Strategic and interactive communications tailored to local communities should guide all bushfire education, researchers have found.
Researchers from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre have examined the role, scope and limits of Australian bushfire and community safety communication in preparing householders for fire.
Led by Professor Peter Fairbrother, Director of RMIT University's Centre for People, Organisation and Work, the research team found that a more strategic, interactive and tailored approach was needed to build resilience and have a lasting and measurable impact in risk areas.
Professor Fairbrother said the threat of bushfire was a practical reality of everyday life for increasing numbers of people living at the urban-rural fringe and beyond.
"As that threat intensifies, due to factors such as changing climate conditions and shifting populations, the challenge lies in engaging and 'tooling up' these vulnerable communities with education and information resources that hit the mark," he said.
"We know that effective communication is critical to bushfire preparedness and response.
"But the reality is that there continues to be a mismatch between the information given and what people do before and during a bushfire attack.
"Our research examined that puzzle, identifying what really happens within these communities and highlights the implications for community residents, volunteer firefighters and associated staff and agencies."
The team conducted 249 face-to-face individual interviews, plus joint and telephone interviews with 265 people as well as running 13 focus groups with 71 participants, for the study.
The research took place in 12 localities across New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, and included discussions with 46 fire and other agency personnel responsible for bushfire management and communication.
The study explains the complexities of how people in different localities organise and operate.
It examines their formal and informal networks, and how people in these "social networks" relate and communicate among each other and with authorities.
"For example, the study shows that during bushfires, many people are sceptical about information and advice from outside and remote areas," Professor Fairbrother said.
"They prefer local, immediate contacts, ahead of fire or emergency agencies, even though the agencies typically have the most accurate information."
There were also findings relating to gender and bushfire.
"We heard accounts showing how gendered dynamics were involved in determining a household bushfire plan, and the way in which gendered expectations may impair a heterosexual couple's ability to communicate and negotiate effectively with regard to bushfire safety," Professor Fairbrother said.
The researchers argue that to be truly effective, communication should be strategic, interactive and tailored to the complexity and diversity of each locality.
That diversity includes a range of factors, such as differences by class, ethnicity, gender, age and locality.
John Schauble, Manager, Strategic Advice to Victoria's newly-appointed Emergency Management Commissioner, said the research provided valuable insights into how people processed and acted on information.
"Typically, communication has been broad brush," he said.
"The key lies in adopting a more focused approach, aligning the objectives, key messaging and delivery methods with the different needs of different target audiences and, as with any strategy, the outcomes should be measurable."