While our minds have been focused on COVID for the majority of this year, images of last summer’s bushfires ravaging landscapes through NSW, ACT, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria have not been forgotten.
Many parts of Australia have received significantly higher rainfall this year and the ground is not as dry as it was last year, however bushfires still pose a threat and authorities warn us not to be complacent.
This week we update our simple guide to bushfire advice for children’s services to ensure that early education services across Australia have the information they need at their fingertips.
Make sure you scroll to the end for some excellent advice to share with your families about emergency conditions.
The National Regulations (97) give instructions to providers about putting emergency plans in place, and Quality Area 2.2, Children’s Health and Safety, states that each child’s safety should be protected, specifying that:
- At all times, reasonable precautions and adequate supervision ensure children are protected from harm and hazard (Element 2.2.1).
- Plans to effectively manage incidents and emergencies are developed in consultation with relevant authorities, practised and implemented (Element 2.2.2).
- Management, educators and staff are aware of their roles and responsibilities to identify and respond to every child at risk of abuse or neglect (Element 2.2.3).
The emergency and evacuation procedures must be documented and rehearsed at least every 3 months that the service is operating by the staff members, volunteers and children present at the service on the day of the rehearsal and the responsible person present at the time (Regulation 97).
The emergency and evacuation policy and procedures should confirm how emergencies will be managed to reduce the associated risks and maintain children’s safety; this may include identifying circumstances when the decision is made to close the service.
For any type of fire hazard, bushfire included, an early childhood or OSHC service must have appropriate fire safety equipment installed and maintained – this includes fire extinguishers, fire panels, fire blankets, smoke detectors and emergency exit lights.
Children take 10 times longer than adults to evacuate a building.
Stephen Burton, Engineers Australia’s Society of Fire Safety
Services must also have a current emergency management plan and ensure staff are trained to use the fire safety equipment and fully understand their evacuation procedures in the case of a fire emergency.
Be familiar with requirements and seek specialist advice
The national regulations for early childhood education and care require providers and educators to comply with all other relevant legislation, so you must also be familiar with any special requirements in your area such as building regulations, traffic restrictions, or emergency media announcements.
The national regulations include a requirement to document consultation on your emergency management plan, so think about who can offer you expert advice.
If you are co-located with a school or another institution, make sure you are familiar with who the Fire Wardens are (usually staff volunteers) and that the overall evacuation plan takes into account the needs of infants and small children.
OSHC services should have their own fire management plans AND should ensure the school’s overall fire management plan covers before and after-hours attendance – don’t let them forget you!
You should be able to speak to a qualified adviser from your local government office, fire brigade, or State Emergency Service if you need to check for requirements specifically affecting your community, and be aware that these may change from year to year.
A look around the country – state-based guides and advice
New South Wales
In their Guide to developing a Bush Fire Emergency Management and Evacuation Plan, The NSW Rural Fire Service provides the following information to help you best prepare for a bushfire threat.
When aware of the bushfire in the local area:
- consult the NSW RFS website, 1800 NSW RFS, smartphone applications and local firefighting resources for fire situation and updates
- inform staff and occupants of the fire situation
- ensure that the person in charge, ie. Chief Warden, has an active mobile phone and is contactable
- advise the local emergency services that your service is operating and that with young children in attendance you will need to be advised early if an evacuation is likely
- make arrangements for transportation (for evacuation).
The NSW RFS website also provides step by step guidance which you can adapt to your fire management plan.
If you do have to evacuate, remember that you won’t be able to return to your service until emergency services declare the area safe. The NSW RFS advice is:
- no person should re-enter any evacuated building until advised by the emergency service,
- the Fire Warden (or person responsible) to arrange the movement of occupants back to the site and or their separate accommodation,
- all occupants are to be accounted for on their return,
- inform the police/emergency service of the return of persons to the premises.
Victoria’s deadly bushfire history leads to some of the most detailed fire management advice we found for education and care services. All early childhood services in Victoria must have emergency and evacuation policies and procedures.
Schools and early childhood services which are at the highest risk of bushfire danger are placed on the Education Department’s Bushfire At-Risk Register (BARR). Inclusion on this register triggers the school or early childhood service to pre-emptively close down on Code Red days declared by their Bureau of Meteorology district.
Check whether your service is listed on the Bushfire At-Risk Register.
All early childhood services listed on the Department’s BARR are required as a condition of their service approval or licence to operate, to submit their current management plan to the regulatory authority by 1 September each year.
The Country Fire Authority (CFA) publishes Community Information Guides for communities that have been deemed to be facing risk of bushfire. Community Information Guides may help you to identify special needs for your townships and communities at risk of bushfire and can help you to develop the emergency and evacuation policy and procedures.
Business Victoria has also developed a guide to preparing your business for bushfire. A copy of your Bushfire Emergency Plan with any attachments should be given to the local Fire Service to ensure inclusion in pre-incident planning arrangements for bushfire emergencies.
Below is an example of what may occur in the event of a bushfire.
If the emergency services advise you to evacuate your service:
- keep children inside until ready, with doors and windows closed,
- remain calm and explain what is happening,
- keep emergency services informed,
- proceed to Designated Assembly Area for transportation,
- have designated staff members take control of the situation,
- use your records of attendance and staffing that day to ensure everyone is accounted for,
- take your contact details for children, staff and your external contacts with you;
- after all the occupants have been evacuated, nominated staff can contact the children’s families.
Tasmania has developed an Emergency Management Framework for Vulnerable People which includes children in a child care setting.
Children’s services are obligated under the General Fire Regulations 2010 to submit to the Chief Officer of the Tasmanian Fire Service (TFS), for approval, an Evacuation Plan for the evacuation of the building in the case of fire.
TFS has developed Fire Evacuation Plan Guidelines which have been designed to meet TFS approval requirements.
TFS provides guidance on developing a plan and can help you with the plan structure. Generic Emergency Action Guides have also been developed which can assist help any visitors evacuate the building in the event that a fire occurs. Guide 1 and Guide 2 are available on the TFS website.
A bushfire ‘risk rating’ is applied to early childhood services and preschools in designated bushfire-prone areas, based on their ‘bushfire attack level’ (BAL).
South Australia has a list of preschools that will close if their district has a catastrophic fire danger warning. On a catastrophic fire danger day, no people are permitted on these school or preschool grounds.
A BAL measures a site’s potential for exposure to ember attack, radiant heat and direct flame in the event of a bushfire emergency. The BAL is calculated by specialist consultants, who analyse information such as the location, surroundings or construction of the site, previous bushfire history and other relevant factors. The four categories are:
- R1 Extreme/Very high-risk
- R2 High-risk
- R3 Medium/Low-risk
- NR Non-rated.
Services and preschools with a risk rating of R1 and R2 are also required to have a specific bushfire response plan as well as their general emergency management plan. Sites in bushfire-prone areas that are rated R3 or NR are strongly encouraged to have a bushfire response plan, but it is not currently mandatory.
If a bushfire is approaching, the safety of children and other occupants is the highest priority. In these situations, services and preschools will:
- move occupants to a designated bushfire refuge or other suitable location,
- fill available containers with water,
- close windows, doors and turn off the air conditioning,
- remain inside with students until the main fire front has passed,
- listen to local radio and monitor the CFS website;
- work with the Department of Education and Child Development Security and Emergency Management unit to manage the situation and keep informed about changing conditions.
South Australia provides excellent advice for families if they are separated from their children during a bushfire threat – scroll down to read it.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services in WA provides Guidelines for preparing a Bushfire Risk Management Plan. Which are used by local government to identify at risk locations including schools and early childhood services.
Services should have their own Emergency and Critical Incident Management Plan (this template has been designed for schools but can be adapted for OSHC and early childhood) which should include your centre’s plans for dealing with bushfires. The safety and wellbeing of children and staff is at all times the main priority and staff are not expected to fight bushfires.
- conduct a risk assessment to identify potential emergencies that could affect the service and use this to prepare emergency and evacuation procedures,
- prepare an Emergency Management Plan that covers all potential risks, emergency response procedures, contact details for emergency services and service personnel, drills and training schedules,
- have access to reliable communication equipment during emergencies (eg charged mobile phone);
- display evacuation diagrams and emergency telephone numbers
rehearse emergency evacuation procedures every three months, on different days and times each quarter.
Some key aspects of the Bushfire Policy include:
- educators monitoring fire danger ratings daily during peak fire season
- trimming trees within 2 metres of building and keeping gutters clean
- maintaining a ‘safe refuge kit’
- ensuring outdoor taps are working and have hoses attached and buckets nearby during very high, severe or extreme fire danger ratings
- ensuring family contacts are current and accessible
- ensuring children have their medication
Australian Capital Territory
In addition to meeting national regulations, services should follow advice from the ACT Emergency Services Agency to be bushfire ready.
Firefighters regularly inspect early education services in the ACT, making sure they are safe, have working fire alarms and have appropriate plans to evacuate kids.
Like most organisations in the area, ACT childcare centres have well-drilled evacuation plans.
As we update this guide, a bushfire is ravaging Queensland’s World Heritage-listed K’gari/Fraser Island. In addition to meeting emergency and evacuation procedures as required in all states under Regulations 97 and 168 of the Education and Care Services National Regulations, services in Queensland should follow advice from the Queensland Government Rural Fire Service, which can be found here.
Advice for parents and guardians
It is important that families know and understand how your children’s service or preschool will communicate emergencies and that you have up-to-date contact information. Sometimes this may mean your communication with them will be via SMS or social media channels.
During a bushfire emergency, you will be focused on the children, staff and your environment and applying your bushfire or emergency management plan.
One thing you may have to consider is what to do or say to adults who are cut off from your service but desperate to reach their child.
Having the discussion with families of children at your service well ahead of any emergency period is always best. Reminders to families in your spring newsletter or ahead of the summer holidays will be welcomed.
Of all the advice that we reviewed in preparing this Simple Guide, the short and straightforward advice to families below from the South Australian Department of Education and Child Development in SA seemed most helpful.
Advice to families in case a bushfire affects their child’s education and care service
While your instinct as a parent may be to go and collect your child, you should consider a few things first.
Your child will be moved to a bushfire refuge or other safe place where they are accounted for and supervised. You need to seriously consider whether it is safe, or even possible due to road closures, for you to travel through the bushfire affected area to get your child.
Here are some questions that you should consider before making your decision:
- If you were to remove them from this location, would you have a safer place to go, is the route safe?
- Is your child safest at the bushfire refuge?
- What information has the early childhood service provided to you?
- What instructions did they give?
- Did they recommend that you collect your child?
While it can be a scary experience being separated from your child in this situation, sometimes they are safest where they currently are.
Dealing with post-fire trauma – advice from fire ravaged Cobargo Preschool
In the early hours of January 1 2020, a bushfire engulfed the NSW Bega Valley town of Cobargo. The fire was so massive and swept through so quickly that locals were totally unprepared for it.
Drought meant that residents had no water stores to protect their property, the town water supply wasn’t working due to electricity being taken out by the firestorm, and there were no fire trucks available. The main street was quickly ravaged, with many buildings destroyed.
The fire front soon reached Cobargo preschool. Thankfully the building was saved by two brave neighbours who managed to stop the approaching flames using only sticks and debris. Without their intervention, the building would have burnt to the ground. As it was, part of the playground was destroyed and the ash and smoke enveloped the building, coating books and resources with soot.
All the preschool families and staff were impacted to some extent by the fires. Everyone evacuated at least once, some up to four times over January. Half of the families lost homes. Others lost properties or animals.
Christine McKnight, Director of Cobargo Preschool, gives the following advice on dealing with post-fire trauma:
“You can’t plan or prepare for trauma recovery or grief,” says Christine. “It’s important just to be present and not put pressure on yourself or the people around you. Kindness and acceptance are the most important ways to approach each other.
“Let the children guide you with what they need. Lower your expectations, don’t plan too much and follow the children’s lead. Sometimes it’s to talk, sometimes it’s best to play an imaginative game, sometimes it’s best to curl up for a hug.
The adults are the same. We all need a slower pace, nurturing, security and permission to just be.”
Read more about how community, friendship and belonging are helping the fire affected community of Cobargo on their long road to recovery in our November edition of Rattler magazine.
Members can download the magazine from our resource hub, while non members can purchase a copy here.
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