When the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020 had the country in its grip, Salvation Army Emergency Services (SAES) swiftly responded. And in a year marked by disaster, they remain prepped and ready to assist whenever they are needed.
Topher Holland, general manager of The Salvation Army’s Strategic and Disaster Management unit, oversaw the widespread response that covered more than 290 locations at evacuation centres and firegrounds during the disaster. Volunteers and Salvos personnel served hundreds of thousands of meals and light refreshments over that time, while also making themselves available to come alongside people and provide emotional, psychological and spiritual support.
Reflecting on that intense season, Topher says the response to the ever-changing situation had to be incredibly fast due to the speed at which the bushfires were moving across the states.
“Our initial response was to assist people who had been through an incredibly traumatic event – an ongoing event – and a part of that was in our evacuation centres and our serving the combat agencies,” says Topher.
“The saying that we always use is that we meet people at their point of need. That need changes as time goes on. So, initially it’s food, shelter, clothing, and then it’s ‘right, what do I do from here – is my house burnt down? What’s actually happening here? And what is the support I need to move forward in?’ So, there’s always ongoing care.”
With years of experience working in disaster management, Topher understands that for many people, it takes time to be ready to rebuild – not just their homes but also their lives.
“The Salvation Army make the statement, ‘We’re there for the long haul’ but we don’t want that to mean that we hold back resources. We want to do the journey with people. So, we meet people at that point of need, and moving forward, that need changes as people go through that recovery and rebuild. Some people aren’t going to recover, so their lives have to be rebuilt around a new normal.”
Responding to an unprecedented situation
The sheer scale of last season’s bushfires has been described by many as ‘unprecedented’, and so was the response by SAES and recovery teams. As the blaze moved across the affected states, activated teams would relocate in order to cater to first-responders, while recovery teams set up in towns where the fires had passed through.
With the situation shifting and developing constantly, large-scale, and simultaneous response and recovery coordination was required to tend to the changing needs of communities. Topher says the first response in disaster is always about basic needs – food, shelter, clothing and emotional care.
Once that is covered, the team starts thinking about what the need is going to be moving forward and how they can help. With multiple agencies, government and privacy issues involved, there is much to consider.
“There was a variety of need that happened – people that owned their house, people who completely lost their house, people who lost everything in their house, people who were incredibly fearful of what was going on. Those kinds of things were very important to try and get a balance on how we actually address the variety of need.”
With many people impacted by multiple disasters, that variety of need was immense. Dedicated Salvation Army rural chaplains had already been providing support to drought-stricken communities – only to see the same community ravaged by fire and then flood. The financial assistance provided has been a lifeline, but so has the human connection of an encouraging phone call or visit offering emotional, psychological and spiritual support.
“One of the blessings of The Salvation Army is that whilst we’re nationally focussed, we are embedded locally,” says Topher. “Our connections and referrals to all our ministries is an amazing thing we have that no one else has.”
Preparing for disasters
It is forecasted that this summer, Australia will see a range of extreme weather events– with floods, cyclones and bushfires all likely to make an impact. SAES teams stand ready to respond to whatever the emergency may be.
“There are four phases of disaster,” says Topher. “That’s our preparation, our response, our recovery / rebuild, and our prevention or mitigation. We’re in preparation at the moment. The teams are preparing all their trucks, all their resources, all their food, all their catering equipment, all their training of volunteers, building a relationship with government and other agencies. Those relationships with governments are really important, so that when there’s an activation we can respond straight away.”
But this season will be unlike any other, as COVID-19 is an ever-present concern. Executing a disaster response while accounting for the risks posed by the virus to impacted people, has required a redesign of services. This includes considering how to prepare and distribute food, how to operate within an evacuation centre, and how to provide care and support to people experiencing trauma after disaster.
“We’re working with government and health departments on how we actually do that,” says Topher. “But it’s always bearing in mind that person we’re trying to serve. That’s our focus, that one person all the time, how we best serve that person.”
COVID-19 has meant that the disaster response team continued to be active in a variety of spaces throughout the year. Responding to vulnerable and isolated people, they worked with Woolworths and state governments to provide food hampers, care and support in a safe environment.
A heart to help
While Topher is moving on from his role in Strategic and Disaster Management, he says the highlight for him has been working in a team of people who are committed to serving others.
“They have a heart for people. A heart to serve. A heart to provide effective and efficient assistance to people following such a serious and disturbing event. They’ve punched above their weight really and they’ve got a strength about them that really wants to support each other but also support people in the local community.”
The New South Wales government has since recognised members of The Salvation Army, SAES volunteers and volunteers from other non-government organisations across the state for the significant contribution they provided during the bushfire crisis.
“It is really important to me – and I encourage my team – that we want people to understand this, ‘there’s no pit so deep that love can’t reach you and hope can’t help you,’” says Topher.
“We get people to understand that’s what we try and do, we want to say in this time of despair and this time of incredible challenge and difficulty and trauma that that pit, that challenge you’re in, The Salvation Army wants to come alongside and give love, give hope.”