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June–August 2021

Emergency risk communication for chemical release incidents

Good communication of emergency risk is about more than robust procedures; an understanding of communication practice is also needed.

Many people in Melbourne will remember the August 2018 fire at a Tottenham warehouse. The warehouse was illegally storing unknown chemical and industrial waste in a large number of 44-gallon drums. The fire (often referred to as the West Footscray fire) produced a plume of black smoke that could be seen from across the city. Seven months later, another fire started at a chemical waste storage facility in Campbellfield. This warehouse contained stockpiled and incorrectly stored chemicals. A black smoke plume was emitted and was seen across residential areas of Melbourne.

Challenges of emergency risk communication

The release of hazardous chemicals into the environment presents a significant threat to human health. These incidents, such as chemical spills and fires, are incredibly challenging for emergency response teams to manage. When chemical release incidents occur, emergency responders face significant uncertainty and a need to urgently act to protect public health. Part of the public health response strategy includes emergency risk communication.

To ensure communications are timely and accurate, practitioners must quickly make sense of the hazardous situation and the communication options available. However, time and time again, we see emergency risk communication activities being met with criticism from the public and other stakeholders.

While chemical storage and handling in Australia is generally good when compared globally, we still have a long history of chemical release incidents. Notable incidents include the chemical leak at Kooragang Island in 2011 and several large-scale fires in Melbourne, including the West Footscray fire in 2018 and the Campbellfield fire in 2019. The 2011 chemical release incident on Kooragang Island in New South Wales involved the emission of chromium(VI) from an ammonia plant. While most released chemicals fell on site, some moved off site and fell on surrounding residential areas. It took several days for residents to be provided with information about the incident. Accordingly, the public inquiry highlighted delayed and inadequate communication to the public about the health risks the chemical leak presented.

Similarly, a public inquiry into fires at waste and recycling facilities across Victoria, including the West Footscray fire and the Campbellfield fire, highlighted a public view of poor communication by government agencies, including that the information provided to the community was inadequate.

Although there are emergency response procedures to guide practitioners, each incident is unique, which means there will be decisions that need to be made when new issues arise. Practitioners work in complex, time-critical environments that require both individual decision-making and the coordination of decisions within government emergency response teams. These practitioners are pivotal to what, how and when information is communicated to the public. Therefore, to be effective and efficient at communicating, government emergency response agencies need to look inwards to their practitioners and practices.

Building a deeper understanding of practice

Academic risk communication research tends to focus on the public, being those receiving communication. While an audience focus is understandable, there is also a need for research focusing on the communicators. To address this, my PhD research explores government emergency risk communication practice. It provides a deeper understanding of the practitioners, their practices, and the context in which this communication occurs. It shows how communication practices are not simply mechanical and objective; rather they are intuitive, collaborative and responsive. My research highlights the role of practitioners’ lived experience and the history of past similar public health events, and the influence of the organisational context.

My research focuses on practitioners who are tasked with assessing the risk to human health and determining the best communication methods and messages. So far, it comprises two studies: a scoping literature review and interviews with practitioners. The scoping review synthesises existing evidence on government risk communication practice for chemical pollution and explores the influence of the organisational context. The interviews with practitioners gather insights into their lived experiences working during smoke events from major fires in Victoria.

Pressure to get it right

Practitioners’ experiences of working during chemical release incidents can be stressful and exhausting. Practitioners often have to work long and late hours, and deal with competing demands, political and social pressures, and uncertainty about the information at hand. They feel pressure to ‘get it right’, with the public and other stakeholders expecting accuracy of their assessments. The expectation of accuracy is understandable for public health threats, as the consequences of inaccuracy can be significant health impacts for affected communities. However, despite practitioners’ best intentions, with hindsight their interpretation of a situation may not necessarily be seen to be accurate. Due to inherent uncertainties with available information and the time-critical nature of emergencies, decisions often have to be made with incomplete data.

My research highlights how past lived experiences are viewed by practitioners as a key facilitator of practice. These experiences assist practitioners in interpreting the situation, aiding in their pursuit of accuracy. It provides them with the knowledge to better assess the chemical hazard and understand how to operate within the emergency response structures. Shared lived experiences lead to shared understandings of the chemical hazard and of how to work collaboratively. Working together during an incident can lead to personal relationships and a sense of camaraderie that can help with more efficient future response efforts. The occurrence (or absence) of past similar public health events is key to providing practitioners with the lived experiences they currently hold.

Learning from the past

Current communication practices are a product of the history that sits before them. Practices evolve over time in response to changes in the social and political environments. These changes are often triggered by significant emergency incidents that are accompanied by communication practices that are perceived as poor by the public and other stakeholders. Emergency response agencies need to review and learn from these incidents. Where there has been a history of similar events, communication practices are likely more developed and refined. More evolved practices will likely include procedures outlining current best-practice for communication methods and messages, and the implementation of frameworks to support collaboration across government organisations.

It is also essential to recognise that communication activities originate within an organisation. Several organisational factors can influence risk communication practice. Organisational capacity factors include human resources, inter-organisational relationships, strategic prioritisation and program management. Organisational motivation factors include culture and the perceptions of practitioners. External environmental factors include scientific knowledge and technology, the media, stakeholders’ level of interest and the political, legal and economic environment. These organisational factors are linked and interact.

Understanding how these factors enhance or restrain practitioners’ work is important for creating an environment that supports them. Capacity and motivation are factors that organisations can work to directly and proactively influence. Organisations can make it a strategic priority to fund and resource communication activities. For effective risk communication, there is a need for human resources to comprise both scientists (such as environmental scientists, human health risk assessors and toxicologists) and communication professionals (such as risk and science communicators and community engagement specialists). Having a strong organisational culture, sufficient capacities and capabilities, and meaningful relationships with stakeholders will move organisations towards strategic and proactive responses.

Moving beyond procedures

My research provides an intimate understanding of what communication practices for chemical release incidents entail. It emphasises the human aspect, highlighting that emergency response teams are made up of people. It is important to understand that communication practices are intuitive and collaborative and recognise the pressure practitioners face. It is still essential to provide practitioners with procedures to guide them during these incidents, and train them on what to communicate. However, there is also a critical need to train practitioners on what the experience of working will be and how to perform their roles during these incidents.

If we want to improve emergency risk communication and best support practitioners, we need to appreciate the complexity of working during chemical release incidents. Understanding the relationship of practice with context and the critical role of lived experiences will hopefully help governments prepare for future incidents. The more we can support practitioners in their pursuit of accuracy and timeliness, the more likely it will be that emergency risk communication is effective. Improving risk communication practice will ultimately lead to greater protection of the public.

Lessons for managing hazardous chemicals

For those handling chemicals, it is good to be aware of the challenges involved in managing chemical release incidents. Ideally, chemicals will be managed in a way that prevents chemical releases. However, even with best-practice management procedures, an incident may still occur.

For all chemicals on a site, it is critical to understand the fate and transport of these chemicals in the environment and the human health and ecological toxicity. This information should be readily available and provided to emergency response teams during an incident. Moving towards green chemistry, such as chemical synthesis with an aim of new compounds having no adverse human health or ecological effects, should help reduce future impacts from chemical release events.


This PhD research is being undertaken at Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University. It is supported by the Australian Government Research Training Program and the Environment Protection Authority Victoria.

Madeleine Thomas ( is at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University.

Assisting emergency response teams

In preparing for an incident, consider how you may assist emergency response teams. Ensure emergency response procedures are in place and that individuals working at your sites understand these procedures. Past lived experiences help people make sense of an incident. Running through potential emergency response drills can help people step through what they might need to do if an incident occurs. Exercises considering how or when chemical release incidents may occur will help prepare people for any potential incidents. They may also help prevent an incident occurring in the first place.

If an incident does occur, timely notification of the incident is a critical first step.

Emergency response teams need to urgently build a picture of the incident. They will need to rapidly answer these key questions:

  • • What chemicals are involved?
  • • How will these chemicals move through the environment?
  • • What are the adverse human health and ecological impacts from exposure to these chemicals?

Ensuring chemical manifests can be quickly shared with emergency response teams is a way to assist emergency response teams promptly understand the situation. Manifests should contain exact details and quantities of chemicals kept on site. Keeping these in electronic forms can aid with rapid information sharing.

iStockphoto/Christopher Freeman
Ben Schubert

More than 140 firefighters attended the warehouse fire in Tottenham in August 2018. The warehouse was not registered to store the many drums of chemicals found on site.  

A public inquiry into fires at waste and recycling facilities across Victoria ... highlighted a public view of poor communication by government agencies ...
If we want to improve emergency risk communication and best support practitioners, we need to appreciate the complexity of working during chemical release incidents.

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