Preparing for the worst

Fire fighters should identify what are potentially the worst-case events and prepare for them, even if they are extremely unlikely to occur, says Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre psychology researcher Claire Johnson.

Preparing for the worst
Fire fighters need to be prepared for the worst that can happen. Credit: Queensland Fire and Rescue Service

“A failure to consider worst-case scenario possibilities has been implicated in a number of high-profile investigations into Australian bushfire disasters,” says Claire, who submitted her PhD thesis on worst-case scenario planning to La Trobe University in Melbourne in March this year.

For instance, the inquiries following the Canberra bushfires in 2003 and the Wangary fires on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula in 2006 both suggested lack of considering the worst contributed to an underestimation of the threat posed.

Claire analysed dozens of interviews with fire fighters at all levels, but particularly experts at agencies in five Australian states, to come to her conclusions.

Although her studies focussed on emergency incident management of fires, her findings could also be relevant to decisions made at the household level during a bushfire. Post-incident interviews by the Bushfire CRC show many people are unable to imagine how a situation can quickly deteriorate into disaster. The research might also inform the management of natural and other hazards, such as air crashes.

“While receiving little previous research attention, worst-case thinking is a critical skill that is challenging to develop and difficult to execute.” But the benefits of thinking this way, Claire says, include avoiding the surprise of unexpected events and identifying possible actions to reduce the consequences if the worst cannot be avoided.

Photo: The aftermath of the Black Saturday fires near Kinglake, Victoria.
Credit: Bushfire CRC

Bushfire CRC, David McLoughlin,,