As we enter another El Nino cycle, police across Australia must prepare for more frequent and severe bushfires, according to a landmark new study involving experts from The Australian National University (ANU).

Believed to be the world’s first empirical study of policing during bushfires, the researchers examined policing in a regional Victorian town during Australia’s unprecedented ‘Black Summer’ bushfires in 2019 and 2020. 

The study found that a collaborative, community-focused model of policing can enhance preparedness and response capabilities during bushfire disasters, but the increasingly prolonged and recurring nature of climate-induced disasters presents novel challenges for police organisations.  

Police need to prepare for the impacts of the climate crisis. Photo: myphotobank.com.au/stock.adobe.com

“The policing landscape is being transformed by the disaster risks associated with climate change, and police forces globally are struggling to adapt,” Associate Professor Jarrett Blaustein, lead author of the study from the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance, said. 

“Emergency management work requires police to divert personnel and resources from ‘business as usual’ policing activities. 

“This may limit their ability to perform other core functions, both in the areas affected by a particular crisis, but also potentially in other parts of the jurisdiction.”

Regional and remote Australia is bearing the brunt of these disasters, where police and emergency management resources are sparse and critical infrastructure is vulnerable or limited. 

Disasters of the scale of the Black Summer bushfires also have a major impact on officers’ wellbeing, especially in regional communities. 

“In rural areas, police officers are often members of the communities they serve. In an emergency, not only are they working long shifts to protect the community, but they’ve also got their own families and properties to worry about,” Blaustein said. 

“Police work can already be extremely demanding – both mentally and physically – and climate change threatens to make it even more challenging. 

“Policymakers need to be proactive in supporting officers on the ground, both for their wellbeing and to ensure there aren’t even bigger barriers to recruiting and retaining police.” 

“Our research reveals what’s possible in a best-case scenario, where police understand disaster risks and have invested considerable time and energy into improving their emergency management capabilities.”  

However, there may be additional challenges in jurisdictions where the relationship between the police and community is strained. 

“We must consider that police may not be able to replicate this approach in demanding urban and suburban areas, particularly those where police find themselves in conflict with large segments of the community,” Maegan Miccelli, a PhD student at ANU and co-author of the study, said. 

While police cannot solve the climate crisis, the authors argue that they must urgently acknowledge its disruptive and potentially catastrophic effects and adapt accordingly.  

“Australia is a ‘canary in the coalmine’ of climate change and disasters caused by natural hazards will have a transformative impact on communities across the country,” Blaustein said.  

“Now is the time for police executives to initiate and accelerate this adaptive process and establish our country as a global leader and innovator in proactive, consent-based and collaborative approaches to emergency management policing.” 

The study has been published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction

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