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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Disaster Etiquette 101.

So, I live in a small town that has just been affected by a pretty large bush fire. Now this bush fire has brought out the best in some people; I've heard of offers of food, accommodation, hygiene packs... You name it.  However, in this situation sometimes the worst in people rises to the surface; they do things not for the good of the whole community, but for the good of themselves.

The media is a good example of the villain in a situation like this.  Many people I know have had persistent calls from many media outlets, wanting their version of the story.  Some have even been quoted as saying something quite significant even though they denied to comment or denied they had any information when asked.  I myself had a call on my mobile from a journalist in Sydney - which is quite a long way away from here - asking for a local's perspective of how "hectic" it was during the fire.  When I refused to give any information, he asked me if I could give him the names of any firefighters who would be willing to comment.  First of all, I would love to know just how he came to be in possession of my mobile number - as well as many others who were called - secondly, people lost everything, it's not up to me to comment on how "hectic" it was and thirdly, most of the firefighters were fighting a fire at that point in time. When I mentioned that the firefighters were currently busy, the journalist seemed quite put out. How inconvenient of the firefighters, to be fighting a fire!

But it wasn't just the journalists who were in it for themselves, there were some residents who thought it was their time for fifteen minutes of fame.  These residents decided that - despite knowing nothing - to make up information to tell the information starved journalists.  Now that wouldn't be too bad, except the affected community and those in the wider districts then became quite distressed and worried because it seemed much worse than it was.  They start wondering, "Is it my house that has been destroyed?" "Are my relatives in the fire zone?" And it just generally ends very badly.  The best thing to do if you get hassled for information is to simply say "I don't know" or "I can't help you with that;" it would certainly save a lot of worrying.  In a disaster like this you don't need your fifteen minutes of fame.  Those that do need the praise are actually out there trying to avert or divert the crisis.

Another thing that ended badly was the community meeting.  The meeting itself was very informative, but the presence of the media vultures made for an uncomfortable morning.  The group of journalists, photographers and camera crews were hassling residents - who were clearly very distressed after losing homes and possessions - and wouldn't let up.  The worst case I saw was when a man who was burnt during the fire was trying to leave the meeting - and who was clearly distraught - had his car swarmed so he couldn't leave.  Not what you'd call a friendly interview.

As mentioned before it wasn't all bad.  Those that had lost so much during the fire had the shoulders and ears of their friends and fellow community members to turn to, and had an environment where they could just forget the tragedy for a little while.  It's amazing to see how much a community can band together after a situation like this.  And a time like this is a time where you give a friendly smile and a diplomatic view, not a  time to ask those who have been affected by the fire "how are you?," or "how much have you lost?"  And it's certainly not a time to crowd their car or chase them down for an interview when they clearly don't want to talk about it.