Building trust between communities and agencies

24 APRIL 2014

Mutual trust built between major fire events creates better communication between communities and fire management agencies, whereas mistrust creates active barriers according to an international study involving CSU  that included major bushfire events in Victoria.

Mutual trust built between major fire events creates better communication between communities and fire management agencies, whereas mistrust creates active barriers according to an international study that included major bushfire events in Victoria.

"Most people acknowledge the importance of trust between communities and fire management agencies, but few organisations explicitly examine the elements of trust," said Professor Allan Curtis, a leading social researcher with Charles Sturt University's (CSU) Institute for Land, Water and Society.

"Trust creates quicker and more positive responses, less doubt in decisions and allows small mistakes to be forgiven. Mistrust, however, slows responses, engenders poorer preparation and conspiracy theories, and results in time wasted on small problems instead of being spent addressing the big ones," he said. "A lack of trust can undermine efforts to prevent, contain and recover from bush fires."

Professor Curtis led other CSU researchers who joined collaborators in USA and Canada to develop a planning guide to help build trust between at-risk communities and fire management agencies.

The guide outlines actions and outcomes for practitioners to draw upon as they assess the key aspects of trustworthiness for their own settings, including  the central characteristics of ability, goodwill and integrity.

Professor Curtis is part of the international research team led by US fire management researcher Professor Bruce Shindler, from Oregon State University in the USA. The international team has drawn on the expertise of practitioners in Australia, Canada and the USA to provide working definitions and a framework for evaluating trust and trustworthiness.

Professor Shindler emphasised that their research showed an increasing number of agency personnel, interest groups, and residents of at-risk communities are coming together to consider wildfire problems and taking steps to solve them. "These efforts are most often characterised by trust-building at the local level that results in greater understanding, agreement on, and support for agency programs among all parties," he said.  

The guidelines have been published as a booklet titled Trust: A planning guide for wildfire agencies and practitioners, which will be presented publicly to the North East Victorian community and leaders of relevant agencies on Thursday 1 May.

The planning guide includes recent examples from the three countries to help describe the dynamics of trust in different situations. Professor Curtis and his team reflected on agency and community responses to the large Harrietville bushfire in North East Victoria in 2013.

The team observed, "... that trust was an issue inhibiting effective responses to the Harrietville fire. From the outset there were questions raised about the appropriateness of the lead agency's response to the fire. Some of the public queried the motives of agency staff and addressing these issues appeared to consume considerable time and effort and may have affected the morale of some fire fighters."  

Case studies based in Alberta, Canada, and Oregon, USA, were also used to develop the guidelines. The guidelines can be found hereThis is the first international project funded by the USA Joint Fire Science Program.

Professor Curtis has also completed research into the importance of trust for cotton farmers on ground water management in the Namoi Valley of northern NSW (ILWS Report 67), public trust in the wild-catch fishing industry in southern Australia, and natural resource management in Victorian catchments (ILWS Report 68).

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