Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bushfires and the Australian Volunteer System

The thoughts and conversations generated by my two posts on the California wildfires (here 1, here 2) got me thinking. I was especially struck by a comment from David Anderson that the California fires had exhausted every fire fighting resource in California and the surrounding states.

All of this caused me to dig down into the Australian system in a little more detail. As Lexcen noted, it has its failures. He also pointed out, correctly, that Australia had drawn on US resources in the last major fires. And very grateful we were too. As I remember it, the US professionals were combined with the volunteer brigades to give them an added professional edge.

Now I know the the Australian system pretty well. Even so, I was surprised at its scale. I thought, therefore, that it might be of interest to both US and Australian readers if I provided more information. I do so, too, because I think that too many Australians take their volunteers for granted. There is no way that this country could afford to pay for professionals to replace the volunteers.

My core focus in this post is on fire fighting as such. There is a much wider network of research, preventative activities, regulation, training and education that underpins the system.

The key feature of the Australian system is the way it combines professional and volunteer resources. This gives NSW on its own access to over 90,000 personnel before tapping resources in other jurisdictions. Yes, that's right, 90,000. I found the number staggering, hence the bold.

The Rural Fire Service is central to the NSW fire response because it covers 95 per cent of the state. The RFS claims to be, and may well be, the largest fire service in the world. The RFS has 2,100 volunteer rural fire brigades with a total membership of around 70,000. Some 600 salaried staff are employed to manage the day to day operations of the Service at headquarters, regional offices and district fire control centres.

The NSW Fire Brigade is responsible for managing fire emergencies in the major cities, metropolitan areas and towns across rural and regional NSW. The NSWFB has a central office in Sydney; a logistics support centre at Greenacre; operational communication centres at Alexandria, Newcastle, Wollongong and Katoomba; a training college at Alexandria; a network of 338 fire stations across the State and a fleet of 882 vehicles.

The Brigade currently has around 6,500 firefighters; 6,000 community fire unit members and 360 administrative and trades staff. Like the RFS, the community fire unit members are volunteers belonging to units formed in the urban/rural interface across the state.

The NSW State Emergency Services (SES) is an emergency and rescue service. It is made up almost entirely of volunteers, with 232 units and over 10,000 volunteer members located throughout New South Wales.

While the SES's major responsibilities are for flood and storm operations, it also provides the majority of general rescue effort in the rural parts of the state. This includes road accident rescue, vertical rescue, bush search and rescue, evidence searches (both metropolitan and rural) and other forms of specialist rescue that may be required due to local threats. The Service's trained personnel support other emergency services including the RFS when they are performing major operations.

Bushfire operations cascade up in a reasonably effective if not always perfect fashion.

At the base are individual households. They are responsible for preparing their own properties in the event of a bushfire, drawing information from local councils and state and territory authorities. A fair bit of effort over a long period has been put into education and training at household level. Again, this is not always perfect. However, most people in bush fire prone areas are fire aware.

In the event of a fire, people can choose to leave or fight. Many stay to defend their properties. In doing so, they assist the efforts of the fire fighting services.

After the household, the first line of defence is the local Fire Brigade or RFS unit. This is fine for small fires, but can be quickly overwhelmed by larger outbreaks. In this event, procedures exist for calling on external resources.

Overall planning is done centrally, as is coordination of operations in the event of bigger outbreaks. One hundred fires at one time is not unknown in NSW.

Central operations are run military style. As a fire or fires escalate, resources are progressively called in from RFS or Fire Brigade units, backed up by police and SES resources. In big fires, resources come also from the armed forces and from other states or territories.

The logistics especially in multiple fire events can be complex. Firefighters have to be gathered, fed and rested. Equipment has to be brought in and maintained. Traffic has to be controlled, evacuations organised if necessary, the media fed. And all this while shifting resources across large geographic areas to meet changing threats.

To me, the remarkable thing in all this is not the errors, but the success.

We all know that we live in a fire prone country. We take this as a fact of life. Yet few of us ask just how these things are actually organised. Too few of us recognise that our safety and security rests on a quite remarkable volunteer system.

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