Helping communities in times of hardship – a CFA National Science Week profile

Did you know CFA employs scientists and technical experts to help us better understand bushfires? During National Science Week we’re celebrating some of the inspiring scientists we work with to make a very real difference to Victorian communities.

Helping communities in times of hardship - a CFA National Science Week profile

This is a photo taken during Chloe Begg’s field work after the 2013 flood in the German city of Grimma (photo credit: Gunnar Dressler/UFZ).

CFA Social Scientist Chloe Begg is working with us to communicate to communities so we can all better prepare and manage bushfire season.

We asked Chloe to describe her role to inspire our younger members to get involved in science.

What is a social scientist?

Social science is a broad term to describe a wide array of disciplines that aim to understand why people interact with each other and with their environment in certain ways. The work that I do focuses on how people understand risks, such as bushfires, and how those risks can be communicated and managed to help make sure that people can prepare for, cope with and recover from a disaster.

What drew you to this field?

I have always been interested in how media influences the way that we understand and make sense of our world. At university, I became really interested in how people understand and make decisions related to risk and uncertainty. There is so much uncertainty in our day-to-day lives and so many decisions, small and large, that we make every day. With this in mind, I am interested in what influences people’s decisions related to preparing for and protecting themselves from a potential natural disaster. When we understand this we can develop and test different types of communication to see if they influence people’s behaviours and whether these behaviours can help to prepare for and protect people from natural hazards.

What qualifications do you need to be a social scientist?

There are many ways to become a social scientist. There is a long list of subjects that one could study, such as anthropology, human geography, sociology, economics, psychology, and much more, that would mean you could call yourself a social scientist. Each of these disciplines has a slightly different way of viewing and studying how and why people interact with each other and their environment. I studied a Bachelor in Media and Communications, which focused on how media influences people’s understanding of the world. I then went on to study a Master’s in Environmental Science, Policy and Management. I did this because it was clear to me that the environment is important for human health and safety. However, confusingly, human actions are not always in the best interests for environmental health and therefore, ultimately, also not for our health or safety. For me, this is partly a communications problem. If we are going to be able to move towards a more sustainable and safe society, we need to be able to communicate environmental issues to a wide array of people including those who work in government, represent business and live in a community. I was lucky that the first job that I found out of university allowed me to combine my interest in communication and risk perception. That was how I got started working on how people at risk from natural hazards understand that risk and how risk communication can be used to influence and promote behaviours that keep people safe. I wrote my PhD in Human Geography.

What’s some of/the most interesting work you’ve done so far?

People in government and at research institutions have lots of assumptions about what people should do during a disaster and why they do or don’t take actions to prepare and protect themselves from natural hazards. The best thing about my work is that I get to work with communities. Through my work, I have been able to travel around Europe and talk to many different people about the risks that they face and the problems related to their management.

In Germany, I have worked with people who have experienced repetitive flooding in their communities, and I have travelled around the country side talking to farmers about whether or not they take action to prepare their farms for climate change. I have talked to members of local government in England, France, Spain and the Netherlands to understand what they are doing to protect and involve their community in risk management. I have had the honour to be able to communicate the experiences of these people in the media and to governments. Ensuring that those voices are heard has created a sense of pride in my work and has motivated me to do the work that I do.

What drew you to CFA as an organisation?

I grew up in the Dandenong Ranges and have experience with bushfire first-hand. Many members of my family are also CFA volunteers (my uncle is a Captain), and I took part in a Junior Fire Brigade as a kid. So, CFA has long been a presence in my life. When I moved overseas to work in disaster risk management, I always hoped that I would be able to return and use my experience to help contribute to disaster risk management in Australia. I felt that CFA, by playing such an important role in the community and keeping people safe, was a really good place to do that type of work.

What are you looking forward to working on at CFA?

I look forward to working on projects which aim to better understand what types of communications (such as flyers, videos, workshops, citizen juries) and messages, like “leave early”, encourage which types of people to perceive bushfire as a risk and make them want to take action to become involved in the management of bushfires.

What role does a social scientist play in organisations like CFA?

I think that it is really exciting to be and to have social scientists at CFA. There is lots of exciting research conducted by physical scientists at CFA which model and predict how fire moves and is likely to move through the landscape. This information is really important because it helps people make operational decisions like where to send fire trucks during a bushfire and informs the warnings that are communicated to the public. However, it is also really important to understand if those efforts are keeping people safe and that people understand the messages that CFA communicates to them. This is why social science plays such an important role in an organisation like CFA.

How do you see your work helping CFA keep Victorians fire-safe?

My work can complement existing CFA efforts to keep people safe by gaining a better understanding of how people at risk of bushfires understand that risk and how CFA can better support people to understand their risk and know what to do to prepare and protect themselves, their family and their property before, during and after a bushfire.

/CFA News Release. The material in this public release comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.