Revived spirits … Winmalee PS thanks emergency services for their help during the fires. Matthew Sullivan/Newspix

Crisis yields education blueprint for future use

Keith Miles

Proposals drawn up in the wake of last year’s devastating bushfires in the Blue Mountains are a blueprint for the recovery of school communities that fall victim to catastrophic events.

It has been one significant positive consequence of the horrifying events 12 months ago that are still affecting teachers and students.

Through a Working Party set up after those fires following urging by Federation and local schools, a wide-ranging recovery strategy was implemented.

This should be developed for future wide-scale disaster contingencies so that we can move swiftly to plug in resources.

Such a comprehensive strategy would supersede individual efforts in the wake of events such as the 1990 floods in Nyngan that submerged schools or fires at individual schools from time to time.

The scars of the Blue Mountains bushfire crisis 12 months ago have not completely healed.

By October 17 last year, three blazes bore down on school communities in the Blue Mountains: the State Mine Fire originating in the Lithgow area, the Mount York Road fire around Mount Victoria and the Linksview Road fire in the suburbs of Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock.

The Linksview Road fire destroyed 200 homes, of which 22 were owned by employees of the Department, including teachers. Another 193 homes were damaged.

Four schools were severely affected: Winmalee HS, Winmalee PS, Ellison PS and Springwood HS. They went into lockdown with no power or phones, disruption to the HSC and no prospect of evacuation due to the impossibility of getting buses into the area at the time.

All schools in the Blue Mountains were closed on October 21 due to safety concerns; a smaller number of schools in the Hawkesbury were closed as well.

Within the Winmalee HS population alone 48 students’ homes were destroyed by fire; 35 students in the other schools lost their homes.

All the four schools acted in an exemplary manner. These communities were under threat of catastrophic and at times chaotic circumstances and each school kept every student safe and calm under the direction of their teachers and their principals.

Whilst the extent and damage of this event is beyond words the support and movement towards a healing process is a true reflection of the way the critical parties worked together.

Prompted by a request by Federation and the schools affected by the fires, the Department joined P&C Associations, emergency services and local teachers and principals in a Working Party that drew up and implemented detailed strategies to support schools and their communities physically and emotionally. These practical measures included:

  • the establishment of a principal support temporary position
  • a staffing freeze for 2014, particularly critical as families had to move away temporarily as accommodation locally was extremely limited
  • significantly improved principal authority to declare school closures on days of high risk
  • provision of teacher and SASS relief days to manage the additional workload following the fires
  • access to EAPs for all staff
  • the establishment of individual care plans for staff directly harmed by the fires
  • a principals forum with the Work Health and Safety Directorate and emergency services personnel
  • opportunities for professional learning to support staff and students
  • support in the provision of HSC appeals
  • immediate increase in counselling services to students
  • significantly improved networking with community service providers such as Blue Mountains City Council, Medicare Local, beyondblue, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross
  • funding for students to provide uniforms and essential equipment after a declared disaster
  • recognition of the extraordinary work by staff in supporting students and the community after the fires.

Our colleagues were exemplary in their leadership, particularly the four principals concerned, Katrina Middlebrook (Winmalee HS), Robyn Asboth (Springwood HS — now retired), Rob Hutchins (Ellison PS) and Mark Myles (Winmalee PS).

There was inspiring leadership by Paul Cole (Blue Mountains Education Director) and significant support from the DEC and Federation, local Fed Reps and P&C representatives.

The work of teachers at that time, and on October 17 in particular, was beyond reproach, keeping students calm and focused despite being in the dark with sirens and helicopters flying all around them.

The Working Party was wound up in April this year and its continuing work handed over to the local schools, but it is important that we do not shut the lid on recovery work.

We need to continue to support our teachers after such catastrophic events. Somebody, whether from Federation or the Department, does need to stop by and ask them how they are doing, and what they might still need.

Some teachers have recovered but some have not.

One teacher was left with just a vase from everything he had owned. Another teacher and her husband said goodbye to each other as a wall of flames raced towards them — miraculously they survived. In Emma Parade in Winmalee, where five teachers lived, the houses of four of them burned down.

In the mountains, people live in the communities in which they work, so when teachers and students were left homeless they faced dislocation by having to move away and rent until they could move back — if ever.

So it is important that we continue the good work that was started after the fires, and also applaud the efforts of our members in building again from the ashes.

October 17, 2013 was indeed a black day for the mountains but it also revealed that our public schools have a core role in their communities to lead, build and support resilience into the future.

Keith Miles is a former principal and a member of the Retired TA. Keith was appointed to the principal support role shortly after the disaster and led the Working Party process in term 1 this year.