Sitting in NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Headquarters and observing a vast operations centre with a wall of screens and information, personnel from some 30 different agencies work together to keep the people of NSW safe.
A similar scene played out in the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Headquarters in Brisbane earlier in the summer and continues to play out in the Emergency Management Victoria State Control Centre in Melbourne; in the SA Country Fire Service Headquarters in Adelaide and the ACT Emergency Services Agency in Canberra.
There is a unity of purpose and effort, and while this is expected, there are national support arrangements playing out simultaneously to support state support requests.
In one corner of the massive NSW RFS operations centre, the ‘Interstate Liaison Unit’ (ILU) has representatives from nearly all states and territories, overseeing their jurisdictions’ contribution to the overall effort. The ILU is coordinated by the National Resource Sharing Centre (NRSC) Deployment Manager.
The NRSC is a function of AFAC, the National Council for Fire and Emergency Services, which coordinates the requesting of resources from across the country and, if need be, from overseas. The NRSC operates from the AFAC offices in Melbourne and ensures a truly nationally coordinated effort by receiving resourcing requests and seeking to fill them from other jurisdictions. To date there have been over 6,000 interstate movements, supporting NSW in particular, with a further 307 personnel from New Zealand, 292 from the USA and 239 from Canada all contributing to the fire-response effort.
These requests and the movement of interstate resources is overseen by the experience and expertise of AFAC’s Commissioners and Chief Officers Strategic Committee (CCOSC) which provides vital input to national decision-making. The CCOSC meets as required over the summer and coordinates with the Commonwealth resource sharing and other arrangements.
These movements across state and international borders require extensive agreements to be in place and the NRSC has worked for several years to ensure the movement of personnel is seamless and effective. The NRSC effectively acts as a funnel, collecting resources both nationally and internationally and channelling these to the requesting jurisdiction. In this way, those states in need are only required to focus on where they intend to deploy resources, not where they come from.
Aerial resources are contracted through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) and are allocated on a similar basis. While many of the approximately 250 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft operating each day over summer are local aircraft, there are a smaller number of specialist aircraft that come from overseas. These include Type 1 helicopters like the Erickson Aircrane and Large and Very Large Air Tankers. At the time of writing there are ten Large Air Tankers operating in the country.
NAFC seeks and contracts these resources on behalf of the states and territories. This national contracting provides both efficiencies and national effectiveness by ensuring these resources can be shared and deployed interstate when requested. Agencies can track availability and positioning of aerial resources in real time through the supporting software ARENA, which has been developed by NAFC.
The tragic crash of the C130 Large Air Tanker in January highlighted to everyone the dangers of aerial firefighting and the bravery of these pilots and support crew who have operated these aircraft over the summer. While aircraft alone do not put out fires, they are an invaluable tool in assisting firefighters on the ground with initial attack, intelligence gathering, asset protection and limiting the spread of fires.
While many volunteers are not available to travel far from their homes or interstate due to local responsibilities such as employment or managing drought-stricken stock, others are prepared to deploy. In this way, thousands of volunteer firefighters pass through the existing fire grounds – particularly in NSW and Victoria – every week. They are joined by career firefighters and land management personnel who work in the incident management teams that plan and organise the response effort and undertake some of the most arduous firefighting on foot.
This response capacity is supported by an increasingly sophisticated information capability to prepare the public for fire emergencies they may face. Warnings follow a nationally agreed structure and plans are in place to refine this further to a multi-hazard approach. This information and advice are spread through public apps, websites and news feeds to increase reach into the community.
While the reviews into this fire season will undoubtedly identify areas for improvement, Australia is well prepared to face natural disasters. This is achieved through integrated engagement with the Commonwealth, and national protocols for managing our incident responses and available aircraft fleet.
This year, we have been assisted by around 6,000 Defence personnel (both regular and reserve) who are supporting the firefighting effort through Defence Assistance to the Civil Community. While not directly involved in firefighting, Defence personnel have been invaluable in assisting with logistics around providing accommodation, catering, transport, road clearing, reconnaissance from the air and evacuating civilians from isolated townships. This year, the Prime Minister intervened to make Defence resources available before the states and territories ‘exhaust all available resources’, which is the requirement for assistance in the current legislation.
None of this comes with guarantees, but a great deal is in place and has been practised, providing Australia with a truly national capability drawn from state and territory agencies from across the Commonwealth.
For more information, go to www.afac.com.au/initiative/nrsc