Emergency plans give more attention to animals than children, research shows

Rafael Benites

In the shared bathrooms of a Mallacoota bushfire evacuation centre, Red Cross emergency services volunteer Pam Halnon found a mother struggling to sanitise baby bottles with cold tap water. 

Despite the significant risk of bacterial infection, the mother said she could not see any other option given the situation.

“It made me realise, ‘Oh my goodness, this isn’t a good thing,'” Ms Halnon said.

“As a mother and a grandmother, [I knew] it was just gastro waiting to happen — and that was just not another thing that we needed at that point in time.”

This issue is not isolated to the devastating Black Summer bushfires of 2019/20.

Ms Halnon said scenarios like this were common across Australia, and research highlighted a shortfall in emergency preparedness and planning for parents with young children.

Evacuees from Mallacoota board MV Sycamore on January 3, 2020.(Supplied: Department of Defence)

‘Better planning for animals’

In 2013, a Save the Children Australia audit concluded that children suffered from benign neglect in emergency planning, with their needs not routinely and systematically considered.

Ms Halnon said on top of insufficient infrastructure at evacuation centres, information aimed at parents was also lacking.

“There was information for how to care for your dog … information on tank water … information about asbestos, but none of it was geared towards families with young children,” she said.

“There was nothing that told families how to get through the next week or two with their young families.”

Western Sydney University School of Nursing and Midwifery adjunct associate professor Karleen Gribble said Australia was falling behind.

“I decided I’d do my own audit … and was able to look at all our state and territory and our national plans and guidance and show that we really, truly don’t have planning for children,” she said.

“In fact, we’ve got much, much better planning for animals than what we do for kids.”

A woman with long, wavy blonde hair stands outside, smiling.
Karleen Gribble hopes uncovering the shortfalls of emergency planning will lead to the creation of better models.(Supplied: Karleen Gribble)

Agreement ignored?

A 2019 study conducted by Dr Gribble showed that across national, state, and territory planning and guidance, the words “animal”, “animals”, “pet” and “pets” were used on more than 2,300 occasions, while the words infant, infants, baby, and babies were used 124 times.

Dr Gribble said as a member of the World Health Assembly, Australia had agreed to international plans that required sufficient emergency planning for infants and young children.

“In 2010 the World Health Assembly voted to endorse a particular set of planning … and said countries needed to develop planning along the lines of this guidance,” she said.

“Australia hasn’t done it.”

Dr Gribble said the reason emergency preparedness planning for young children had been overlooked came down to two factors — that children were already considered vulnerable and were the responsibility of their parents, and that emergency services were predominantly run by men.

“It’s assumed that parents will look after their children and that’s 100 per cent correct, but there’s not an understanding that they might need some assistance,” she said.

“The second issue is that the emergency space is really male-dominated and I think that that’s having an impact.”

Now Dr Gribble is collecting data to outline the flaws in Australia’s emergency response planning, surveying parents who have experienced these situations firsthand to create an improved model.

“Myself and others over the last few years really have been pushing the government to do something about this, and earlier in the year the Australian Breastfeeding Association put in a grant application to the federal government to get some money to actually do some work around this,” she said.

“We’ve had some really insightful, valuable information come through.

“A lot of people said they evacuated when they wouldn’t have done because they had young children … but also people saying they delayed evacuation because they had young children, because it was just overwhelming to think about all of the things that they’d have to pack for their child.

“Parents will look after their kids, but they do need assistance.”

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