How authorities navigate language barriers during bushfire, coronavirus emergencies

Authorities say they are working on innovative ways to better communicate with communities of limited English abilities. Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

In an Australian summer of devastation and escalating health emergencies, public warning systems have been vital. But knowing what to do, or where to turn for help, can prove more difficult for some than others.

From the bushfire crisis to the coronavirus, and the dangers brought by torrential rain, the Australian summer has been overwhelmed by emergencies.

With the threat far from over, authorities are also facing another hidden challenge: communicating warnings to communities with limited English.

"Every community has a segment within it that has language difficulties, and those are exacerbated during times of crisis," NSW Ethnic Communities’ Council Chair, Peter Doukas told SBS News.


Remnants of past trauma

Blossom Taw, a single mother of six from suburban Melbourne, said her Karen and Burmese communities faced severe language barriers as bushfires erupted across Victoria.

She told SBS News many of her friends panicked as the blazes reminded them of the brutal war they had fled in Myanmar.

“A lot of people who came from my background, Karen community, mostly they are victims of civil war. And they've suffered something similar like that before,” Ms Taw explained.

“It's not bushfire, but their houses and their place have been burnt down, so they fled. And they had to run away to survive to live."

And when they see fires like that, the trauma is coming back.

navigating language barriers during natural disasters and fire emergencies
Blossom Taw says two of her sons suffered respiratory issues due to the toxic smog over the summer.
SBS News

Cultivating community relations

Emergency teams across Australia are working to break down those communication barriers. 

Aside from translation services, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service has been cultivating relationships with local leaders well before the bushfire season begins.

The NSW RFS Community Engagement Manager, Anthony Bradstreet, said it enables messages to be quickly relayed within communities during a fire emergency.

"We work very closely with local communities over months and years to try to enhance their preparedness and their resilience so that when disasters do strike they're in a much better position,” Mr Bradstreet told SBS News.

“The challenge over situations like this summer, where we had situations escalating and unfolding very rapidly, was that information and recommendations through warning products would change very quickly."

So what we really needed people to do was stay up to date with the latest information, and that can be challenging for multicultural communities with limited English.

“We do have ways to encourage people to contact, for instance, our bushfire information line, where we have translation services available so people are able to get the latest information.”

‘Full support’

Swift action saved Sharon Jepleting and husband Bernard Mwema's Harrington home on the NSW mid-north coast, near Port Macquarie. Fires reached their backyard but were quickly extinguished.

“We were very scared, and we were very unsettled of course because the fires were coming very close to our house, and we haven't had this before in our country,” Ms Jepleting, a nurse in Australia on a 457 Visa from Kenya, told SBS News.

“The system is very perfect, they were always on time, could get the information very quick. We didn't have to evacuate, and we didn't have to lose anything, we were just scared, but they always encouraged us, we just had full support."

navigating language barriers during natural disasters and fire emergencies
Bernard Mwema and wife Sharon Jepleting.

‘Stifling the spread of misinformation’

In fast-moving situations, information can quickly change, and the risk of misinformation rises.

Health authorities are now on the communication front-foot as Australia works to protect itself from coronavirus.

NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service has been translating fact sheets and video guides on the disease to stifle any myths or misconceptions, with both regularly uploaded on its website, and shared on social channels.

Communication Service Director, Lisa Woodland, said the website includes more than 500 translated pieces of health information across more than 60 languages.

“We need to build trust with the community in our health system,” she said.

“If there's misinformation, concerns and fears grow, there is discrimination within the community, whether that's real or perceived, and that in fact is a big barrier to accessing healthcare.

“We know that once we can get that information to key people in the community, then they're able to take that message forward throughout their community.”

navigating language barriers during natural disasters and fire emergencies
NSW Multicultural Health has translated more than 500 pieces of information across 60+ languages.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

Peter Doukas believes increasing community engagement across emergency services is the only way to continuously improve a complex and nuanced issue like language.

“What we'd be looking for is a broadening of those emergency responses, or, an interaction between our emergency services and the media outlets with multicultural media to broaden that delivery,” he said.

Both the NSW RFS and NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service says it is endeavouring to broaden how information is spread.

“We're going to be looking to work with those communities to find new and innovative ways where we can make sure that they're able to get the most information, the correct information, during disasters, but more importantly be prepared before disaster strikes,” Mr Bradstreet said.

SBS is also updating communities in 68 languages. To find your language - 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch