APPROACH TO COMMUNICATION DURING THE MINE FIRE

STATE COORDINATION

During a crisis, the Emergency Management Joint Public Information Committee (EMJPIC) is a coordinating committee for emergency communications.30 The EMJPIC is not the public face of an emergency—this is the role of spokespeople from various government departments. During an emergency, the Chair of the EMJPIC attends State Emergency Management Team meetings.31

Ms Merita Tabain, Chair of the EMJPIC, described the purpose of the EMJPIC as follows:

The foremost responsibility of EMJPIC is to ensure that public information is coordinated and distributed in a timely and accurate manner to inform and advise community members during a major emergency, as well as ensuring that media needs are met, through a coordinated multi-agency approach.32

Each department and government agency also has their own communications team, with the role of spokesperson filled by key office holders. In relation to the Hazelwood mine fire, key spokespeople included Mr Lapsley, Fire Services Commissioner, Dr Rosemary Lester, Chief Health Officer, and Mr John Merritt, former Chief Executive Officer of the Environment Protection Authority (EPA).33 Other state and local government representatives also made public statements and participated in press conferences.

Figure 5.1 shows how the EMJPIC linked to the broader emergency management structure responding to the Hazelwood mine fire.

Figure 5.1 Operational communications structure for the Hazelwood mine fire 34

5.2-Operational-commun_opt

STATE COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY

A government communications strategy was developed by the EMJPIC in response to the Hazelwood mine fire.35 On 16 February 2014 (a week after the fire started), a draft ‘Communications and Stakeholder Engagement Strategy’ was provided to Mr Lapsley and Incident and Regional Control Centre leadership teams.36 This strategy was further developed as the crisis continued.
In a version of the ‘Communications and Stakeholder Engagement Strategy’ dated 24 February 2014, the following communications principles were outlined:

  • ‘If you know it, tell the community’ should be the approach for communication at all times
  • ensure internal as well as external communication is maintained at all times
  • target communication to individual communities needs and structures
  • Incident Control Centres will utilise the systems available to them to ensure that appropriate warnings will be issued including text messages, social media and pre-recorded phone calls
  • ask the community how best to engage with them
  • where possible utilise local people to engage with local people
  • consult with relief and recovery agencies when developing messages to support relief and recovery efforts
  • Incident Management Teams will utilise all available technology and local contacts to alert relevant communities in the event that the risk increases
  • use a range of key communications (eg media communication with the Latrobe Valley community) during the Hazelwood mine fire.37

In her evidence to the Board, Ms Tabain stated her opinion that the communications focus in the first week (up until the weekend of 15 and 16 February 2014) was very much on the fire and the mine:

…really that first week of the fire, from my perspective and from EMJPIC’s perspective, the issue of smoke and health and wellbeing of the community really wasn’t an issue that was raised. For us, this is advice provided to us, it seemed the issue really was around the fire in the mine, and the threat to power supply… That weekend that’s referred to, that is really when things started to shift and everyone understood that this is actually something different, and it’s more than just a fire within a contained space, which is the understanding that we had.38

In his report, Mr Drummond stated that this characterisation of the crisis influenced how authorities reacted to it, that is, because the mine fire started as a bushfire, communications associated with a bushfire were deployed.39 The communications strategy initially drew upon the joint EPA and Department of Health Bushfire Smoke Protocol, which is aimed at raising community awareness (particularly for at-risk-groups) during bushfire events that are generally small in size, scale or duration.

Mr Lapsley told the Board that the State Emergency Management Team adopted a ‘one source one message’ policy in relation to communicating with the community about the mine fire. He explained that: ‘one source, one message has been driven by the 2009 fires, so it’s had a very strong fire overlay, easy to adopt in other hazards, particularly in the natural hazards, so flood, storm.’40

Professor Macnamara told the Board that while a single authoritative source of information can work well in an emergency, this situation required consistency of message across different agencies.41

Mr Lapsley told the Board that executing the ‘one source one message’ policy was challenging, in particular ensuring consistent and timely information on different agency websites.42 He conceded that there needed to be a better understanding of how ‘one source, one message’ would be used in an emergency that related to human health (not just fire), but maintained that the principle itself is ‘solid’.43

Key communication channels

From 11 February 2014, the EPA issued the first of a series of smoke advisories. In the following days the Department of Health began issuing the first of a series of health alerts, advisories and community information sheets.44 The CFA and Fire Services Commissioner issued a series of alerts about the broader context of the bushfire fire season as well as some preliminary communication focused on the Hazelwood mine fire.45

On 14 February 2014, the first of two major community meetings arranged by government agencies, was held at Kernot Hall in Morwell. The Incident Controller led this first meeting. Representatives from the CFA, Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), Department of Health, EPA and Latrobe City Council addressed the meeting. Representatives from VicRoads and Victoria Police were also in attendance and questions were taken from the floor. Topics covered the nature of fire as a protracted incident, air quality and the impact of smoke on health.46

After the community meeting the EMJPIC reported to the State Emergency Management team that:

The rising number of firefighters who have been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at the open cut mine has prompted increasing community concerns. This is being exacerbated by fire union claims about unsafe work conditions. EMJPIC is coordinating a comms strategy to reassure the community, and provide advice from Health and the EPA on how to mitigate the effects of the smoke…47

Mr Lapsley told the Board that there was a turning point in the incident on 14 and 15 February 2014 when the fire increased in size, which changed the whole strategy.48

On 18 February 2014, a second major community meeting arranged by government agencies was held at Kernot Hall, Morwell. As noted in Chapter 4.2 Chronology of events, Ms Tabain stated in her evidence to the Board that there were not enough government representatives present who were senior enough to give definitive answers.49 A communications officer volunteered to facilitate the meeting, in lieu of a senior government representative.50 This meeting highlighted the depth of concern within the Morwell community about the fire and the potential effects of the smoke.51 Mr Lapsley told the Board that it became clear to agencies from this meeting that the community had become increasingly frustrated about what they perceived as deficiencies in communication about ‘what the incident really meant.’52

Prior to the meeting on 18 February 2014, the State Emergency Management Team recognised that it was important to have experienced and senior members of local government present to support the conduct of community meetings.53 Ms Tabain was unable to explain to the Board why there were not sufficiently authoritative people at the community meeting on 18 February 2014 to answer questions from the community.

From the third week of the mine fire, a broad range of communication mediums were employed by all government agencies to more effectively engage with the community. This included door knocking by the Latrobe City Council. From 22 April 2014, a communications officer was engaged by Council for a three month period to support community engagement and communications activities.54

Web-based information and social media, including, texting, Twitter and Facebook were also used throughout the Hazelwood mine fire. In her evidence to the Board, Ms Tabain acknowledged that the social media command centre that was established on 26 February 2014 (17 days after the fire started), came about too late.55

THE COMMUNITY’S EXPERIENCE

During the community consultations conducted by the Board, the Latrobe Valley community expressed that they felt confused, anxious, disaffected and angry by a lack of information about the mine fire. Members of the community also expressed frustration with the conflicting nature of the advice provided, and the delay in providing advice that was accessible, relevant and meaningful to them.

The community told the Board of a ‘disconnect’ between messages from key authorities and what they were actually experiencing. As Mr Ron Ipsen of Morwell remarked in his submission to the Board: ‘The residents of the Latrobe Valley knew that what they were being told was not what they were experiencing.’56 The community perceived government and agency messaging as confusing, contradictory and lacking credibility.57

Mr Drummond told the Board:

My sense is that throughout this crisis the authorities and individuals, whilst doing their best and working under difficult circumstances, didn’t fully appreciate the socio-economic status, the values, the attitudes, and even the needs of the community, and so, what I contend is that there’s a disconnect between the communications that were given and what was in fact received.58

What the community was experiencing can be described as cognitive dissonance.59 Cognitive dissonance is explained in Figure 5.2 below.

Figure 5.2 Cognitive dissonance during the Hazelwood mine fire60

6.1-Cognitive-dissonan_opt

An example provided to the Board was the Chief Health Officer’s temporary relocation advice on 28 February 2014. Members of the community told the Board that the EPA and the Department of Health issued independent notices about relocation that did not tell the same story as the Chief Health Officer’s advice. The Department of Health’s notice for temporary relocation, issued just after lunchtime, makes no mention of the EPA, air quality, or where to go to find information on air quality.62 The EPA’s notice, issued at 5.45 pm on the same day, was a high level smoke advisory for the Latrobe Valley and included pre-arranged statements, including from the Chief Health Officer, but with no reference to the temporary relocation advice.63Members 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.61

Ms Tracie Lund, Morwell Neighbourhood House Coordinator, told the Board that there was a lot of talking by authorities, but not much listening:

I know that information was being fed up through two government departments, through Council, as much as possible and there did seem to be a lot of hoo-haa’ing up the top, but I do not feel that the community was listened to well and I don’t feel that the people on the ground that had the information from the community were listened to very well, and perhaps that’s something we can work on in the future, about marrying up the differences between the grassroots and the top heavy, because it could work a lot better if the bottom was included a little bit more I think.64

Mr Drummond reiterated this sentiment to the Board:

In this particular case the opportunity for two-way communications was, I think, severely limited…the community had anxieties and concerns but their ability…to voice those and communicate those concerns to the relevant authorities was minimal.65

In order to fill an information vacuum, many people in the community turned to the internet, including social media, looking for answers, advice and support. This proved to be helpful for some but also added to the confusion for others. Information on the internet about the mine fire was on occasions inaccurate and speculative.66

Emergency services

During community consultations, the Board heard that emergency services, in particular the CFA provided timely and helpful community information, at a range of levels and through a wide variety of media.67 From 9 February 2014, the CFA provided community information and warnings through its Fire Ready app, emergency alert text messages, its website and other media channels.68

The Board heard that the community considered Mr Lapsley to be forthright, honest and informative in his public statements. The frankness of Incident Controllers at community meetings was also appreciated.69 As firefighting continued, the CFA was highly visible to the community and implemented a range of face-to-face communication strategies, including at community meetings, through the community information bus and through Morwell Neighbourhood House.70

The CFA distributed information electronically but also had a greater physical presence ‘on the ground’ than other government agencies. The CFA was actively involved in public meetings and mobile van tours, as well as having a significant role in firefighting at the mine.71

Health and Human Services

A consistent theme throughout community consultations and public submissions was that authorities such as the Department of Health did not communicate effectively with the community. The Chief Health Officer, in particular, was perceived as lacking empathy and compassion. Mr Pat Bartholomuez of Morwell, stated in his public submission that:

The State’s Chief Health Officer meant well when she said the smoke was harmless and that the intensity of the smoke could be measured by visibility without scarce measuring equipment (my words). The people took this as “Shut up, stop whingeing and get on with it.” What she could have said was “I know that you are suffering, we have not had a situation like this before and we are carrying out urgent research, how can we help?”72

Ms Vicki Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer and Secretary of the Asbestos Council of Victoria (ACV) and the Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc. (GARDS), told the Board that messages from the Chief Health Officer were confusing:

During the mine fire, the key issue raised by ACV/GARDS members was the lack of communication particularly in regard to the health effects of the fire and smoke. Our members were concerned about the toxicity of the smoke, the short and long-term effects of the smoke, the lack of initial air monitoring and the considerable stress and potential mental health issues arising from the fire. Our members were not able to find the answers to their questions.73

… the Chief Health Officer said that they were treating the fire just like any other bushfire. The community knew that the mine fire was not a bushfire and it was a very different fire with respect to how it was to be treated and what was contained in that fire. The community had no confidence in the authorities because of this message…the Chief Health Officer said that there would be no long-term health effects from the fire. I was confused as to how would she know this as there had been no references made to how she could confidently make that assessment…74

The temporary relocation advice given by the Chief Health Officer on 28 February 2014 was seen by many in the community as inconsistent with earlier advice because, within the context of the event overall, it was not clearly explained why temporary relocation was being advised on that particular day, nor why the railway line was the geographic marker for different treatment. Some in the community interpreted this advice as: ‘yesterday was safe enough to stay, the last three weeks were safe enough to stay, but today, it is not safe to stay.’75

As described by Ms Annette Wheatland, Gippsland Regional Manager, Southern Cross Care Victoria, who works in Morwell:

It was a difficult time because for three weeks we were told it was safe to be in Morwell and then suddenly we were told that vulnerable people should relocate. It was hard to understand why only the vulnerable people were being recommended to relocate when we were all being affected by the smoke in Morwell.76

In his evidence to the Board, Dr Christopher Brook, State Health and Medical Commander referred to front line services like Ambulance Victoria, Latrobe Valley Hospital and Nurse-On-Call as being the ‘arms and legs’ of the Department of Health and so by extension, acting as the Department’s face-to-face contact with the community.77 Some members of the community did not feel this way. Ms Lund told the Board that: ‘…the community did not see the ambulance service as representatives of the Department of Health. There were no people from the Department of Health on the ground with the community and this caused a lot of anger.78

Communication between the Department of Health, local general practitioners and health networks is dealt with in Chapter 4.6 Health response.

As detailed in Chapter 4.7 Relief and recovery, the Department of Human Services (DHS) was responsible for managing relocation and respite assistance. Members of the community gave evidence to the Board that they felt the eligibility criteria for relief packages were not adequately explained and that they were unclear about who was eligible for assistance because they were unable to access information and advice from the DHS.79

Environment Protection Authority

Community consultations, submissions and evidence heard by the Board revealed a high degree of frustration about the EPA’s inability to communicate effectively with the community during the Hazelwood mine fire.

In his report, Mr Drummond summarised the community’s concerns as follows:

  • information was slow to be released
  • information was not particularly helpful
  • information about the relative safety of the fire, smoke and air did not match the community’s experience of adverse health effects
  • inability to explain and adequately address concerns
  • lack of trust in data and figures, the credibility of the EPA was damaged when they framed their primary responsibility as one of reporting to the Chief Health Officer and not to the community
  • information was at times overly simple, repetitive and unhelpful while other communications were complex and not adequately explained.80

Early public communication by the EPA downplayed the risks of the mine fire. The EPA’s first post on Twitter on 12 February 2014, and several subsequent tweets, advised the public that there was little or no risk to their health. Tweets posted by the EPA on 12 and 13 February 2014 also advised of a ‘very low level of carbon monoxide impacts’.81

Mr Merritt told the Board that:

As the incident unfolded, it became clear that more information was required by the community. The challenge was that the next level of information, such as individual test results, started to introduce more complex scientific ideas, principles and concepts, and as such required substantially more explanation and translation into easily understood terms.82

Mr Drummond’s analysis was that the EPA found itself in a difficult position trying to strike the right balance between providing as much information as possible, while trying to ensure it made sense and was scientifically sound. Whilst some information was too repetitive and basic (such as EPA smoke advisories with template wording), other advice was too complex.83

One of the questions posed in a ‘frequently asked questions’ fact sheet issued by the EPA on 24 February 2014 was: ‘The data on EPA’s website looks alarmingly as if we’ve exceeded air quality standards, is that right?’ The answer provided in the factsheet was: ‘Data readings are the actual scientific measurements for each air pollutant. The data readings are recorded in different units of measure depending on the type of pollutant’. Ms Tabain of the EMJPIC conceded that this was not an example of good communication and that a simple answer to this question would have been ‘yes’.84

As part of his peer review response to the EPA, Associate Professor Howard Bridgman from the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle, reported back to the EPA that answers to many of the questions on the EPA website were ‘broad, generic and sometimes vague’.<sup85 Based on his experience with air pollution in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Professor Bridgman noted that:

…the interested public do not consider these kinds of answers favourably. They want better information. I recommend that the answers to the questions on the website be revisited with the aim to provide some more details and more specifics, but still keeping the answers short, simple and direct.86

The EPA’s 24 hour telephone line was relied on by many people in the community. Ms Brooke Burke, Morwell Business Owner, gave evidence to the Board that she contacted the EPA by telephone on at least two occasions for information about the impacts of the smoky conditions after the advice by the CFA to close windows and doors.87 Ms Burke sought advice on whether it was safe to continue running dance classes at her studio:

I’d contacted the EPA and tried to look for any other places I could contact to find out whether it was safe for us to be there. But it was very hard to find someone that could tell us if we were or weren’t (safe). Obviously not being a government agency, we didn’t have anyone in direct contact with us as to whether the building was safe to be in.88

From 21 February 2014, the EPA had a number of visual representations of the distribution of air pollution on its microsite. However, some key visual representations were not made available to the public, including images of the TravelBLANkET (used to measure particulate levels in the air). Associate Professor Bridgman told the EPA that: ‘The spatial display is impressive and easy to understand and should be made available to the public via the dedicated website’.89

Latrobe City Council

Many members of the community expressed to the Board that they found it very difficult to get information from Latrobe City Council during the crisis. Community members acknowledged that the Council was put in a difficult position during the mine fire and that it was under-resourced to respond to the emergency.90

The Council usually makes information available on its website about preparing for ‘Fire, Floods and Other Emergencies’. Information on fires is mainly related to domestic blazes. The website includes helpful links to relevant specialist agencies such as the CFA, EPA, and the Department of Health.91

There was limited information on the Council’s website in relation to the Hazelwood mine fire during the period February–March 2014. The Council also made limited used of social media.92

In its submission to the Board, the Latrobe City Council described a wide array of government agencies, senior officials and elected representatives involved in communicating to both the Council and the community throughout the event, often at the same time. The Council considered that this reduced effective communication, as information and messaging coming from multiple government agencies was not coordinated or consistent.93

The Council also submitted to the Board that it was requested to attend various announcements and press conferences at short notice, often with no clear indication as to what was being announced or what its role was. Not only did this place additional pressure on Council staff, it created confusion in the community as to what role Council had in response to the Hazelwood mine fire (generally councils are involved in the recovery phase of an emergency, not in the response phase while the event is still taking place).94

The Council further submitted to the Board that at other times, announcements by government agencies and authorities that had resource implications for the Council were made without notifying the Council. This meant Council was unable to respond in an appropriate and timely manner. This in turn fuelled anger in the community by raising unrealistic expectations of Council’s ability to respond to these announcements and to do so immediately.95

Mr Robert Jackman, Morwell resident, explained his experience with the Council in his statement to the Board:

In the second week after the fire I heard on the radio that Ambulance Victoria had set up a medical assessment centre for members of the community to access. I did not hear the location of the assessment centre so I rang the Latrobe City Council. The person who answered my call did not know anything about the assessment centre. The person put me on hold to find out further information. Upon returning to the call, they told me that it was at the Mid Valley Shopping Centre opposite Katies. I went to that location and there was no medical assessment centre. I eventually found it nearby in Saskia Way, next to the Ambulance Victoria headquarters in Morwell. I thought that there would be a lot of people there but I was the only one. I got checked out and was told I was okay. I was surprised that the Latrobe City Council did not know about the medical assessment centre and I think they should have known what was going on…96

Ms Burke also described her experience with the Council during the first week of the fire: ‘I contacted the Shire to ask if there was someone to speak to about what local businesses should do. They said there wasn’t anyone appointed at this stage.’97

In his statement to the Board, Mr John Mitchell, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Latrobe City Council acknowledged that:

…there were instances where the call centre, which was staffed with contractors, was not as up to date as it should have been, in the sense that it did not always have all up to date information to hand. In light of this, the Council introduced a new briefing method to increase the knowledge of those at the call centre.98

Members of the community also told the Board that they were frustrated with the information provided by the Council relevant to the cleanup package they provided the community. In his report to the Board, Mr Drummond noted that, ‘The provision of a clean up package in the form of a bucket, gloves and vouchers was widely derided for being inadequate and lacking any helpful communications on how to approach decontamination.’99

GDF Suez

Communications from GDF Suez were noticeably absent over the 45 days that the mine fire burned.100

A spokesperson for GDF Suez, Mr Trevor Rowe, was interviewed on 9 February 2014 by ABC Radio.101

GDF Suez provided limited information relevant to the fire on its website. It provided some information through the CFA website, and later during the crisis, it authored full-page articles that appeared in the local paper, the Latrobe Valley Express.102

On 20 February 2014 (11 days after the start of the fire) GDF Suez posted a statement on the CFA’s website with a series of questions and answers, which included the following sentence: ‘We fully understand the inconvenience and concern that the smoke from the fire has caused for people living in surrounding areas.’103

In his report to the Board, Professor Macnamara stated: ‘Absence is seen as synonymous with silence and is seen very negatively…’104 Professor Macnamara summed up GDF Suez’s public communications strategy as one that could be interpreted as showing disdain for the local community, and at best, showing a lack of sensitivity and concern.105

GDF Suez claimed that its communication approach adhered to the State’s ‘once source, one
message’ policy.106

Morwell Neighbourhood House

Morwell Neighbourhood House provides an important local base for people to access information and stay connected to their local community. In times of crisis or emergency, it has an essential role in disseminating information to locals, as well as making contact with those who are not connected to the internet and do not use social media.107

In her evidence to the Board, Ms Lund described how she was unable to provide the information and help that people needed, because this information was not available through other channels:

So the day of the relocation… I was watching on the news for the announcement of what was going to happen, and then I knew we’d get questions, but we were ping-ponging from site to site trying to figure out what was the correct information to give them. So we’d print out what we’d think was the correct information for that day and then later that night or later that day I’d find out that, no, no, it’s actually a different number to call or – so it was very difficult and time-consuming to figure out how to get the correct information so that we could have it there to give to the community.108

The Neighbourhood House found itself in a situation of being unable to assist members of the community who turned up angry, upset and struggling to find answers.109

Indigenous community

The Board heard from Ms Karen Andrew, Youth Suicide Prevention Counsellor with the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation, which is located at the Central Gippsland Aboriginal Health Service in Morwell. Ms Andrew described the local indigenous community as having a very high level of disadvantage, which includes in some cases three generations of unemployment and lower than average life expectancy (even when compared with other indigenous communities).110

Ms Andrew told the Board that information was not specifically made available to the indigenous community, and that no direct contact was made with her organisation from any government agency to inquire what the indigenous community needed. Ms Andrew stated that she was only made aware of information and assistance about the mine fire when she came across a flyer at the Latrobe Community Health Service and set about photocopying it herself for distribution. Ms Andrew attended community meetings from that point on, including those held on 14 and 18 February 2014.111

Ms Andrew told the Board that the indigenous community needs face-face contact, as they generally do not have access to or use the internet. Many people in the indigenous community in the Latrobe Valley are also illiterate.112

Ms Andrew communicated with the local indigenous community about the Hazelwood mine fire in person. She advised them where they could go for assistance and relocation support. Ms Andrew was particularly concerned for those members of the community who were unwell, such as the elderly and young mothers with small children.113

Ms Andrew’s evidence is consistent with feedback from the local indigenous community to the Board during its community consultation sessions.

Vulnerable groups

The Board heard from a diverse range of community members and organisations, during the community consultation sessions and through public submissions, on how they felt communication was handled during the Hazelwood mine fire.

Many groups – including the elderly, disabled, homeless or displaced, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds – as well as those advocating on their behalf, such as Deafaccess Gippsland,114felt that communication was not handled well, nor did it meet their particular needs.

Voices of the Valley

Voices of the Valley is a local grassroots community organisation that was established during the Hazelwood mine fire, in direct response to the information vacuum and lack of advocacy the community was experiencing.

In his evidence to the Board, Mr Simon Ellis, former President of Voices of the Valley, explained how the group facilitated public meetings, distributed information via a dedicated Facebook page and coordinated collection of a survey of people’s experiences, which was later submitted to the Board of Inquiry.115

ABC Radio

The community commended the ABC Radio in eight out of the ten community consultations, singling it out for working particularly well during the crisis.116