'Black Swan' events: Natural disasters without precedent
Kate Doyle, Sat 15 Sep 2018
For paramedic Dane Goodwin, the Black Saturday call came at 2:30am.
The assistant commissioner was on the line requesting specialist operations paramedics from New South Wales to assist in Victoria, where there had already been so many fatalities.
The crew were ready to go by 4:30am.
Mr Goodwin, special operations coordinator and rescue for Ambulance New South Wales, knows all about dealing with 'black swan' events Ã¢â¬â events that take the world by surprise, have a major impact, but in hindsight were also predictable.
Mr Goodwin was part of the response team for both Black Saturday and the 2013 Blue Mountains fires.
So how do we prepare for and manage these events beyond living memory, and will they become more common?
Why do we get 'black swans'?
Manager of climate services at the Bureau of Meteorology, David Jones, said it came down to two things: our ability to forget and limited records or climate change.
"We see the media quite often talk about these record events and they are actually not often record events," Dr Jones said.
"We don't have records that go back a long way.
"Typically we might have 100 years of records and that means we don't always see how extreme things can get."
But there were ways of expanding the records.
Scientists could use paleo records Ã¢â¬â such as tree rings, corals, and ice core samples to get a better understanding of what the climate was like before modern records.
"The other thing that's obviously playing out is climate change," Dr Jones said.
"The weather systems change, the temperatures rise, the fire seasons change and when you shuffle them together, you occasionally get these really quite shocking events."
Dr Jones highlighted the heatwave in the northern hemisphere this year as an example of an unexpected event with profound impacts.
Temperatures were up to three degrees hotter than had been seen previously.
"Obviously, climate change is a major part of it and I think most people in the northern hemisphere would have been really quite shocked by the heatwaves that Europe had this last summer," Dr Jones said.
"We saw pictures of people in bathers in the Arctic Ocean. [It was] really quite profound."
Again, it is all about our frame of reference and our ability to project what might come.
"When you look at the events in hindsight, perhaps sometimes you say, 'well maybe we shouldn't have been surprised'," Dr Jones said.
The biggest recent example of a deadly 'black swan' event was the 2003 heatwave in Europe, thought to have killed close to 50,000 people.
"That was a really profound event for them [and] completely unexpected, unforeseen consequences," Dr Jones said.
He said records were broken by a couple of degrees, far more than the infrastructure could handle with many people not having air conditioning.
Dr Jones said the Millennium Drought was an example of a 'black swan' event for south-east Australia.
"We have had droughts in the past. Obviously in 1982 and in the further past we might have seen droughts which might have gone on for two to five years," he said.
"Suddenly we found ourselves in a drought which lasted nearly 15 years."
It was a surprise that really challenged people's ability to cope.
Then there was Black Saturday
Dr Jones said there might have been fire researchers who had known about the 1939 fires in Victoria, which killed 71 people in similar circumstances.
"But if you had asked someone beforehand, could it have got to 46 in Melbourne, in February? I think most people would have said probably no," he said.
Before Black Saturday the previous highest temperature on record was 43 degrees.
"Of course when we do have these events you sort of condition yourself not to be so surprised by the next one and that's what a lot of our preparation is about Ã¢â¬â sort of anticipating what might come next," Dr Jones said.
He said the real focus nowadays was on resilience.
"We know in Victoria, unfortunately, we've got a climate which is getting hotter," he said.
"We know these 43, 44, 45-degree days have become more numerous. At some point in the future we'll get a heatwave which will break the Black Saturday record and it will probably shock people again."
How to prepare for the unprecedented?
"When we got there it looked like a bomb had gone off," Dane Goodwin said of the 2013 Blue Mountains fires.
"It was just, it was mind-blowing to see how much devastation had happened in such a short time.
"So that was really challenging Ã¢â¬â challenging because we didn't know how many people were injured."
Mr Goodwin said one of the key challenges of these events was communication.
"Power was cut, the phones were cut. The fire moved through at such a rapid pace. I think that took everyone off guard," he said.
Mr Goodwin said, when dealing with unprecedented situations, training needed to be sharp and firefighters needed to be focused.
"There is fire all around you, there are fire trucks all around you trying to put out houses, and when you are going into those situations you really need to be switched on."
Black Saturday presented other challenges for Mr Goodwin's New South Wales team.
"We were working in foreign places that we didn't really know; it was really tough terrain to get around," he said.
"But all the training that the guys had been given and their equipment and uniforms were able to put us in good stead."
Distance was also an issue.
"Logistically it was a long way away; the guys were going on a rotation seeing them away from their families for up to seven or eight days. Obviously being away from the family, it's huge," Mr Goodwin said.
He said staff were counselled when they were on the scene and when they came home, but it was not just the emergency services who were dealing with these situations.
"The specialists who are trained to deal with that, it's confronting for us as well," he said.
"So we can only imagine what it's going to be like for a normal person Ã¢â¬â but the main thing to do is keep calm.
"You have to keep calm and gather your thoughts and think out what you are going to do."
Mr Goodwin believed it was possible to learn from every event.
"I think the main thing that everyone's taken away from [Black Saturday] is early notification," he said.
"Emergency warnings, texts, phone calls, anything to get the message out there.
"Obviously we've learned from that because with the fires up in the Blue Mountains, there was no loss of life. They got the warnings out there."
If faced with another Black Saturday heatwave or fire Mr Goodwin said he thought we have the capacity to deal with it.
He said pre-warning, pre-planning, training, and getting the right people in the right location were all part of managing unprecedented events.
So as we head into disaster season remember:
Plan and prepare now
Listen and watch for warnings and be aware of your surroundings
Gather your thoughts and decide what you are going to do
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