Natural disasters and community resilience: A framework for support

CFCA Paper No. 3 – May 2012

Understanding and measuring community resilience

In recent years, both in Australia and internationally, a number of frameworks and tools for conceptualising and measuring community resilience have been developed.1 These frameworks and tools differ in their scope, purpose and detail. Some were designed to clarify the theory of community resilience, others provide practical general guidelines for service providers or policy-makers, and others focus on enhancing resilience in specific types of communities (e.g., those in developing countries) or in response to specific threats (e.g., climate change, bushfires). Despite these differences, however, a number of key points emerge from the literature. In this section, these points are identified and applied to the circumstances that Australian service providers, practitioners and policy-makers are likely to encounter.

McAslan (2011) suggested that, due to the difficulties involved in developing a universally applicable model of community resilience, it is perhaps most useful to consider those factors that are generally agreed to enable resilience. These factors include:

  • physical characteristics of the community (e.g., local infrastructure, local emergency and health services);
  • procedural characteristics of the community, such as systems that are in place to respond to, and recover from, disasters (e.g., disaster policies and plans, local knowledge); and
  • social characteristics of the community (e.g., community cohesion, community leaders).

McAslan's framework is utilised below to structure the key points emerging from the broader literature on conceptualising and assessing community resilience. It is important to note that the information provided below is aimed primarily at identifying those factors that may be leading to higher or lower levels of resilience in a community, rather than providing detailed guidance on how any identified problems can be overcome.

Physical enablers of community resilience

The physical enablers of community resilienceaddress the basic human needs for survival. Access to food, water and shelter, as well as personal security, health, wellbeing and protection against accidents, illness and injury are all physical enablers of community resilience.

  • Appropriate safe havens and effective evacuation channels for community use are required to ensure the welfare of populations in times of crisis. A varied range of community refuges, shelters and evacuation options that accommodate the needs of vulnerable members of the community need to be established.
    • Safe havens and evacuation channels must be accessible and cater to the needs of the most vulnerable in the community.
    • Emergency managers and key community members need to keep up-to-date with the latest national and state safety and emergency guidelines and procedures.
  • Existing community infrastructure should be reinforced to better withstand extreme weather events, and make certain that utilities (water, electricity and gas), health services and communications operate at a standard that allow individuals and groups to survive and recover after a disaster (2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission [VBRC], 2010).
    • Streets, roads and shelters should be clearly signposted.
    • Simple strategies to reinforce homes and community buildings in the lead up to a disaster (e.g., sandbags, boards for windows) need to be implemented.
    • Important community and emergency management information must be backed-up regularly, with duplicates stored in spaces that are shielded from the effects of a disaster.
  • Well-prepared and equipped local emergency health services and trained volunteers, as well as access to external assistance, are fundamental physical enablers of community resilience.
    • Emergency health services workers and volunteers should receive regular training (e.g., first aid) and guidance material.
    • Links to state and national emergency management bodies need to be established.
    • Local community groups (e.g., sports clubs and teams, religious groups, youth groups, Rotary Clubs, Senior Citizens' Clubs, CWA) can be approached and asked to assist the community in times of crisis.
  • Effective, multi-channel alert and warning systems that include timely and informative advice on the predicted course of fires or floodwaters, with specific instructions for people in the direct path of the disaster, are required (see Box 3).
    • An effective, multi-channel alert and warning system provides timely, accurate and tailored information to community members; accommodates the needs of non-English-speaking and vulnerable (e.g., the elderly, disabled, or homeless) community members; utilises social media and text messaging, and enlists community members to help coordinate and manage its procedures.
  • Adequate supplies of food, water, medicine and medical equipment should be stored at safe havens and emergency management centres in the community.
    • Food, water, medicine and medical equipment should be appropriately packaged (e.g., canned food, bottled water, water-tight packaging around medicines and medical supplies); stored in safe havens, and regularly checked and replenished.
  • Evidence demonstrates that healthy, fit and strong individuals are more likely to survive and recover from a disaster than the weak, frail and disadvantaged. It is important that the health and wellbeing of emergency staff and volunteers is maintained, with counselling and debriefing services made available, and that those most vulnerable in the community receive the additional assistance they require in emergencies.
    • Counselling and debriefing services should be offered to all emergency staff and volunteers.
    • Local authorities and organisations should know where the most vulnerable people in the community are located (e.g., aged-care facilities, child care centres), and tailor emergency plans and procedures to meet their needs.

Procedural enablers of community resilience

Procedural enablers of community resilience equip communities with the systems and strategies required to plan and prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters such as floods, storms or bushfires.

  • Widely understood and broadly applied disaster plans and policies, emergency management plans and the application of standards and regulations are pivotal procedural enablers of community resilience (Maguire & Cartwright, 2008; McAslan, 2011). An awareness of national and state strategies should be used to inform municipal planning that tailors safety options to the specific needs of distinct communities, with risk status assessed at the local level.
  • Strong community awareness and education campaigns provide populations with the information needed to plan and prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.
    • Families and community members should be provided with information (pamphlets, fridge magnets, calendars etc., including translated material for non-English-speaking community members) and strongly encouraged to devise their own disaster plans.
    • Emergency education should be incorporated into the local school curriculum.
  • Shared information at every level is a prime procedural enabler of community resilience. Organisations, services and community members need to work interactively and transparently to ensure correct information is communicated in a timely and effective manner.
  • Mobilising community groups and volunteers to provide information and assistance during disasters strengthens a community by fostering social capital, and bolsters emergency services by providing an extensive network of trained, local support workers during disasters.
    • Existing volunteers in the community should be approached and asked to assist in times of crisis.
    • Local community groups (e.g., sports clubs and teams, religious groups, youth groups, Rotary Clubs, Senior Citizens' Clubs, CWA) can also be approached and asked to assist the community in times of crisis.
  • Emergency support staff (including volunteers) require regular training and guidance material, as well as debriefing and counselling services in the aftermath of a disaster.
  • Disaster plans and policies need to be continually re-evaluated and monitored, as do the effectiveness of community education and awareness campaigns (VBRC, 2010). "An assessment of resilience is never complete. It must be revisited regularly as system dynamics change and as understanding grows. [It is] a process, rather than ... a final product" (Resilience Alliance, 2007, p. 6).

Box 3: The use of social media in emergency management

It is critical that emergency managers provide timely, detailed, location-specific and accurate information to community members during disasters and major emergencies such as floods, severe storms and bushfires. Recent disasters, such as the 2003 Canberra and 2009 Victoria bushfires, demonstrated that traditional technologies are sometimes unable to cope sufficiently with crises of severe magnitude (NGIS Australia, 2009). Web 2.0 technologies (e.g., web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing), however, can offer invaluable enhancements to traditional information management practices, and augment emergency management processes in ways that can save lives and property.

In 2009, the Gov2.0 Taskforce commissioned a report, Social Media Helping Emergency Management (NGIS Australia, 2009). The report's first recommendation is that Emergency Services Organisations use social media to actively engage communities in order to assist emergency management processes.

The Queensland Police Service's (QPS) use of social media during the 2011 Queensland floods provided an excellent case study for the use of social media for public engagement and emergency disaster responsiveness. The QPS developed an online community of followers on Facebook and Twitter before the floods occurred, and this enabled the Service to engage in a real-time, two-way conversation with the public as soon as the flooding reached crisis-level. Adoption of social media in its emergency management strategy equipped QPS with the means to:

  • act as a centralised clearing house for disaster-related information through Facebook and Twitter, posting as soon as warnings, advice, news, facts or figures became available, including details on behalf of other departments and authorities;
  • provide live video streaming of the Brisbane-based disaster-related media conferences on the QPS Facebook page, and subsequently posting the video on the QPS YouTube channel;
  • tweet key points as they were made in briefings and in media conferences;
  • upload dot-point summaries of media conferences to the QPS Facebook page immediately after their conclusion;
  • upload daily audio updates to Facebook from local disaster coordinators around the state;
  • "mythbust" any misinformation and rumours being promulgated by the media and community;
  • tweet most QPS Facebook posts, using the #qldfloods, #TCYasi or #mythbusters hashtags; and
  • respond to inquiries from the public by providing 24-hour moderation of the QPS social media accounts.

The benefits of using social media in a disaster

Social media are characterised by immediacy, and allow authorities to proactively disseminate accurate information to large numbers of people as soon as it becomes available.

The official Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of emergency management authorities can become trusted, reliable hubs for the dissemination of timely, accurate information and facts for the community and media.

Tailored information can be directed to specific communities and community members without them having to rely on mainstream media coverage.

Social media enable authorities to access immediate feedback and information from the public on the ground.

Further resources

Australian Government Common Alerting Protocol


The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) is a standardised system that allows consistent and easy to understand emergency messages to be broadcast across a variety of communication systems. CAP can be used to alert and inform emergency response agencies, media and the general public. CAP ensures that messages remain consistent and clearly indicate to the recipient the severity of the threat and best response.

CFA mobile website and FireReady smartphone app


The CFA mobile website and CFA FireReady smartphone app allow users to easily access timely and accurate information on mobile devices with Internet access. The FireReady app puts CFA and Department of Sustainability & Environment (DSE) bushfire information at users' fingertips, enabling access to up-to-date bushfire warnings and advice where it is needed most.

DisasterWatch smartphone app


The Attorney-General's Department has released the free DisasterWatch smartphone app to improve access to disaster information, and help reduce call volumes to Triple Zero (000) during natural disasters.

Disaster Mapper - Interactive resource for Schools


The Disaster Mapper is an interactive map of Australia that shows various disaster events. By familiarising themselves with previous disasters, students can better understand and prepare for future events, as well as develop a greater understanding of how resilient Australian communities can, and continue, to be.

Emergency 2.0 Wiki


The Emergency 2.0 Wiki is a new collaborative model for sharing and advancing knowledge on utilising Web2.0 and social media in emergency management.

Social media helping emergency management: Final report


Disaster Management and Social Media - a case study (PDF 602 KB)


Road closures and traffic alerts from Vic Roads


On this is website you will find information about unplanned (emergency) road closures and traffic alerts. It is Victoria's official source of information about roads and traffic during incidents and emergencies that may impact road users.

Social enablers of community resilience

The capacity of a community to respond effectively to challenges is dependent upon positive social connections and the ability of community members to draw together.

  • Community resilience is dependent, at least in part, on there being a large number of resilient individuals and families within the community. When there are high levels of both individual and familial responsibility, the community is better placed to respond quickly and effectively to challenging situations.
    • Families and individuals should be actively encouraged to develop their own emergency plans.
    • Children and young people need to be told about the risks of disasters, and informed of the actions they should take during emergencies.
    • Local authorities and organisations should know where the most vulnerable people in the community are located (e.g., aged-care facilities, child care centres), and tailor emergency plans and procedures to meet their needs.
  • Effective local leadership is central to the social strength of a community (Hegney et al., 2008; Maguire & Cartwright, 2008; McAslan, 2011). Such leadership can be formal (e.g., local government) or informal (e.g., influential individuals or community groups). Good leadership promotes unified, flexible and adaptive responses to challenges.
    • Local individuals or groups who obviously play a leadership role in the community (e.g., religious leaders, local sportspeople, influential service providers, leaders of minority groups) should be made aware of the positive role they could play in an emergency or rebuilding situation, and accordingly be incorporated into local emergency management plans.
  • Communities that are high in social capital are able to respond more effectively to difficult situations and emergencies (Maguire & Cartwright, 2008; McAslan, 2011; World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, & World Bank, 2008). Putnam (1995) defined social capital as "features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (p. 67).
    • Wherever possible, positive, trusting relationships between different community organisations, which encourage collaboration, cooperation and the sharing of information (e.g., local service organisations interacting positively with local police), should be fostered.
    • Community meetings for the discussion of matters of collective importance should be arranged.
  • Social inclusion promotes community resilience (Maguire & Cartwright, 2008; Tanner et al., 2009). When a large number of community members actively participate in community life (e.g., through employment or education), a number of positive effects tend to follow: important information is shared, community members become aware of their rights and responsibilities, formal and informal networks of reciprocation and trust are developed and strengthened (i.e., social capital is increased), and a shared sense of community ownership is engendered.
    • Signifiers of social exclusion (high levels of unemployment or low levels of engagement with education in the community) should be assessed, and disaster management plans and procedures tailored to accommodate the needs of these vulnerable community members.
  • A strong and positive sense of local identity encourages community members to adopt common objectives and to work collectively for "the greater good", which, for example, is particularly important in the aftermath of a disaster.
    • Events, activities, qualities or industries around which a sense of local identity is structured (e.g., historical events in the community, sporting activities, shared ethnicity) should be encouraged.
  • In many cases, a community may have been vulnerable to particular risks for a long time (e.g., the community may be situated in a bushfire-prone area). When community members have an awareness of their community history they are able to learn from the successes and failures of the past. An awareness of history also encourages a sense of local identity and allows people to see the "bigger picture" in times of hardship (Hegney et al., 2008; Maguire & Cartwright, 2008).
    • Community members should be made aware of past successes or failures in facing disasters or other traumatic events.
    • Older people, who may be away of the community's history, should be given a voice within the community.


1 For examples, see the "Resources and Further Reading" section of this paper.