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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Hero to Partner in Emergency Management, Australia

This paper will explore desire and defenses in the emergency management sector in the state of Victoria, Australia. There are major paradigm shifts in role and authority underway in the sector due to increasing forest fire risk. In an effort to increase the capacity of communities to be better prepared for bushfires, Australia has introduced the concept of 'Shared responsibility'. "(S)hared responsibility means that bushfire safety is no longer the sole responsibility of government and its agencies, but is a shared responsibility with all Victorians" (Teague). The paper contents that this shift to 'shared responsibility' can be described as a desire for authorities to move from a role of hero to partner with the community. This shift signals a desire by Australian governments and emergency services to involve communities in reducing fire risk. This is because they have realised that they have finite resources that are insufficient on their own to address the fire risk, and that, in their view, some of this responsibility is better placed with affected communities. This shift to shared responsibility has implications for the role and organisational authority of personnel working in emergency management. It also has implications for the role and authority of the citizen, although exploration of the issues for citizens is outside the scope of this presentation. My working hypothesis is that this shift in roles has given rise to ambivalence about how organisational authority should be exercised in emergency management. I also suggest that the government's desire for shared responsibility may be magical thinking not based on the reality of the community's embedded relation to the government as 'hero', and that the community is defending against taking up the authority required to make the new relationship a successful one. Data will be drawn from a case study from recent research with emergency management workers who were responsible for managing bushfire. The case study data comprises role drawings and interview material with participants. It demonstrates the significant changes in authority relations between government and citizens and the challenges these changes bring. In addition to recommending adequate containing environments, the paper suggests other interventions to improve the transitions desired.