Creating a lifeline for families with young children during disasters

  • ABA bushfire project team: Kate Turtiainen, Karleen Gribble and Michelle Hamrosi
    ABA bushfire project team: Kate Turtiainen, Karleen Gribble and Michelle Hamrosi
  • BiBS Study report
    BiBS Study report
  • Dr Karleen Gribble, Fiona Phillips (Gilmore MP) and Dr Michelle Hamrosi 
    Dr Karleen Gribble, Fiona Phillips (Gilmore MP) and Dr Michelle Hamrosi 
  • Eda Pozzo, baby firefighter
    Eda Pozzo, baby firefighter
Dr. Michelle Hamrosi
By
Dr. Michelle Hamrosi
Australian Breastfeeding Association
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This year, 2023, has been the year I saw some positive change come from my experience of the Black Summer Bushfires.

When the bushfires roared through my coastal community in Eurobodalla Shire, NSW, on the last day of December 2019, I found myself caught in a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty. With three young children in tow, my plan was simple: scoop them up and make a run for the beach, hoping to outrun the advancing flames should they come. 

It was a plan hatched in the heat of the moment. As the power cut out, I sought refuge with my neighbours, perched on their back fence, watching in disbelief as the fire crept closer. 

My husband, Luke Mitchell, and I are both rural GPs (we met at a National Rural Health Alliance conference in 2004). During those adrenaline-filled weeks, we lived two separate lives due to his on-call commitments as a GP Anaesthetist. Luke worked in Moruya Hospital and slept in his car or in a spare bed on the ward for most of the state emergency weeks. Meanwhile, I had to manage on my own with our kids. 

What struck me most during this ordeal was the vulnerability of infants and their mothers, especially regarding their physical and mental health. And despite Australia being no stranger to disasters, it seemed to me that we had better planning for animals than for families with very young ones.

Others noticed this gap too. The National Rural Health Alliance was one of over 40 womens, health, childrens and emergency organisations that signed a Call for Action directed at the Australian government to do something to better protect babies and toddlers and their mothers in future disasters. 

I decided that I wanted to be a part of making things better for young families in my community and elsewhere in future disasters. That's where the "Community Protection for Infants and Young Children in Bushfire Emergencies Project" comes in. I teamed up with Dr. Karleen Gribble, Adjunct Associate Professor from Western Sydney University, and the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA), and together we were able to secure Australian Government funding for a pioneering, research-based, emergency preparedness program. 

The project began with the Babies and Young Children in the Black Summer (BiBS) Study. The final study report, launched in June 2023, confirmed that lack of planning adversely impacted children and their caregivers. Many families struggled to gather essentials when evacuating. Mothers often evacuated on their own with children. They found it challenging to ensure the safety of their little ones in overcrowded evacuation centres filled with strangers and animals, with limited resources for childcare. Emergency responders voiced concerns about child protection and physical risks. They noted unsafe practices by unsupported caregivers, from washing baby bottles in toilet sinks to unsafe sleeping arrangements. 

Drawing on the findings of the BiBS study, we are now taking action. The Australian Breastfeeding Association developed evacuation kit lists and fact sheets to help families better prepare for disasters. We have also launched introductory e-module training for emergency responders to help them identify and respond to the support needs of babies, toddlers and their caregivers. These resources are free and available to all through the Australian Breastfeeding Association website, aba.asn.au/emergency

In Eurobodalla Shire, we have hosted a series of Community Breastfeeding Mentoring workshops for individuals to learn how better to support infant feeding in the community, as well as planning workshops to help community and government organisations improve their emergency planning.

The great news is that it is already working. In just one example, the local SES and council have partnered to run a creative emergency preparedness initiative for families called Playdates with emergency services

We have more yet to do. We want separate spaces for families with very young children created in evacuation centres, and mother-baby areas to provide peer support in recovery. But we are well on our way. I am excited about what we have achieved already and what we will achieve next. 

For more information on the experiences of pregnant women and new mothers during the Black Summer Bushfires and what needs to be done to improve Australian emergency planning, visit aba.asn.au/emergency 

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