A winding road to improve fire safety for people at higher risk

Member News image Toni (left) with Angela Cook.


In the freezing cold of the first week of August I set out on an adventure from Mansfield to Kyneton. 


It’s quite a beautiful drive through the small town of Yarck, then on through the Murchison Gap, through Lancefield and then to the picturesque Kyneton. 

I made the trip for an especially important reason – to visit a local resident who changed how I viewed and considered people in the community forever.  And to whom I feel incredibly grateful.

It was back in 2019 when I first met Toni. Our first conversation was over the phone where I learnt she had been recently widowed and lived with MS (multiple sclerosis). Toni herself described the MS as having a “broken body”, and after years of working as a psychologist it was certainly a life-changing blow. Toni was forced to give up her career to focus on her health and the demands of advocating for an NDIS plan that was right for her.  

Over several conversations, Toni described to me why she felt so scared about bushfire and why it mattered, which helped me realise that there are many people in similar situations to Toni. 

In the past I would have described Toni as vulnerable, but the more I have learnt over the past two years, the more I have realised that this label can undermine someone’s capability and disempower them. This is not what we want. Even in Toni’s situation, there are things she can do, there are ways she can be more prepared. We just need to understand and learn how we can support people like Toni to be more prepared.

Toni’s story became one of the drivers for CFA’s Preparing Vulnerable People (PVP) project. The PVP project kicked off in November 2019 with a clear aim of improving fire preparedness for people at higher risk. People with a disability, chronic medical condition and people who are older have been the focus of the PVP project because they can be at higher risk in a fire and other emergencies.

As I drove to Kyneton along the winding roads, I was able to reflect on what the project had achieved in almost three years. The project has focused on two distinct but connected pieces of work. The first has been to build capability in the community and social services workforce to better plan for fire with their clients. Free e-learning modules make this training more accessible to a time-poor and disparate care sector workforce.

An independent assessment of the uptake of this training highlighted some key lessons. It showed that 20 per cent of the sector were aware that the training exists and those who had done the training highly recommended it to others. Better still, it showed that those workers who had completed the CFA bushfire training modules were more likely to undertake bushfire planning with their clients than those who had not. 

Toni has a busy schedule of support workers in her home that support her each day and each night, and she has asked all of them to complete the CFA e-learning modules. And when I was at Toni’s house it was a reminder of why it is important to build the capability of those who deliver in-home care and support. These are the people who have regular contact with those who may be at higher risk. It serves as a mechanism of reach into the homes of those we really must reach.

Those winding roads through valleys and past mountains also reminded me of the twists and turns the project has endured. None more so, of course, than COVID-19 which has caused delays and impacted on the second focus of the PVP project – to improve targeted service delivery to people at higher risk. And this is where my heart lightens as I know we have found an approach that I can truly hang my hat on: Person-Centred Emergency Preparedness (P-CEP).  Being person-centred means that community members like Toni are experts in their own lives and can determine their support needs, and what this means in an emergency and in preparing for one. 

The P-CEP approach underpins a new household service targeting people at higher risk that CFA delivers alongside Red Cross. The testing and piloting of this new approach has revealed that a knowledgeable conversation partner (in this case a CFA or Red Cross member) is helpful to support people at higher risk with their planning. Simultaneously, a key lesson of this project is the need to focus more on what people can do, rather than what they can’t. 

Trialling this approach was greatly delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic and also when returning to delivery post-lockdowns. We created an online version of the program only to find community members did not want that. They preferred to wait until we could meet them face-to-face in their home. Just under 20 people have now received the service and the results will shape this service into the future. 

It is at this point that I need to recognise my incredible co-worker, and now job share, Kelly Stoner, who embodies the very spirit of this work and true person centredness. I must say that without her we would not have got this far. And I am reminded once again when I am at Toni’s house how critical this work is. Two of Toni’s support workers bring her in to meet me. They help manoeuvre her from her wheelchair into a seat in the loungeroom using a hoist. It looks like a well-practised routine, but is a stark reminder of what she has to do to get around her own home day to day. But it also highlights that Toni knows the most about how she manages every day, what her support needs are and what she needs to manage her health. This information is critical if she is to have a bushfire plan that works for her. 

The conversations with Toni have led to her purchasing a generator that will help supply critical power to charge her assistive technology to keep her safer during an emergency. She has thought more about what she would need if she had to leave her well-equipped home. And I see before me the reason why planning is a process and not a one-time event. Toni must plan for her reliance on others. She must ensure they will be able to help her in an emergency. She can only be self-reliant to a certain extent.

People who need day-to-day support to remain living independently at home are likely to need that support during a fire or other emergency. And with an ageing population and people staying in their homes for longer, there is a clear need for an approach that can cater for the complex circumstances people can find themselves in. I believe that CFA and other emergency services have a role to ensure nobody is left behind in an emergency. In addition, people who need extra support to plan for such events have the right to access this support. P-CEP provides an approach and framework for this.

The lookout across the Murchison Gap is stunning. You can see far off into the distance. I made sure I stopped there on my way home to take in the view and have a quick break from driving. And it was here that I thought about the importance of the partnerships and relationships we have fostered in this project. This has been huge and has taken a lot of time and persistence. CFA cannot effect change well enough on its own and although the term is not always clearly defined, I feel the project is a good example of shared responsibility. It has proven the need to work together with individuals at higher risk and to work with the services, organisations and people that provide care and support to them. But there is still plenty more change needed and plenty of people at higher risk with inadequate or non-existent emergency plans. 

Toni has changed the way I see the world and what I have seen now cannot be unseen. I feel passionately about the rights of all people to have access to the support they need to be prepared for fire. I know if I was in Toni’s situation I would want the same thing.  

So, over the next few months the PVP Project will transition into my substantive role at CFA and we will continue to focus on fire preparedness with people at higher risk. Kelly Stoner and I will continue in this space. 

If you want to reach out and have a chat, feel free to contact either myself or Kelly.  angela.cook@cfa.vic.gov.au or kelly.stoner@cfavic.gov.au







Submitted by Angela Cook