The inclusion of an Inquiry Learning unit on bush fires in the NSW Stage 3 Geography Syllabus comes at a time when all Governments are wanting to place an emphasis on prevention and mitigation as the personal and social costs of responding to and recovering from disasters grows rapidly.

This is both an incredible opportunity as well as a significant challenge for the NSW Rural Fire Service to support teachers to deliver this unit with confidence.

A growing body of evidence exists around disaster resilience education that indicates the capacity of children and young people to be active participants in responding to disaster events can be built. No longer do they have to be passive bystanders needing adult direction and support. Further, children are also able to positively  influence the actions of adults in disasters and emergencies.

The usual NSW RFS understand-build-test-scale program development model is not able to be applied for Stage 3 Geography. In 2017 alone, it is expected that 2500 schools, 4000 teachers and 98000 students will be delivering or undertaking this unit.

To assist teachers with knowledge and confidence about the study of ‘one contemporary bush fire event’ collaborative work is continuing within the education sector, such as with NSW DET Curriculum Advisors and the Geography Teachers Association of NSW.

The importance of disaster resilience education in schools has been recognised for some years by Australian emergency services. particularly through the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience and its focus on Disaster Resilience Education for Young People and the Disaster Resilient Australia and New Zealand School Education Network.

With more than 2100 volunteer brigades across NSW, the NSW RFS already has close contact and participation with many schools. As part of the Stage 3 unit, the call upon RFS Members to undertake ‘expert’ visits to support classroom activity is expected to increase. Skills development is occurring to maximise the value of such visits as RFS Members shift emphasis from entertainment to educational outcomes.

The main area of support for teachers and students is the revised Schools webpage that now places an emphasis on Stage 3 Geography and the October 2013 bush fires in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere. Sure, the website is not fancy at this time, but plans are in place to make it a more useful and exciting experience for teachers and students.

With the Syllabus outcomes in mind, on the website you will find a range of materials that utilise key geographical tools such as:

  • Tables, graphs, statistics, indexes
  • Visual representations like videos, images, aerial photos, webtools, apps, timelines
  • Spatial technologies, maps of different fires, satellite imagery, Bureau of Metorology
  • GIS systems, tracking systems
  • Field work opportunities

The RFS Schools website also hosts all issues of the Bush Fire Bulletin going back to 1952 – fully searchable via Trove

The St Ives North Firestorm project is a great example of inquiry learning linking STEM and Geography in Stage 3. This has been an inspirational project to be involved and thank you to Barbara, Sean and the Team for bringing the RFS along with you. A range of other useful videos can be found on the NSW RFS Youtube Channel.

Thanks also to DET’s Jennifer and Theone for the great Human Society and Its Environment (HSIE) grey website and the work in putting together the Factors that Shape Places framework. I am working on adding a column to identify more relevant NSW RFS or other emergency service links and resources.

This study of a contemporary bush fire event will contribute to broader resilience to disasters and emergencies. Internationally the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030 sets out deliver substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.

Disaster resilience education has benefited from long collaborations between the United Nations, member countries, non-government organisations such as Save the Children, Plan International and World Vision, including development and application of the child-friendly Sendai Framework.

Another international collaboration has seen the development of the Comprehensive School Safety Framework which is about a comprehensive approach to reducing risks from all hazards to the education sector, protecting learners and educators from harm in schools, and to strengthen risk reduction and resilience through education.

Through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, the Child Centred Disaster Risk Reduction (CC-DRR) project has developed an evidence-based practice framework. The NSW RFS embraces this evidence based practice to producing disaster resilience education programs that reduce risk, increase resilience, and can be implemented at scale.

This framework and the Stage 3 Geography Unit align very well through:

  • Clearly articulated learning objectives and outcomes
  • Adoption of child-centred learning approaches
  • Promotion of student participation in the school, household and communities
  • The NSW RFS and others can provide professional development and support for teachers
  • Taking advantage of Syllabus requirements, policy and collaborative mechanisms

To what extent this bush fire unit actually contributes to positive resilience outcomes is important to the NSW RFS and monitoring and evaluation tools will be established. Work is underway in the Hunter Region to evaluate school based bush fire activities directed mostly at Stage 1 and Stage 2 students.

I say to you: trust me – your students can make a difference through disaster resilience education. There are many strong examples of young people taking and directing action in disaster events, as well as in preparation and recovery. Here are a few of my favourites.

Tilly Smith – 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Indonesia.  Tilly was eleven years old on holiday in Thailand with her family when the tsunami hit on 26 December 2004. Having studied learned about tsunamis in Geography just weeks before she recognized the signs of the receding sea and warned her parents of the impending tsunami, which led to hotel guests being rapidly cleared from the beach and saved the life of dozens of people.

Survive and Thrive – Strathewen Public School The school was destroyed on Black Saturday in February 2009. 35 of 200 residents died. The recovery and rebuilding of people, place and community is inspirational, led by the fantastic Principal Jane Hayward.

Harkaway Public School demonstrated the capacity to transfer important information from the children to families, with students conducting Fire Danger Rating lessons at an evening school event for adults. A Fire Danger Rating cake was used – which became the supper afterwards!

The Philppines is subject to regular typhoon impacts, and has many areas subject to flooding and landslip. In Southern Leyte, students have been leading community examination of potential risks of increased flooding from a proposed mine. Ultimately, the mine was not supported by the community leaders following advocacy from the students.

The Kamaishi Miracle is a pivotal story in my dedication to this disaster resilience education ‘stuff’. The students of Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School had undertaken ‘disaster resilience education’ units of work in the 18 months before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011.

When the earthquake hit at 2:46pm, those students still at the school did not go home. The students left at the school led adults and younger children to safety before the tsunami struck. In doing so, they they continued past 3 designated evacuation centres, moving to higher ground. A car was lodged in the 3 floor of the school building. The first 2 evacuation centres were completely destroyed, with many lives lost.

No children from the Junior High School or adjacent Elementary School died – even those who had gone home before the earthquake and tsunami hit. Compare this to Okawa Elementary School where it was a very bad outcome.

In March 2015 I attended the UN World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction in Japan as a private delegate. There I had the privilege of hearing Nodoka Kikuchi – a student from the Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School – speak at the Conference. 1,000 delegates from around the world crying with Nodoka as she told her story of that afternoon. Nodoka has spoken as other UN events, as a young resilience ambassador. She now works to rebuild the people and places in her community.

There are many news stories about this event, however the following articles provide detail on the circumstances and actions of the students on that day.

By the way, the photo above tells many stories. It is from the centre of Kamaishi town. 1,000 people died here. In April 2016 I stood in that town, reflecting on the devastation the earthquake and tsunami wrought. But I also reflected on the school lessons that saved hundreds of lives that fateful day.

Teachers everywhere and the NSW Rural Fire Service together can build the capability of children and young people to be active participants in responding to disaster events, and not be passive bystanders needing adult direction and support. Your Stage 3 students will become young adults and adults with greater understanding of disastrous events that can affect them and their families.