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FEATURE ARTICLE: VICTORIAN HOUSEHOLD PREPAREDNESS FOR EMERGENCIES
DEFINING AN EMERGENCY EVENT
An emergency event results from some natural or man-made phenomenon interacting with the environment and causing destruction or damage (ABS 2006). The range of emergency events include fires, floods, storms, spills and leaks of hazardous materials, and spread of disease (SCRGSP 2008). Depending on the impact and severity of these events, a response may be required from emergency services provided by organisations such as, in Victoria, the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFESB), the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Victoria State Emergency Service (SES). Victorian fire services responded to 27,384 fire incidents in 2006-07, which included 6,233 fires within or involving a building or structure and 10,008 landscape (bush and grass) fires (SCRGSP 2008). Victoria SES reported attending to 9,442 tasks related to floods and storms in 2006-07 (VICSES 2007).
An emergency event can sometimes be described as a 'disaster'. Defining an event as a disaster can be difficult and controversial, but a disaster could be defined as "an emergency event that is too large or complex for emergency management agencies to respond to effectively with resources available locally or regionally" (BTRE 2001). The impact of disasters (including their cost to the economy) can vary considerably from year to year. Based on an analysis of natural disasters (events with a total estimated cost (TEC) of $10 million or more) occurring between 1967 and 1999, the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (BTRE) estimates that natural disasters in Victoria cost an average of $93.6 million (in 1999 prices) per year. Over this period, Victoria generally faced small to medium events (TEC of between $10 million and $60 million), with the exception of events such as the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 and several large floods in the 1970s and in 1995. Floods (average annual cost of $38.5 million) have been the most costly natural disasters occurring in Victoria, however bushfires ($32.4 million) and severe storms ($22.8 million) are also costly events (BTRE 2001).
Fires (particularly structural fires) pose a high threat to life. There were 27 fire-related deaths recorded in Victoria in 2005, while 537 people were admitted to hospital with fire-related injuries in 2005-06 (SCRGSP 2008). Most fire fatalities occur in residential buildings while people are asleep and so are unable to smell smoke (Building Commission 2006).
Some significant disasters occurred in Victoria in 2006-07. Extensive fires lasting 69 days (a Victorian record) occurred throughout the Great Dividing Range in the eastern part of the state from early December 2006 until February 2007, burning approximately 1.2 million hectares (SCRGSP 2008; CFA 2007). There were nine state-wide Total Fire Ban days in 2006-07, compared with two in 2005-06. The CFA reported that, while no lives were lost as a direct result of fire activity in 2006-07, 51 dwellings, of which 21 were classified as primary residences, were destroyed, and stock, crops and natural assets were also heavily impacted (CFA 2007). In what Victoria SES described as "the first significant flood event for 9 years", up to 300 millimetres of rain fell over parts of Gippsland in June 2007, with several rivers reaching major flood levels. Significant flood damage resulted across a number of Gippsland communities. Some of the affected areas had also been burnt during the preceding summer's fires (VICSES 2007; SCRGSP 2008).
RECENT HOUSEHOLD EXPERIENCE OF EMERGENCIES
In October 2007, there were estimated to be just over 2 million households in Victoria. One in twelve Victorian households (8% or 150,900 households) had experienced a non-medical emergency at their current address in the previous two years. The most common type of emergency reported was storm, wind or hail (72,800 households, or 48% of households reporting an emergency in the previous two years). House fires (41,200 households), bushfires (25,500 households) and floods (16,000 households) were the other main types of emergencies reported. Some households reported having experienced more than one type of emergency in the previous two years. Interestingly, in 79% of households which had experienced floods in the previous two years the respondent did not perceive a risk from flooding, even after having recently experienced this event (the survey question on perception was asked before the survey questions on recent emergency experiences).
Emergency services organisations (for example, MFESB, CFA, SES, ambulance or police) were not contacted by the majority (76%) of Victorian households experiencing their most recent emergency. Bushfire was the only type of emergency where more households contacted emergency services than did not, with 65% of households most recently experiencing bushfire contacting emergency services.
People in households may be prompted by the experience of an emergency to make changes so that they are better prepared for a similar emergency in the future. Almost two-thirds (63%) of households who most recently experienced a flood had made changes, compared with 37% of households who most recently experienced storm, wind or hail. Households who most recently experienced a house fire or bushfire were relatively evenly split between those who made changes and those who did not.
HOUSEHOLD PERCEPTION OF RISK(a) AND RECENT(b) EMERGENCY EXPERIENCE, Victoria - October 2007
SELF-PERCEIVED RISK OF BUSHFIRE AND FLOODING
Across Victoria, 13% of households (264,800) had a self-perceived risk of bushfire and 6% (118,500) had a self-perceived risk of flooding (based on the perception of the respondent). A quarter of households in Balance of Victoria MSR (25%) self-perceived a risk of bushfire (147,900), compared with 8% of households in Melbourne MSR (116,900). Some parts of Melbourne MSR, however, had rates of self-perception equivalent to those in Balance of Victoria MSR, with 27% of households in Outer Eastern Melbourne SR (39,500) and 21% of households in Mornington Peninsula SR (21,600) perceiving a risk of bushfire.
PRESENCE OF SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
Households can prepare for the possibility of an emergency event in a variety of ways. Some of the precautions a household may have in place are preventative, while others could help determine how a household handles an emergency event if it happens. Households may be required by legislation to have some safety precautions in place, such as smoke alarms and safety switches. A variety of factors, such as proximity to risk and access to support from emergency management services, could influence whether a household has non-legislated precautions in place.
The survey asked households about the following precautions:
SMOKE ALARMS AND SAFETY SWITCHES
Since 1999, it has been mandatory for all Victorian homes to have a smoke alarm installed. It has also been compulsory for safety switches to be installed in new homes since 1991, and in older homes undergoing major renovations since 2001 (ESV 2006). Across Victoria, 97% of households had a smoke alarm or detector in October 2007, and 75% of households had an electrical safety switch or a circuit breaker (compared with 44% of households having a safety switch in October 1998). The vast majority (92%) of households with a safety switch or a circuit breaker in October 2007 had it located at the fuse or meter box. As the 2007 survey question did not separately distinguish between safety switches and circuit breakers, some households where one of these devices is installed may not have a device which is equivalent to the legislative requirement.
Between 1991-92 and 2006-07, there were 546,700 new dwelling units completed in Victoria (ABS 2008), which suggests that more than one-quarter of Victoria's 2.0 million households live in dwellings built since the legislative requirement for safety switches was introduced.
Following the introduction of the legislated requirements, the prevalence of smoke alarms and safety switches in dwellings is much higher, however comparisons can only be made for Melbourne MSR as the 1992 survey was not conducted across the whole of Victoria. In November 1992, 32% of households in Melbourne MSR had a smoke alarm and 14% had a safety switch (ABS 1999). By October 2007, the proportion of households in Melbourne MSR with a smoke alarm had risen to 97%, while 76% of Melbourne households had a safety switch or a circuit breaker.
HOUSEHOLDS WITH SELECTED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS, Melbourne Major Statistical Region
Absence of smoke alarms
While almost all Victorian households have a smoke alarm, there were 57,100 households (3%) in October 2007 which did not. In terms of numbers, these households were relatively evenly split between owner-occupiers (31,900) and renters (23,400), however a higher proportion of renter households (5%) than owner-occupiers (2%) did not have a smoke alarm. A lower prevalence of smoke alarms was particularly evident among households renting from an 'other' landlord (that is, not in public, community or co-operative housing or renting from a real estate agent), with 9% of these households (10,100) not having a smoke alarm installed.
About 5% of households where the respondent had lived at the address for 12 months or less (14,800) did not have a smoke alarm. Renters comprised 80% of these households.
Households where at least one household member would not be able to understand emergency instructions in English also had a lower prevalence of smoke alarms than other households - 8% of these households (4,000) did not have a smoke alarm, with most (82%) being renters.
Testing of smoke alarms
According to the Building Commission, smoke alarms must be properly maintained in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions to be effective. Maintenance includes the testing of alarms (in most cases by depressing a button on the outside of the alarm), the replacement of batteries and cleaning. Building surveyors are not required to check that dwelling owners maintain their smoke alarms (Building Commission 2006). In most Victorian households with smoke alarms, the alarms had been manually tested in the 12 months prior to October 2007 (85%). Of the other 15% of households with alarms, 84% considered the smoke alarms to be in working order. Smoke alarms should emit a warning sound when the battery needs replacement (Building Commission 2006), so respondents may have assumed that in the absence of a warning sound the alarm was working.
Households in Melbourne MSR were less likely than households in Balance of Victoria MSR to have smoke alarms that had been tested in the previous 12 months (83%, compared with 89%). Within Melbourne MSR, higher proportions of households with smoke alarms tested in the previous 12 months were found in Mornington Peninsula SR (91%) and Outer Eastern Melbourne SR (89%), while a lower proportion was found in Inner Melbourne SR (77%).
Owner-occupier households (87%) were more likely than renter households (78%) to have smoke alarms that had been tested in the previous 12 months. Among households where at least one household member would not be able to understand emergency instructions in English, only 66% had smoke alarms that had been tested in the previous 12 months. In 25% of households where the respondent had lived at the address for 12 months or less, the smoke alarms had not been tested (or the respondent did not know whether they had been tested) in that period.
Absence of safety switches
In October 2007, just over 500,000 Victorian households either did not have a safety switch or a circuit breaker (364,100) or did not know whether one was installed (139,600). Two-thirds (68%) of households without a safety switch or a circuit breaker were owner-occupiers, while 55% of households where the respondent did not know were renters. Almost one in four renter households (23%) did not have a safety switch or a circuit breaker, compared with 16% of owner-occupier households, while the respondent in renter households was four times more likely than in owner-occupier households not to know whether a safety switch or a circuit breaker was installed (16%, compared with 4%).
OTHER SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
This section examines some of the other precautions households had in place in October 2007, and highlights geographic differences within Victoria and differences based on particular household characteristics. Across Victoria:
In the remainder of this article, these precautions are described as 'selected safety precautions' when referred to as a group.
Compared with Balance of Victoria MSR, a lower proportion of households in Melbourne MSR had someone in the household with a recent first aid qualification (28%, compared with 33%) or a portable first aid kit (54%, compared with 60%).
HOUSEHOLDS WITH SELECTED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS, Major Statistical Regions - October 2007
Within Melbourne MSR, households in Inner Melbourne SR were less likely (compared with Melbourne MSR as a whole) to have in place most of the selected safety precautions, and in particular fire blankets, fire extinguishers, portable first aid kits and easily accessible emergency phone numbers. In contrast, households in Outer Eastern Melbourne SR were more likely (compared with Melbourne MSR as a whole) to most of the selected precautions in place, particularly written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plans, fire blankets, fire extinguishers and recent first aid qualifications. However, households in Outer Eastern Melbourne SR were much more likely to have a written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plan if it was perceived by the respondent that the household was at risk of bushfire than not (48%, compared with 19%).
HOUSEHOLDS WITH SELECTED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS, Selected regions - October 2007
Lone person households were generally less likely to have safety precautions in place. In October 2007, 16% of lone person households had a fire blanket, while 23% had a fire extinguisher, 15% had a recent first aid qualification, and 41% had a portable first aid kit. Almost one in four (24%) families with children aged 0-14 years had a written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plan, while 39% had someone in the household with a recent first aid qualification. As may be expected, families containing children aged 0-14 years were more likely to have a member who would need help evacuating (42%) than other household types.
HOUSEHOLDS WITH SELECTED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS, Household type - October 2007
Tenure and landlord type
Among renter households, there were differences in how prepared households were for an emergency. Compared to other renters, households in public, community or co-operative housing were less likely to have someone in the household with a recent first aid qualification (11% of these households) or a portable first aid kit (32%), but more likely to have easily accessible emergency phone numbers (73%). More than a quarter of these households (28%) contained a household member who would need help evacuating.
RENTER HOUSEHOLDS WITH SELECTED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS, Landlord type - October 2007
Overall, households who were renting were less likely than other households in October 2007 to have a written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plan (11% of renter households), a fire blanket (13%), a fire extinguisher (16%), a portable first aid kit (42%) or easily accessible emergency phone numbers (62%).
HOUSEHOLDS WITH SELECTED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS, Tenure type - October 2007
Inability to understand emergency instructions in English
In October 2007, there were 49,300 households in Victoria which contained at least one person who would not be able to understand emergency instructions in English (based on the perception of the respondent). While these households make up a very small proportion (2%) of Victorian households, their level of preparedness for emergencies is lower than that of other households, and 41% contained someone who would need help evacuating. Less than one in ten (8%) of these households had a fire blanket, 10% had a fire extinguisher, 15% had someone in the household with a recent first aid qualification, 41% had a portable first aid kit, and 56% had easily accessible emergency phone numbers.
Help required to evacuate
About one in six Victorian households (18%) contained at least one person who would need help evacuating (based on the perception of the respondent). There was some regional variation in the proportion of households containing someone who would need help, with 24% of households in North Eastern Melbourne SR having someone who would require help, compared with 9% of households in Inner Melbourne SR. In the main, the preparedness of these households was not significantly different to other households, except that households containing someone who would need help evacuating were more likely to have a written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plan than those which did not (20%, compared with 14%).
Moved to the address in the previous 12 months
In the October 2007 Household Preparedness for Emergencies survey, there were 288,600 households in Victoria (14%) where the respondent had lived at the address for 12 months or less. However, other members of the household may have lived at the address for a longer period of time than the respondent. This information was not collected in the survey, but an indication of household numbers can be gained from the 2006 Census of Population and Housing. The Census indicates that there were 227,100 Victorian households where all household members had moved to the address in the year prior to Census Night in 2006, and an additional 71,200 households where some, but not all, household members had moved to the address in the year prior.
Households where the respondent had lived at the address for 12 months or less prior to October 2007 were not as likely as other households to have a written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plan (8%), a fire blanket (12%), a fire extinguisher (18%), a portable first aid kit (47%) or easily accessible emergency phone numbers (54%).
According to the Report on Government Services 2008, almost 65,000 fire, ambulance and SES volunteers played a role in the provision of emergency services in Victoria in 2006-07, with the report noting that the input by volunteers is particularly important in rural and remote service provision (SCRGSP 2008). The CFA in Victoria is "one of the world’s largest volunteer-based emergency service organisations" (CFA 2007).
The Household Preparedness for Emergencies survey found that there were 66,700 households in Victoria in October 2007 which contained at least one member who currently volunteered with an emergency, safety or rescue organisation. As well as fire, ambulance and SES, volunteering in activities such as surf life saving, first aid and coastguard were in the scope of the survey. Most households containing a volunteer were located in Balance of Victoria MSR (43,200). About half of volunteer households (46%) considered that they were at risk of bushfire, including 59% of households which contained a CFA volunteer. One in six volunteer households (17%) had experienced a non-medical emergency in the previous two years.
Households containing volunteers were more likely to be better prepared for emergencies than other households, with 42% of these households having a written-down or recently rehearsed emergency plan, 41% having a fire blanket, 53% having a fire extinguisher, 62% having someone in the household with a recent first aid qualification, 76% having a portable first aid kit, and 82% having easily accessible emergency phone numbers.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 1999, Safety in the Home, Victoria, October 1998, cat. no. 4387.2 <www.abs.gov.au>
ABS 2006, Information Paper: Emergency Management Information Development Plan, Australia, 2006, cat. no. 1385.0 <www.abs.gov.au>
ABS 2008, Building Activity, Australia, June 2008, cat. no. 8752.0, Time Series Spreadsheet Table 39 <www.abs.gov.au>
Building Commission 2006, Self Contained Smoke Alarms, Practice Note 2006-27 <www.buildingcommission.com.au>
Bureau of Transport Economics (BTRE) 2001, Economic Costs of Natural Disasters in Australia, Report 103 <www.bitre.gov.au>
Country Fire Authority (CFA) 2007, Annual Report 2007 <www.cfa.vic.gov.au>
Energy Safe Victoria (ESV) 2006, Annual Report 2005-06 <www.esv.vic.gov.au>
SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2008, Report on Government Services 2008, Productivity Commission, Canberra <www.pc.gov.au>
Victoria State Emergency Service Authority (VICSES) 2007, Annual Report 2006 - 2007 <www.ses.vic.gov.au>
View underlying table as an Excel spreadsheet: 1367.2, Households With Selected Safety Precautions, By Statistical Region - October 2007 (file size 23kB).
View underlying table as an Excel spreadsheet: 1367.2, Households With Selected Safety Precautions, By Selected Household Circumstance - October 2007 (file size 24kB).
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