This is the view of Dr Peter O’Meara, Professor of Rural and Regional Paramedicine at La Trobe University Bendigo, who recently published an academic paper on inter-agency cooperation by emergency services.
‘The paper does not deal with emergency services in Australia, but there are lessons for emergency services in any nation – particularly one like Australia, which has a high number of natural disasters,’ said Dr O’Meara.
Dr O’Meara cited a series of natural and man-made disasters, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2004 Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the 2002 siege by Chechen separatists at Theatre in Moscow as examples of how a nation’s emergency agencies succeeded or failed to work together.
‘This is an important question as, in the past 10 years, an estimated two billion people have been affected by disasters throughout the world, with 256 million people affected each year,’ said Dr O’Meara.
‘Those responsible for planning and coordinating responses to disasters need to be aware that organisational vulnerabilities can be exposed in an actual disaster.
‘The examples I cite emphasise the need for inter-agency cooperation. First responders must know each other, be familiar with each other’s’ operational structures and be clear on their respective responsibilities. Effort also needs to be put into fostering a spirit of cooperation.’
Dr O’Meara says that when trust is not fostered between organisations an emergency response can be hampered by poor communication and needless tensions that may emerge.
‘The response to disasters throughout the world illustrates examples of the very best and worst in trust between agencies.
‘The emergency services personnel who went in to the World Trade Centre were heroes, but it’s clear that traditional rivalries between various agencies complicated rescue efforts.
‘In contrast the response to the Pentagon attacks in Washington DC was seamless. That rescue operation worked because there was a clear Incident Command System and an absence of interagency rivalries.’
Dr O’Meara says that cooperation between emergency service personnel must be fostered at all levels if inter-agency collaboration is to work. He says that it is not just about planning and training together.
‘Actually the most valuable thing emergency service agencies can do is to get to know each other. It is the best way to build trust between people who may have different organisational and professional cultures and this is something that we do very well in Victoria.’
Dr O’Meara says that Victoria’s emergency response system allows for high degrees of flexibility.
‘Every disaster puts forward its own set of unique challenges. There is no one size fits all approach. Policy needs to reflect this. Otherwise you risk creating a secondary disaster.’
Dr O’Meara says Victorian authorities have long recognised the strengths of collaboration and flexibility at all levels of the various emergency response agencies.
‘It meant that, even though there was some surprise at how widespread last year’s floods were the immediate response to the disaster was seamless.’
Dr O’Meara’s paper, titled Approaches to Inter-Agency Communication at Natural or Other Disasters, is published in the winter 2012 edition of Domain3, the Official Publication of the National Association of Emergency Medical Service Educators.
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