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The Role of Social Service Workers in Disaster Preparedness

Alena Sherman's picture

Image of a women in Uganda

A Q&A with Heather Boetto, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Charles Sturt University

Heather Boetto is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Charles Sturt University and has also worked in the human services sector as a practitioner for over 10 years in various fields, including disability, child and family welfare, and school social work. Her research focuses on environmental social work, also known as ‘ecosocial work’ and ‘green social work’. She was awarded the University Medal in 2017 for her PhD, which culminated in the development of a ‘transformative ecosocial work model’ for practice. The Alliance recently spoke with Heather about her research focused on social work and disaster preparedness.

Question: Please tell us a bit about your background and the research you have done on social work and disaster preparedness.

I developed a love of nature as young farm girl growing up in regional Australia. I relished the freedom of climbing trees, caring for animals and experimenting with plants and bugs.  My parents cared for the land and stock on our farm as a matter of importance and they valued the results of their labours. Not to romanticise my childhood though, I also experienced drought, floods, bushfires, and storms.  I observed my family’s sheep suffer during times of drought and I experienced the panic of bushfire. These experiences added to the awe and respect that I developed for the natural environment. 

My childhood experience was the basis for my career in social work. As a practitioner, I was particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate on human wellbeing. I found a like-minded social worker when I entered academia, and she nurtured my interest and encouraged me to focus on environmental social work (or ‘ecoSocial work’) – which was a bit marginal in those days. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve been learning about the importance of integrating disaster practice into social work. I’m partial to participatory types of research, and so I’ve been collaborating with practitioners, community service organisations and local emergency services to explore disaster preparedness and more broadly, an environmental approach to practice.

Question: While it is known that social workers play a key role in disaster response, your research brings to light that social workers should also play a key role in disaster preparedness. Why do you think it is important that social workers have a role in disaster preparedness?

While disasters are not new phenomena, we’ve had a real onslaught of disaster events worldwide of late. All of us have been impacted in some way, shape or form, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why disaster preparedness is so important is because the level of resilience in a community or group determines the level of impact that a disaster event will have. We know that marginalised groups find it more difficult to prepare for a disaster event, to respond to a disaster event, and to recover from a disaster event, and so developing disaster preparedness addresses issues of social and environmental injustice.

Question: Please elaborate on what role social workers may already play in disaster preparedness as well as what roles they may need to take on in the future?

To be honest, we need to do much more! The role social workers play in disaster preparedness is seriously lacking…but we’re getting better. Our role is to develop disaster preparedness and resilience in all aspects of our practice – within our organisations, with our staff and volunteers, with service users, and our local communities. We also need to advocate for the role that social workers play in climate issues. Preparing and responding to disasters alone isn’t going to resolve the underlying problems associated with human activities that cause climate change and subsequent increases in disaster events.

Question: How can we ensure that social workers are prepared/trained to take on such roles?

I believe all social workers should receive training in disaster practice as a core part of professional education – and not just in trauma counselling. Most people identify with the response and recovery phases of disasters, and yet, the level to which a community or group is prepared for disaster events indicates their capacity to respond and recover. Given the inequitable impact of disasters on marginalised groups, preparedness is intrinsically linked to social and environmental justice outcomes.

Question: What contextual factors might limit a social worker’s ability to effectively engage in disaster practice and how can they mitigate such factors?

The most common barriers practitioners talk to me about are around organisational issues. In Australia, many practitioners are employed by organisations where disaster practice is not seen as core business. Short-term funding contracts usually define daily activities and restrict practitioners’ capacity for holistic, multidimensional approaches to practice. Of course, this system is underpinned by neoliberalism, which is also at the heart of the global environmental climate crisis. This is not a coincidence!

How can we address barriers to disaster practice? Social workers (and all social service workers!) are the most creative, skilled, and energizing people I know. I’ve worked with practitioners to integrate environmental approaches into practice, and their advice is to – start small, be creative, and when possible, be bold!