The CFA, EPA, the Department of Health, DHS and the Latrobe City Council were primarily involved in informing the community about the mine fire, its effects and the response taken. A number of community organisations assisted by providing information to the community. Communications from GDF Suez were noticeably absent over the 45 days that the mine fire burned.
Feedback from the community consultation process, public submissions and evidence at public hearings pointed to significant shortcomings by government authorities, as well as GDF Suez, in communicating throughout the emergency. Throughout the 45 days that the fire burned, members of affected communities felt they were not listened to and were not given appropriate and timely information and advice that reflected the crisis at hand and addressed their needs.
Members of the community also reported that lack of coordination among the agencies involved in managing and responding to the mine fire resulted in confusing messages, with agencies appearing to contradict each other. This left affected communities struggling to find the answers and reassurance they were seeking. According to one expert, members of the community were suffering ‘cognitive dissonance’: what they were being told by health and environmental authorities was not what they were experiencing. A major factor contributing to the community’s disengagement was the State’s initial mischaracterisation of the mine fire as simply a fire emergency, when in fact it evolved into a chronic technological disaster. It then became a significant and lengthy environmental and health crisis.
The Board acknowledges that all government agencies worked under a great deal of pressure to try to ensure that the community received appropriate information. There were a number of examples of commendable efforts by government agencies, the Latrobe City Council, volunteer organisations and individual residents to keep the community informed.
Unfortunately, communication responses overall did not reflect international best practice for crisis communication. Communication did not reach many people in a timely way and in some cases, not at all. Communication was largely one-way with information being transmitted, but not received or understood by the intended recipients. An over-reliance on digital technology, particularly early on, hindered the message reaching all community members. Empathy was also often lacking, particularly from some government spokespeople.
Government departments and agencies did not engage to any significant extent in listening to, or partnering with local residents and community groups. One way of addressing this is to deploy community relations specialists during an emergency to work with previously identified trusted networks and act as an interface between communities and the providers of information and services.
The Board has made several recommendations for enhancing communications in the future. The State is conscious of the need for significant improvement and has already committed to a number of actions, as demonstrated by the communication principles included in the Victorian Emergency Management Reform White Paper and the Victorian Government’s new governance arrangements for emergency management in Victoria through Emergency Management Victoria. The issues raised by this Inquiry and the recommendations of this report should be reflected in crisis communication policy and procedures within the new emergency management framework.
The adequacy and effectiveness of communications employed during the Hazelwood mine fire is considered in depth in Chapter 5 of the report.
The Board hopes the work undertaken through and by this Inquiry will assist to prevent a disaster like that of February and March 2014 from ever happening again.