With 173 people killed, 414 injured, 2,100 homes destroyed and 7,562 people displaced, the Black Saturday bushfires which raged throughout Victoria in February 2009 were by far the worst natural disaster which that state had experienced in a long time.

Seven months later, a 25-page strategy document published by the Federal Attorney General’s Office focused entirely around resilience and disaster management yet mentioned the word ‘engineering’ only once and barely mentioned the role of the engineering profession in preparing for and managing natural disasters.

In a recent article published on the Engineers Australia web site, meanwhile, Engineers Australia (Canberra Division) past president Neil Greet described how professionals from the emergency management field had lamented at the April launch of the Australian Security Policy Institute’s new ‘Risk and Resilience’ program that the engineering profession appeared to have largely vacated its leadership role in terms of helping Australia plan for and recover from natural disasters. In the case of the program’s launch, such refrains were reinforced by the absence of representation from the engineering profession outside of EA.

So have engineers vacated their role in this space? Moreover, what should the profession be doing?

According to Greet, a lot of good work is indeed being done in this field. Nevertheless, a couple of issues remain. First, many of those involved in disaster management may want to engage with members of the profession but may not be certain as to how to go about this. In the case of the ASPI program, he says a number of those people running the program had attempted to reach out further to the engineering profession but had been uncertain about who to approach.

Furthermore, Greet says a more basic problem revolves around a lack of coordination with regard to the ways in which individual efforts are being brought together. Whilst large engineering outfits such as AECOM and Arup are doing excellent work with regard to helping the cities of Sydney and Melbourne with their efforts as part of the worldwide 100 resilient cities challenge, exactly how these types of efforts flow through and mesh with government led efforts regarding natural disaster management in other locations remains unclear, he said. Moreover, the extent of broader coordination of efforts regarding emergency management through to disaster recovery varies according to state. States such as Victoria and Queensland, which have been through significant events in this area over recent years generally do this well, Greet says, whereas other states are less advanced in their efforts in these areas.

Professor Sujeeva Setunge, deputy dean of research and innovation at the School of Engineering at RMIT, does not agree that the profession has vacated its role in this area but acknowledges that more can be done.

An area in which we have not done well in the past, Setunge said, revolves around a habit of merely rebuilding to the same standard after disaster as opposed to building stronger and better. She says this is largely being driven by constraints relating to budget and a need to rebuild quickly. In Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, for example, a number of the roads and structures which had to be rebuilt after the 2011 floods had to be rebuilt again in 2013 when further floods hit.

In order to address this, Setunge says more front end planning is needed to identify areas of vulnerability and devise options to either beef up the strength of crucial structures before disasters happen and/or work out what options could be deployed where significant events do occur. An example can be seen through a project she is working on as part of a partnership involving road authorities in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. This program is looking at the impact of failure of critical structures such as roads, bridges, culverts and floodways and is looking to produce a model which will show how infrastructure might be affected in the event of disaster. This will enable the authorities to understand which structures are critical and might require enhanced resilience features along with how they can plan for adaptation or other measures with regard to remaining assets.

“I don’t agree with the statement that the engineering profession has largely vacated its role,” Setunge said. “I believe they can take more leadership but I have seen many engineers who work very hard to provide resilience to infrastructure.

“Yes, we can do more but we are doing as well as we can in most occasions.”

Greet, meanwhile, says the critical point is to have appropriate structures of leadership and governance in place in order to facilitate a proactive approach toward disaster management and planning. He says the Queensland Reconstruction Authority, which was established after storms throughout the 2010/11 summer period caused widespread damage, is an example. Having such structures in place before disaster strikes not only enables a proactive approach toward risk management but also ensures that appropriate organisational structures are in place to respond when disaster does occur.

Whilst primary responsibility for setting these structures up rests with state governments, Greet says engineers and other professionals can help by promoting awareness about the importance of forward planning and advising on how appropriate structures can be put in place.

He says better coordination would make a significant difference.

“There is amazingly good resilient engineering going on all around the country in different projects,” Greet said.

“It’s the coherence of the system (that we have to work on) and how we actually bring it together and make it better for when we are challenged by the shock.”