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Unpaid volunteers are the backbone of the bushfire response

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Firefighters putting out a bushfire (image by Mel Mazzone via Wikimedia Commons).

Better coordination and planning can reduce the severity of Australian bushfires, writes Greg Prior.

AS A highly qualified and experienced firefighter temporarily living in NSW during the bushfire emergency, I thought I would offer assistance to the local brigade south of Sydney where various members of my family had been evacuated from their homes at Bargo and Buxton.

Brigade members had been doing long hours and I thought I could at least do my part given my qualifications and experience. I could as a minimum give the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) crews a break by doing night shifts blacking out and consolidating fire lines.

I attended the local RFS brigade and advised that I could make myself available 24/7 for the next two months and that besides the basic bushfire fighting training, I also had the more advanced training and experience in wildfire suppression, wildfire behaviour, the Australasian inter-service incident management system (the command, coordination and control system used to manage fire emergencies) and ground controller (coordination and control of aerial water bombers and ground resources).

I had all of my level one bushfire protective gear with me and was available at a moment’s notice if required. I was a lieutenant with my own brigade and had served on incident management teams in the Perth Hills fires. The brigade made me welcome, but I was informed that the RFS did not recognise my Australian interstate qualifications and that before I could be used in the current emergency, I would have to do the NSW RFS basic training and that would take at least three months.

This situation is not unique to the NSW RFS. Where I have lived in other states and approached the local fire brigade, I have similarly been informed that they do not recognise my interstate training and I would have to retrain from scratch.

In Australia’s modern highly mobile population, this lack of recognition of each state’s basic firefighting training is archaic bureaucracy at its worst. The number of unpaid volunteer firefighters in Australia working under a common command and control system, the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System, provides more than enough personnel to combat these large bushfires.

This lack of interoperability of today’s highly mobile population is hampering the effectiveness of Australia’s emergency services and many volunteers are leaving the organisation out of frustration.

The term volunteer is unfortunate in that it quite often is used to denote helpers or assistants. We should possibly be calling the volunteers “unpaid firefighters”. Volunteer firefighters are trained to a very high standard in Australia. They are proficient in all aspects of the emergency work they carry out, and in terms of bushfires, are sometimes more highly trained and experienced than their paid career counterparts.

Some volunteer firefighters have thirty or more years of experience fighting fires in their local area and in the incident management roles used to coordinate resources used to fight these fires. They have the advantage of intimate local knowledge of their areas including hazards, access tracks and resources.

Volunteers are immediately available to deal with emergencies in small towns where it is prohibitive to employ paid staff.

Volunteers make themselves available around the clock to protect their communities free of charge, and in doing so save their states more than 180 million dollars each year in fire suppression.

Volunteer firefighters make up 97% of all registered firefighters in each state. In NSW alone there are roughly 72,000 unpaid volunteers and 3,500 full time paid career firefighters. Career paid firefighters are largely based only in major cities. Volunteers cover country towns and the outer suburbs of the major cities.

When you dial 000, in all probability, you will have volunteers respond to your emergency. When volunteers respond to your call for assistance please respect that these individuals have dropped what they were doing at the time to assist you, quite often at considerable personal expense to themselves. 

Women make up over 20% of volunteer firefighter brigade numbers. They occupy all positions within the organisation and make a huge difference in their communities. Many women are employed locally and can respond quickly to local emergencies. A lot more needs to be done to support them in these roles.

Volunteers are in their communities assisting in all phases of an emergency. They assist their communities in the preparation and preparedness stage through the delivery of community education programs and the carrying out of prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads.

They are there in the response phase where they are heavily involved in combating an active fire. The solid response times by volunteer brigades, in the majority of cases, keep fire emergencies small and enable those fires to be extinguished quickly. The longest and most expensive phase of any emergency is the recovery phase and this is where volunteers work tirelessly within their communities to comfort neighbours and rebuild infrastructure.

Paid career firefighters are usually only there for the short duration response phase.

Volunteers in their local areas used to do a lot of prescribed burning. Working in the local area and constantly monitoring fuel loads and moisture content enables them to determine the optimum time to carry out these prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads.

These small, low-intensity, patchy burns trickling through the landscape allowed animals and other wildlife to escape or hide. Flame heights were low and did not get up into the tree canopy. Burning small areas each year reduced overall fuel loads but set aside sanctuaries for animal habitat and food sources. For various reasons, these prescribed burns were restricted or stopped altogether.

Whilst the progression of global warming is leading to increased drying of some parts of Australia, this is not the sole reason why the current fires have been so devastating. Lack of control burns, poor access into national parks, poor interoperability and the inability of groups within the states, and across state borders, to communicate with each other due to different operational radio frequencies, and different tanker fittings between states is hampering a coordinated response to these catastrophic fire events.

The deployment of overseas help is always welcome but unfortunately, in a lot of cases, these deployments are being used to train overseas paid firefighters at the expense of our local, more qualified unpaid volunteers. Our unpaid volunteers are being replaced on incident management teams by less qualified overseas personnel and our more qualified unpaid volunteers are given menial tasks on the fire ground.

A lot more emphasis is being placed by inexperienced incident managers on aerial water bombers with little or no follow up with ground personnel to properly black-out the fire edge. Blacking-out is where ground personnel walk the fire edge extinguishing everything twenty metres' in from the fire edge on the ground and all fires in trees up to one hundred metres from the fire edge.

Aerial water bombing is excellent at the initial knockdown of extreme fire behaviour, but it is only through a coordinated approach between aerial water bombers and ground personnel that fire edges can be extinguished thoroughly. If the aerial water bombing is not followed up with ground personnel, containment lines will be breached by hot spots reigniting or embers from tree fires crossing the fire edge into dry, unburnt ground.

Volunteer firefighters were originally managed by their local governments, but this management has been slowly handed over to the career firefighters who sometimes lack an understanding of bushfire behaviour.

Career firefighters based in major metropolitan areas are used to fighting intense fires in multi-story buildings, or commercial buildings where there are dangerous chemicals and road accident rescue. They surround a fire and pour resources into the surrounded incident.

Bushfires require an entirely different approach as they are a moving fire front, sometimes spotting kilometres ahead of the main fire. Rate of spread and direction are dependent on a whole range of factors such as fuel loads, condition of the fuel, wind speed, wind direction and topography of the ground.

Incident controllers need to think hours and sometimes days ahead to effectively combat these fires. Control and resourcing should be given back to unpaid volunteers in combating bush fires.

Greg Prior is a volunteer firefighter in NSW.

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