Managing emergencies in general practice

Part A – Introduction to emergency planning in Australian general practice

Disasters and emergencies in Australia

Last revised: 13 Dec 2019

Disasters are unpredictable and destructive. They can cause significant damage, injury, illness, loss, trauma and grief. Australia’s diverse landscape means that natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, severe storms, heatwaves, earthquakes and tropical cyclones occur regularly across the continent. The Commonwealth of Australia Attorney-General’s Department defines a disaster as:

A serious disruption to community life which threatens or causes death or injury in that community and/or damage to property which is beyond the day-to-day capacity of the prescribed statutory authorities and which requires special mobilisation and organisation of resources other than those normally available to those authorities.1

According to the Red Cross World Disasters Report 2013, there were 16,000 Australians affected by a disaster in 2012.2 Between 2003 and 2012, there were 815 people reported killed in Australia as a result of a disaster.2

Disasters can have a profound impact on the population’s health and wellbeing, causing injury – both short-term and long-term – and death. The degree to which people are affected will vary significantly depending on the type and severity of the disaster. People affected by disasters can also have an increased risk of mental health and social problems. Psychological first aid can provide basic support for the distressed immediately after an event.3 Disasters can also have long-term effects on the country’s economy.

The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities estimated that disasters and emergencies cost the Australian economy $9.6 billion in 2015.4 Further, the Roundtable predict that these costs will triple to $33 billion by 2050.4

Thorough and comprehensive emergency planning and preparation by all levels of government, statutory authorities, agencies, individuals, businesses and communities is of paramount importance. Lessons learnt from past events highlight the importance of disaster preparation in reducing the overall impact of a disaster.
Disaster planning should never be neglected or overlooked.

  1. Commonwealth of Australia. Attorney-General’s Department. Disaster health – Handbook 1. Canberra: Australian Emergency Management Institute, 2011.
  2. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Geneva: IFRC, 2013. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  3. Australian Red Cross and Australian Psychological Society. Psychological first aid: An Australian guide to supporting people affected by disaster. Carlton, Vic: Australian Red Cross, 2013. Australian_Guide.pdf [Accessed 21 March 2017].
  4. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities. The economic cost of the social impact of natural disasters. Sydney: Deloitte Access Economics, 2016. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Patient experiences in Australia: Summary of findings, 2015–16. Belconnen, ACT: ABS, 2016. [Accessed 23 March 2017].
  6. Commonwealth of Australia. Department of Health and Ageing. Review of Australia’s health sector response to pandemic (H1N1) 2009: Lessons identified. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing, 2011. [Accessed 29 March 2017].
  7. NSW Health and University of Western Sydney. Disaster Mental Health Manual 2012. University of Western Sydney: Disaster Response and Resilience Research Group, 2012. Documents/disaster-mental-health-manual.pdf [Accessed 28 March 2017].
  8. Neria Y, Galea S, Norris F. Mental health and disasters. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  9. Bryant R. The impact of natural disasters on mental health. InPsych April 2009. impact_disasters [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  10. Australian Psychological Society. Psychological preparation for natural disasters. Melbourne: APS, 2017. [Accessed 27 March 2017].
  11. Kessler RC, Galea S, Gruber MJ, Sampson NA, Ursano RJ, Wessely S. Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Mol Psychiatry 2008;(4):374–84.
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