In 2005 the isolated community of Arthur River faced economic and social disruption. The bridge connecting this community is a 183-metre transport lifeline for emergency services, agricultural, fishing and tourist activities. Arthur River’s tourist accommodation, cruise operations, shacks, permanent homes and industries are located on both sides of the river.
The main structure of the bridge was sound but the timber deck was dilapidated and needed replacement. Closing the bridge would result in residents having to detour 100 kilometres over unsealed roads, for six weeks, during construction.
The Department’s challenge was to win community support for full closure of the bridge, during works, and to provide an acceptable transport alternative. The Community’s socio-economic needs had to be reconciled with project efficiency.
Through effective consultation and communication with all stakeholders, the Department was able to execute a multi-layered campaign, involving detailed communications, emergency, risk management and signage plans.
An innovative feature of this campaign was the provision of a barge to provide free transport across the river during the works.
The deck replacement project was unpopular because the community had lobbied Government for a new two-lane bridge with a footpath or as a minimum, a footpath added to the existing bridge. Both options were unfeasible due to the high cost.
The isolation of Arthur River brought unique problems. The river splits the township with the local shop and other community facilities on the north side of river and the majority of the holiday accommodation and homes on the southern side.
The scope of the project was limited to replacing the ageing bridge deck. The only way to do this was to close the bridge for at least five weeks. This meant a possible detour of 100 kilometres over unsealed roads to the nearest town of Smithton, for residents and businesses on the southern side of the river. This was unacceptable to the community.
The project had a large impact on the community and the campaign was designed to address the community issues. Given this, the project still had to balance the construction needs of the contractor and the financial constraints of the Department.
If this campaign was not well managed, the project could have damaged the reputation of the Minister and caused the Department financial strain.
Extensive research was undertaken to ensure we could to meet the communication objectives and guarantee project success. Research determined that the campaign would need to be thorough and well organised.
Key areas of research included:
Alternative transport options
All possible transport alternatives were researched and tested for feasibility with the community including:
- Opening the bridge at night
- Temporary bailey bridging
- Upgrading the 100-kilometre detour route
- Small passenger boat with parking on either side
- Shuttle bus service
A vehicular barge was the best solution.
A public meeting was held to gather information about local activities, canvass issues and explain the details of the project.
The construction period had to be timed to cause minimal impact on all stakeholders. We collected and analysed Bureau of Meteorology records of rain, wind and temperature, and traffic statistics. Local knowledge was gathered about other impacts such as the cattle agistment, crayfish and peak tourist seasons.
Survey questionaries were sent to the whole community to identify essential travelling times and regular travel patterns allowing barge operations to be planned.
Business and Industry transport needs
Companies were contacted to collect data identifying key travelling times, the number of trips, weight of loads and size of vehicles.
Emergency Service requirements
Fire, Police, Ambulance and SES were consulted to identify their transport requirements in the event of an emergency, including communication channels and contact details.
Target publics were identified through contact with local businesses, examination of historical files and the public meeting.
We identified seven categories of target public who we needed to consult or inform in the campaign.
· Governing Bodies –the Council owned the local road network, however the bridge infrastructure was the responsibility of State Government.
· Emergency Services –were consulted to ensure the continuity of emergency services to the community.
· Works Contractors – were engaged to do the works, we developed a mutual understanding of each other’s needs and those of the local community.
· Motoring Associations –were channels though which we could convey information to bridge users.
· The following target publics were bridge users, or would be impacted economically by the works:
- Local Community
- Business and Local Industry
This project was politically and socially sensitive. There were communication and consultation needs from multiple stakeholders and this required a detailed communication strategy.
Ministerial support for project scope
The Minister was briefed to ensure he did not make unachievable commitments to the community. Due to the high cost and relative low usage, a new bridge and footpath were not viable at Arthur River. Other projects in the State had a stronger claim on funding.
The information we communicated had to meet two different needs:
- Essential information the Department had to communicate
- Information desired by the community, such as exactly how the bridge was going to be re-decked and how medical emergencies would be handled.
Key messages were developed and circulated, to ensure all departmental staff and the Ministers office provided consistent communication about the project.
We provided regular information via project update posters, by writing to all stakeholders at key milestones and by newspaper advertising.
Consultation started early and was ongoing to ensure we understood all issues clearly from high level down to nuts and bolts consultation. For example, when high winds stopped barge operations, a phone call to the local shop was invaluable for finding out what else had to be done to manage the situation.
We built confidence and trust by placing a strong focus on personal contact with locals. This worked because the down to earth regional community valued this communication style.
To show our support and help overcome economic disruption we:
- Organised accommodation with local shack owners for all construction workers and barge operators, and negotiated with the local shop to provide their meals.
- While on site visits we stayed at accommodation centres most impacted by the project.
Communication strategies to manage risk
In case of emergency we had to ensure that key stakeholders, such as emergency services, councils and local residents, were confident that lives were not at risk due to the bridge closure. An Emergency Management Plan was developed, in consultation with emergency services, and distributed widely before the project started.
The tools used to implement the campaign took the form of five separate plans. These were reviewed at each stage of the construction project.
1. An overarching Communication and Consultation Plan was designed to identify and manage the impacts on individual stakeholders.
We provided consistent contact points and a dedicated project email address to facilitate easy communication.
Throughout the campaign community concerns were listened to and their feedback incorporated into the planning and implementation.
- An Emergency Management Plan provided for all communications in the event of an emergency. At times of strong winds, when the barge crossings had to be cancelled, the communication, emergency management and risk management plans were implemented concurrently and quickly.
- An Advisory Signage Plan was used to erect signs that gave advanced warnings to motorists.
- A Barge Signage Plan was implemented to convey detailed information including the barge operating times and dates, limitations of service, the location of the barge and how to order it.
- A Risk Management Plan identified all possible risks and mitigation strategies and was reviewed at regular team meetings. One risk was that there was no digital mobile phone service at Arthur River making it necessary to provide a CDMA telephone link with the contractor and the barge operators.
There were strong communication channels between the team, the project manager and contract supervisor on site. This meant everyone was aware of how the project was going and of any new issues.
The campaign achieved all its goals and objectives, as evidenced by:
Fulfilled information needs
- No negative press
- Kept the community informed which resulted in few enquiries.
- No ministerial or departmental letters of complaint received.
- No further requests for footpath or new bridge after the public meeting
- Our personal contact strategy resulted in locals being cooperative and communicating urgent messages.
- We chose the local pub as the venue for the public meeting because it was comfortable territory for the community. This helped dispel the perception that we were city bureaucrats and encouraged information sharing.
Achieved effective consultation
- Gained agreement via consultation from all emergency services to adopt Emergency Management Plan.
- The Risk Management Plan worked when implemented; there were no surprises that had not already been identified.
- Consensus on timing of project
- Community concerns were identified and included in the campaign.
Provided acceptable transport solution
- The community accepted the barge solution and timetable even though the barge could only sail in daylight hours.
- Ability to convince Parks & Wildlife that the barge was the best solution so that Environmental Approvals were given in a sensitive environment.
The team ran an energetic, effective campaign, managing all issues successfully so that no community concerns had to be taken any further up the management line. Key success factors
- Community lobbying was not renewed for a new bridge and footpath. Enough evidence was provided to prove that these were beyond the budget.
- Through consultation, we were able to find an alternative to the bridge that achieved a balance between convenience and cost. The community accepted a barge solution. Though it did not provide the same level of service as the high cost temporary bridge, it was more convenient than the low cost 100-kilometre detour.
- We overcame the difficulty of conflicting requirements for project timing. The most suitable times for the contractor to construct the new deck were least suitable for the community, tourism and industry. The charting of all no-go zones made it easier to sell the timing and reach consensus.
- By providing the right level of information the impact on tourism was mitigated. We provided just enough information to advise people of barge crossing delays without deterring tourism. Evidence of our success was that there were no requests for compensation from businesses.
The reasons behind our success came from:
- Understanding the unique qualities of the local community, drawing on influential locals, and using appropriate communication styles and channels.
- Showing the community that their needs were important to us by incorporating them into all facets of the project.
- Instilling trust, particularly by addressing concerns about emergencies.