Individuals working in emergency management teams often face incredible pressure, which can have a really big impact on the ability of people to work effectively in teams.
There is a lot happening at an incident management centre when a bushfire, flood or cyclone occurs. Phones run hot and accurate information is at a premium. In what can be an around-the-clock response, teams of people come and go, all fulfilling specific and important roles. Teamwork is crucial, but in these high stakes environments, breakdowns in teamwork can lead to confusion, miscommunication and a lack of consistency with emergency management plans.
But two schemes have been developed through research that is helping emergency management teams carry out effective teamwork when managing emergencies.
These checklists are known as the Emergency Management Breakdown Aide Memoire and the Team Process Checklist.
Dr Chris Bearman, an Associate Professor at CQUniversity in Australia has been developing and refining the tools over the last three years as part of a research project by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Improving decision-making in complex multi-team environment.
The checklists provide guidelines to improve team processes before, after and during an emergency.
“The checklists were very much driven by a gap that we identified through our research in the ways that agencies operated at the time”, A/Prof Bearman says.
“This project is about developing practical tools to help people make decisions and monitor teams.”
The two checklists are designed to shift the focus away from blaming people and place an emphasis on error recovery and minimisation. They are a flexible way to closely examine teamwork from a range of perspectives.
“Teamwork will breakdown from time to time,” A/Prof Bearman says.
“So what we need to do is to be able to quickly and effectively detect and recover from these breakdowns.”
The Emergency Management Breakdown Aide Memoire is a quick and easy checklist that identifies teamwork issues at a general level and provides practical solutions to resolve any breakdowns that are detected. It has been designed to be integrated into the role of a senior officer and focuses on organisational networks and the outputs of teams.
Five methods of resolving problems in team functioning are integrated within the checklist. These cover delegating tasks; providing additional resources; mentoring; asserting authority and replacing people in the team. All are designed to improve teamwork in what can be challenging working environments during a bushfire, cyclone or flood, when lives could be at stake.
If a problem is identified or a further health check is required, then the Team Process Checklist is used. This checklist prompts teams to think about the three aspects which should be present in effective teams – communication; coordination and cooperation – in an open questionnaire format. Any issues that are identified are then discussed with the team.
Mark Thomason, Manager of Risk and Lessons Management at the South Australia Country Fire Service, believes emergency management agencies have a lot to gain from using both of the checklists, particularly those who work in incident management teams, strike teams and at regional and state operation centres.
“They are invaluable not only during operational response, but also in debriefs and training,” Mr Thomason says.
“The straight-forward, practical tools developed through this research are of great benefit to emergency managers to ensure their teams are functioning to the best of their ability,” he says.
The tools have had a thorough examination in Tasmania, with the lengthy and challenging 2015-2016 fire season providing the opportunity to test the tools in real life scenarios.
Jeremy Smith, who was the Tasmania Fire Service Deputy Chief Officer during that fire season, says he would highly recommend the tools to other emergency managers. As state fire controller, Mr Smith had a lot on his plate during a challenging time, but the tools helped to ensure communication between different teams was efficient and timely during the stressful periods.
“You could see people were stressed at times,” Mr Smith said.
“It was important to provide a safe environment where feedback could be provided. It was a very complex and multi-faceted environment and the tools helped to ensure the communication was occurring.
“These types of tools that support incident management and fire operations, or indeed any other hazard, are invaluable. Any assistance they can provide through a body of research that has been undertaken to validate findings is invaluable,” Mr Smith says.
A/Prof Bearman says while the checklists are designed for the emergency management sector, they can be applied to a range of team environments.
“We are expecting to see a wider use for those in the next eighteen months or so”, A/Prof Bearman says.
“We have got some people who are very interested”, he added, with around sixty stakeholders registering their interest with the research team.
The evaluation of the two checklists that followed the 2015-2016 fire season, as well as storms and floods, indicated their strength and paved the way for future development and utilisation. Alongside A/Prof Bearman, the team of A/Prof Benjamin Brooks, A/Prof Christine Owen, and Dr Steven Curnin at the University of Tasmania, and Dr Sophia Rainbird at CQUniversity, are now using their ideas to shift policy and implement the tools more widely across the emergency management sector.
To date, both the Emergency Management Breakdown Aide Memoire and Team Process Checklist have been adopted by the South Australian Country Fire Service and Tasmania Fire Service, and used by New South Wales State Emergency Service.
The two tools are expected to continue being tested in different settings throughout 2018.