorities.
Disasters have a significant impact on business. Many businesses that close following a natural disaster either never reopen or close permanently within a few years. The federal government is talking with business groups about possible relief for businesses.
Central to business resilience is preparing regular risk assessments, developing and updating action plans and procedures to mitigate potential hazards and risks and integrating the plans into normal business operations through regular system tests and exercises.
When business activity resumes quickly, the scale and duration of a disaster’s consequences on the community, economy and environment are significantly reduced.
Business assistance to the community following disasters includes donation of goods and services, loan of equipment and staff to assist in the immediate response, supply of credit to other businesses to allow them to resume operating, supply of credit to customers, providing heavy lift equipment, the deployment of engineers to undertake damage assessments and sending reconstruction and building trades professionals.
Without government direction or emergency services co-ordination, business provides considerable assistance before a disaster. Before the cyclone season starts, for example, Woolworths distributes cyclone pallets to northern Australian stores containing essential items. In addition, as a cyclone materialises, they pre-position goods which can be rapidly brought into the impacted area in the days after the cyclone.
Many of our larger companies in logistics, food retailing and hardware run national operations and have supply chains which can co-ordinate and move vast quantities of food or other goods. Their resilience teams have extensive experience in certain aspects of disasters. The logistics expertise of these companies will be increasingly useful to our disaster response and recovery efforts.
While businesses make a significant contribution to disaster management, rarely do they have any involvement with our disaster management agencies or planning before a disaster.
This results in a lack of knowledge transfer from disaster management officials to the private sector about local vulnerabilities, such as the reliability of infrastructure under different threats. It results in business not always knowing who to contact for assistance or information, and how they can best contribute their resources to assisting the community.
Companies require some assurance concerning their legal responsibilities, such as duty of care and professional indemnity. They may be concerned about the impact of occupational health and safety requirements associated with sending staff to disaster areas or their degree of liability if an employee is injured undertaking heroic action. Good Samaritan laws may not offer protection to companies which donate equipment or goods to the disaster effort. Without their potential concerns being addressed some companies may be cautious in contributing.
Any lack of contribution by business means the community will be less well prepared, suffer more damage and take longer to recover. Delays in the speed of recovery for individual businesses following a disaster will result in increased unemployment and reduced economic activity.
What’s needed now is an agreed statement of principles on the involvement of business in disaster management endorsed by the federal government and all jurisdictions at the March meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.
The statement would make it clear that disaster management is most effective when business and emergency organisations work in partnership, meaning business is engaged in all phases of disaster management and business capabilities are integrated into our emergency arrangements.
All parties would recognise that business recovery aids community recovery, and consequently that business has a responsibility to enhance its resilience.
Business should be involved in the development of national disaster management systems by their inclusion in planning, training and project activities.
It would be useful if BCA’s Community Building Initiative not only focused on assisting with rebuilding efforts but developed a business-operated disaster network for the corporate sector to provide a national help desk for companies wanting to contribute in future disasters.
Our disaster organisations should develop standing arrangements with key businesses that have significant capability for major disasters. They could include building and construction, health, food and logistic companies.
It is now up to governments, our emergency management authorities and business to work together to leverage the power of the private sector to improve our disaster management arrangements and capabilities for the betterment of the Australian community.