To say that 2020 has been a year most of us would rather forget is an understatement. The year opened with a bushfire catastrophe across four Australian States and Territories. These fires resulted in mass evacuations of key holiday areas, effectively removing customers from businesses in holiday areas during their busiest trading period of the year. The bushfires were preceded by a major flood event in Queensland, fires in South-east Queensland and Northern NSW. They were then followed by a disastrous ‘ice storm’ in Canberra, only to be trumped by the appearance of COVID19 and the advent of the biggest economic downturn that Australia has experienced since the Great Depression.

The net effect of these successive events has been to drain the financial and emotional resources of business owners and their staff. That said, most business owners have since picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and quietly set about building back better businesses – an observation that is a credit to the strength and resilience of all Australians, regardless of their original country of origin.

“But while the temptation for most of us is to wipe our collective brows and heave a collective sigh, the end of 2020 does not mean that the risk of natural disasters has gone away”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

“As we all look forward to the 2020/2021 Summer with hope, we must also heed the lessons learnt from the natural disasters of the summer just passed”, said Mark.

This is not about being pessimistic. It is simply about being realistic and making necessary preparations that protect your business should your community be unlucky enough to be impacted by a natural disaster this summer. With many businesses already having been financially weakened by the events of the past 12 months, this task is more crucial this year

Within this context, the Federal Department of Home Affairs arranged a briefing this week for industry about the natural disaster outlook for the upcoming Summer. The meeting included briefings from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (on likely weather events), the Australian Energy Market Operator (on continuity of electricity supply during disasters) and a major telecommunication provider (on resilience of telecommunications services).

The Bureau of Meteorology suggested that the cyclone season was likely to be more significant than it had been in recent years, with an expected increased number of cyclones in Northern Australia. This development, in turn, was likely to bring increased risk of major storm damage and flooding events in Eastern Australia. The upside, however, was that moister air associated with this weather pattern was expected to reduce the extreme intensity of bushfires compared with those of last summer.

The meeting discussion then turned to the opportunity for different industries to collaborate to improve the effectiveness of pre-disaster preparations, in-disaster responses, and the efficiency of post disaster recovery activity.

“Our industry is a crucial player in natural disasters, with fuel distribution and fuel retail businesses providing access to vital fuel needed for emergency service operations and local communities that are impacted by natural disasters”, said Mark

During the 2019-20 bushfires, many regional service stations operated as a ‘base’ for fire service operations by providing fuel, food and drink to support fire crews. These sites also provided additional services by operating as ‘contact centres’ to connect impacted residents with support services and, in one case, providing cash storage services for businesses that were trading but could not bank their takings due to banks being closed.

“We heard of phenomenal stories of bravery as fuel distribution businesses guided their drivers into fire ravaged areas to ensure that emergency services and local communities had the fuel they needed to fight the fires and commence the recovery process”, added Mark

“What we learnt during the last summer is that service stations have a vital role to play during natural disasters, often being the ‘last to close and the first to open’ during natural disasters– providing the community with timely essential services during and immediately following, a natural disaster event”, said Mark

The fuel industry’s capacity to support local communities during natural disaster is both proven and undisputed. It therefore follows that our fuel distribution and fuel retail businesses need to be better supported by electricity retailers and telecommunication providers – and this national meeting was a very positive step in this conversation.

ACAPMA will continue to work alongside the major fuel companies and other stakeholders to promote collaborations that take stock of the lessons learned last summer and developing the collaborations needed to better support all fuel businesses in the face of future natural disasters.

In the meantime, it is time for all business owners to consider and implement practical steps to prepare their businesses should we see a repeat of the disasters of last summer. Specifically, this means ensuring that:

  1. Your business has a current disaster management plan that provides for the safety of your customers, your people and your premises
  2. You have made arrangements with your energy retailer about how you will operate in the event of electricity supply being interrupted, including modification of your switchboard to provide for quick connection to a generator (and that you have made prior arrangements for sourcing an appropriately sized generator)
  3. You have spoken with your fuel distributor/supplier about fuel delivery arrangements during a natural disaster
  4. You have taken practical steps to ensure that you can maintain business communications and security services if telecommunication services are lost.
  5. Your current business insurances are fit-for-purpose and provide optimal protection of your people and your assets.

“None of us want a repeat of what happened last summer. We must, however, be more prepared for this summer than we were at this time last year”, concluded Mark.