RM: Welcome to the first interview on the Design Between. I’m Robyn Mansfield and joining me today is Amanda Lamont, advocate for women in emergencies having forged a career in disaster resilience and reduction and co-founder of the Australasian Women in Emergencies Network.
AL: Hi Robyn, how you doing?
RM: Good how are you?
AL: Good thanks.
RM: Amanda, can you please give us a bit of an overview of your extensive career in disaster?
AL: Oh in disaster. I often describe my life as one big disaster. I have forged a career out of emergencies and disasters. I am a volunteer firefighter and I volunteer with the Australian Red Cross in emergency services and I’m also a trainer of the volunteers at the Australian Red Cross, and in my professional career I have worked at all tiers of government: Commonwealth, State and Local Government in supporting communities in their emergency and disaster scenarios, so particularly in disaster recovery. I’ve had some experience working at the Red Cross in recovery and then in other sectors as well.
So it’s stretched from strategy and policy at a national level, through to grassroots emergency management working in better living communities to support them in disasters, and when they say disasters that’s the before, the during and the after.
So in emergency preparedness and then in a response phase, what I say most importantly and most significantly, is recovery.
RM: Wow, so very very busy and passionate about it. What’s your motivation for taking on all these roles, particularly the volunteer roles?
AL: Well when I said my life is one big disaster what I didn’t mention is where I live. I live in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria in Australia and I live in a really beautiful wooden house on a steep slope by lovely eucalyptus trees.
So as well as having a career and extensive time that I spend working in disasters, my personal life is potentially a disaster in and of itself because of where I live, where I’ve chosen to live. A really high bushfire prone area, one of the top ten in the world I hear, due to where people are living. I guess I’ve made that choice, so when I’m working in disasters I also have to think about the personal lens and risks that I’ve exposed myself to. So I’m saying that because in answer to your question when I moved here I was working in humanitarian work. I wasn’t working specifically in disaster work, disaster response work, but when I lived here I decided I should join the local fire brigade as a volunteer, as my community duty, and that seemed to have actually led onto forging this career in emergencies and disasters, so I decided it was important to prepare myself and knowing how important that is I also decided that I could play a key role in supporting others in the disaster experience and I think that’s possibly where it stemmed from due to first my personal experiences extended into a career.
A question of recovery
RM: Wow, thank you. So in all of these roles that you’ve taken on, most recently you’ve been heavily involved in the bushfire recovery, but also in fighting the bush fires. In that experience what do you see as most important for community recovery particularly around social connections in the community and their relationship with government recovery programs?
AL: Yeah well, recovery this time is so different to what we’ve seen before. Sometimes I think people describe recovery as one thing, what is good recovery or what examples of good recovery have you seen, and I think there’s no such thing as recovery in and of itself. Recovery is a bunch of things, it’s hundreds of things, hundreds of small things and then it’s really key big things, so there’s no such thing as a good recovery, but there are some really good things that I’ve seen in communities that have really helped communities in their recovery.
That’s a really local specific level but of course we have national standards and principles around good disaster recovery as well. So if we applied these really good principles, around community and connection, and community led communication, that disasters are complex and you can look them up, I’m sure you know them Robyn.
But there’s some national principles which we apply, but then at a community level it really needs to be contextualised specifically for a community and for different elements of the community at different points in time.
So, yes, communities, social capital, connections, so, so important in recovery.
One thing we’ve learned during the COVID-19 virus, this global pandemic, is I think most people have appreciated how much their connection with others is so fundamentally important to their well-being and their level of happiness and contentedness and the way they experience life.
It’s about experiencing with people. So we knew that in recovery we knew that people being together, being connected, sharing stories, crying on each other’s shoulders, just hugging, just having that human interaction. To know that somebody cares, that somebody is there to witness your pain and suffering is important. So normally in recovery we would bring communities together. We would bring neighbours together, whole communities together, barbecues, community fairs, market stalls, shows, talking sessions, sitting around, being with each other.
We can’t do that right now, not in the traditional way and that’s been a real challenge for us.
With these bushfires I’m currently working in North-East Victoria supporting communities recovering from the bush fires there that stretched in the end of December 2019 into early January and all the things we would normally be doing now four months posts those fires, we would be having community events and meetings and gatherings, all the time and we haven’t been able to. I left that community at the end of March and we had held two community meetings, which was so important. We had brought a community together in the local town hall where people could ask questions. We could offer information, people could ask questions, really specific questions about their fence, their property, their crop, their livestock: when would it be fixed, when will their property be fixed. So we were able to be there on the ground with them and talk to them specifically about their needs.
Now we’re not there to be connected to them and we are working really hard to think of ways that we can connect this community together, without physically being there. I’ve been talking about recovery without touching, which sounds a bit dodgy I know but, human touch is really important, we know that.
So what I’m doing with the team is “hang over the fence recovery”. My team are locally based; they live in the communities up there. So they are able to still travel with essential work and go visit people in the homes, hang over the fence, have a chat, talk to them about what their needs are and what we are doing, so we’re connecting in that way.
The community itself is only connecting at a physical distance in the streets, as they do. Yeah so it’s a long way to answer your question Robyn but, connection is important, it’s hard right now, and I’ll stop there and you can ask some more questions or I could carry on talking about this all day.
RM: No, it is really important and in saying that you sound very connected with the communities up there in your role. So what sorts of things do you do to look after yourself? Particularly given you’ve been fighting bushfires, working with the Red Cross during the fire period and now you’re working in this longer-term recovery.
So how do you make sure that you’re okay?
AL: I know when I’m okay and when I’m not, sometimes I’m caught a little by surprise when I thought I was okay and it doesn’t take much to perhaps tip me over into feeling a bit a bit sad and a bit thoughtful. What I would normally do is I would go and visit friends, sit around the dining table, have a meal and have a glass of wine and I would replenish myself through conversation, through distraction, through laughs and some fun, and well that’s been particularly hard for me at the moment in isolation and lockdown. I haven’t been able to do that but I guess we’ve all been really creative about how we kept those connections going.
But where I live is really nourishing in and of itself for me. I feel really at peace at my home here in the Dandenong Ranges and all I need to do is go and spend some meditation time with my chooks, or sit with my bees and smell the honey and listening to them buzzing, and them getting about their business as they do. Talk about social connection, we could talk about bees! Or I go for a lovely walk in the bush. So I feel very fortunate where I live and almost how simple it is to make me feel better, the simple things. I just need to remind myself to go and do those things. We can get very busy and “I’m too busy to go for a walk”, “I’m too busy to pick up the phone and call someone or just take a break”.
But it’s really important and in the long run, it, it makes us much better at what we do, I think.
Australasian Women in Emergencies Network
RM: So during this time what role do networks like the Australasian Women in Emergencies Network play?
AL: It’s a really interesting question because the answer is really, really important. These networks are important. We’ve had a really interesting time at the Australasian Women in Emergencies Network because those of us who are in, I guess organising roles or work in disasters and emergencies, and guess what we’re really really busy at the moment so we thought how are we going to do really twice the workload. We were all very busy dealing with bushfires and then with Covid-19 coming in over the top that created such a level of complexity and extra busyness which was two jobs. We felt like we were doing two jobs at the same time and then we all volunteer in the committee in the Women in Emergencies Network and so then to have time for our volunteer roles on top of that felt a little overwhelming and at one point we talked about just putting activities on hold so we could just keep our lives going but we realised it was more important than ever for the network to be connecting particularly women around Australia and New Zealand and from abroad. We have members from overseas as well but that connection was more important now than ever.
So we dug out who was in, we stuck our heads high and decided we’re going to make sure that we continue to produce a newsletter. We will hold online virtual catch-up coffees and glass of wine sessions and that we would just chat to each other virtually through social media and online to make sure that all those women out there who are incredibly busy at the moment dealing with this overlay upon overlay of disasters, that we were there for them and that they were there for each other, which is which is what the network is about; you know celebrating and connecting women who we have this really important and unique role that they play in emergencies.
RM: So what prompted you and your co-founders to set up this network?
AL: We were celebrating International Women’s Day in 2018 and a fabulous breakfast at the MCG and one of the women that I was connected with through work, she works in emergencies Bridget Tehan, she works at the Victorian Council of Social Services. She sidled up next to me at breakfast, we were a really eclectic mix of women around the table, none of us worked in the same place, so it was a really great mix and she started up next to me and said
“I had this idea about a network of women who you have a role in emergencies, what do you think?”
I said “it’s fabulous count me in if you need a hand let me know” and we co-opted in one of my colleagues who’s a volunteer at the Red Cross and within a week the three of us were sitting around having a coffee talking about what this thing would be and what it would do and we were really excited by the idea.
So we first reached out to 200 of our friends around the country just to poll them and say “what do you think”. We had overwhelming support because what we realised there was both a gap and a need. There was nothing that existed like this in Australia and there was a real need for women to connect and celebrate and just to recognise the roles we’re playing which often go unnoticed because we’re not wearing uniforms all the time or in flashy lights and sirens, big red trucks or orange bands. So we then sent around mass emails and within six months we had over 500 members. We joked about celebrating the hundredth member. We thought that would be at about six months. Well 18 months down the track we had over a thousand members. We’ve extended to New Zealand, so we started as Australia, now Australasia Women in Emergencies and we’ve gone from strength to strength. We’ve just launched our mentoring program where our members can be mentored by a woman or a man who they think they could learn a lot from and as we mentioned learning goes both ways.
So we now have a mentoring program. We have weekly communications and regular catch ups around the country, we have chapter leagues in each state and in New Zealand and they are regularly connecting and sharing their expertise or just sitting around being together and talking about work.
I was recently travelling overseas speaking at a conference in Istanbul in Turkey and I spoke about the network and I tell you the number of – we had 25 countries represented and every one of those countries wanted their own women in emergencies network and I tell you there were plenty of men wearing the yellow badges around so it was really exciting there’s a lot of interest in this locally not just Australia and New Zealand.
Beyond the lights and sirens
RM: So do you think that’s in response to your previous comment about the lights and sirens that there’s a real lack of visibility for everyone else who works on a disaster, beyond the front line responders?
AL: Thank you Robyn for asking me that question because there’s something I want to say. Emergencies are more than response, more than lights and sirens, more than uniforms, and more than men. And so often we see men in uniforms and lights and sirens fighting fires or sandbagging and it’s a limited view of what emergencies are all about. Somebody quoted once that the response phase is just 6 – I shouldn’t say “just” – the response phase is 6 percent of what a disaster is all about. Preparedness is really important and there’s so many statistics about how much we should be investing in mitigation and preparedness that saves I think it’s $1 in mitigation save $7 in recovery. So we know that preparedness is really important: it saves lives and it has a really huge economic impact. And recovery – so recovery goes on for years and years and years it’s expensive, it’s hard, it’s painful. People suffer in recovery.
Now, in recovery, there’s not many lights and sirens and uniforms and what we know is that women actually play huge roles in preparedness and in recovery and they’re not on the front page, they’re not the headlines, not the subject of a Royal Commission I might say – that there’s not a Royal Commission into recovery which there should be and and why I’m so glad you asked the question is because these really key and important roles that go on for years and years and years are quite often, these roles have been held by women and the role that women play in emergencies is unique because it’s not even somebody who would describe themselves as having a job or a role. it is out the back, we’re using community connections and how people work and live in communities and women connecting people and talking to people and caring and nurturing. I’m not saying men don’t do that, I’m saying women do do that and it’s often unrecognised and it’s not counted, but it is critical and important and what I do want to say that has disappointed me this last six months with the bushfires that started I might say in September in Queensland in 2019 and weren’t finally put out until March 2020. Some really key and significant appointments were made with respect to the recovery because there now is recognition that recovery is important. They’re all held by men Robyn, so what I say is that whilst in the day-to-day role of recovery that is largely held and performed by women in professional roles and volunteer roles. When these major appointments were made to lead recovery efforts in New South Wales and Victoria and nationally, all those roles are held by men and I’m really disappointed.
I’m not saying or undermining the value that those men will bring and their expertise and experience is phenomenal but once again we seem to have neglected the fact that women quite equally should be represented and represent a diverse and unique voice around the table and are really importantly in recovery, so I think the network is it’s so important and we haven’t yet but we will as a collective through our membership be taking point with the fact that there was a lack of diversity in the recruitment for those most senior roles around the table in our recovery efforts and hopefully that will change.
RM: Absolutely. Many of the people affected by the bushfires are women and need to be well represented.
AL: They really do and if I can quickly tell you a story about my grandmother; back in the 50s my grandmother and my grandfather and their four children, one of which was my is my dad living in the Adelaide Hills and there was a major bushfire and whilst my grandfather was out fighting the bushfires with the men, my grandmother was at home with four children under ten and that fire actually impacted their property and she jumped into the dam with my with my dad and his siblings, my auntie’s and uncle and the fire went across the top and she saved their lives and so this woman who had a really key role in that disaster saving lives; that doesn’t get talked about. So yes she was really heavily impacted and would have been traumatised by that. She actually had a really important role to play that day – saving her life and that of her four children. So women have for a long time being playing this key role both yeah they’re impacted but they are working hard and strong and I really want to recognise it and celebrate that, and continue to grow and support that. And we have had, I have to say, a lot of men who see it and are standing alongside us too as well, so exciting times.
RM: Fantastic what a great way to wrap up our interview! Before we go is there one last thing that you would like to leave with our viewers?
AL: Thanks for having me. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you want to chat some more I’m always up for a good chat. What’s one thing I could say about disasters? It’s not one thing – it’s about women, it’s about being together, connectedness, it’s about sharing, witnessing each other’s pain as we go through the journey but also being there to celebrate and boy are we going to celebrate when we come out of our Covid-19 restrictions together. We are going to see some fabulous coming together of those communities that are really suffering at the moment and I’m looking forward to being part of it. I feel so fortunate that they’ve included me and I’m part of that community now.
RM: Fantastic Amanda thank you so much for joining The Design Between and we look forward to hearing and reading more from you. Thank you.
AL: Thanks Robyn, see ya.