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Reviewing plans with A/Supt Brian Curley (Vicpol).

Terrorism: The changing risk environment for firefighters

Emergency Management organisations are faced with a changing risk environment, an environment that will continue to be shaped by the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other terrorist groups. These groups continue to promote an extreme ideology, justify the use of violence and advocate for specific targets and tactics.

In 2017 Australia entered its fourth year of a terror threat alert of “Probable”: meaning a terror attack is likely, the second highest of 5 levels. According to the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) since 2014 there have been five terrorist attacks and 13 major counter – terrorism disruptions in Australia. Predominately on the east coast in places such as Sydney and Melbourne, small groups that adhere to extreme ideology continue to promote violent activism and seek to mount attacks, using basic weapons, explosives and firearms.

Australian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been very successful to date in protecting our communities from terrorist activity; however, it is not beyond comprehension that eventually a large scale or multi-site event will be committed in one of Australia’s major cities. Response to events of this type will place great demands on all emergency response agencies and will require high level of coordination and collaboration in the often chaotic post incident scene. Events such as the Paris attacks (2015) and the Orlando nightclub shooting (2016) presented significant challenges to responder agencies, understanding these challenges can assist in recognition of our own organisational vulnerabilities and development of planning and policy to enhance responder and community safety.

Today we are facing the most significant ongoing threat from terrorism in the nation’s history. This increased and changing risk environment has meant that public safety agencies need to continually evaluate and understand the climate to effectively prepare for a wider range of responses around multiple incidents and politically motivated violence.

Fire Services Operational Response to Terrorist Events

Fire agencies respond to consequences of an event and therefore may be exposed to the consequences of a terrorist event in the conduct of their duty. This may occur as a result of a request to assist Police as a support agency or during response to a standard emergency call that eventuates and unfolds as a terrorist event due to the criminal, religious, or politically motivated violent conduct against members of the community.

Response to a terrorist event will place great demands on all emergency responders. While contemporary State level plans stipulate command, control and co-ordination arrangements, and agency operational procedures greatly assist Incident Controllers in ensuring maximum use of available resources in an efficient and effective manner. Today’s Agency Commanders must fully comprehend the additional impacts of a politically motivated or violent event when developing operational objectives and strategies.

While our traditional approach has significant appeal for response to unintended or accidental emergencies it may not be suitably effective when responding to a planned and coordinated violent event, in which the community or responders are intentionally targeted. Traditional protocols have been created to function in routine emergency environments and response to a terrorist event is anything but, therefore, a routine response may be found wanting during these types of attacks.

Terrorist events require alternative thinking and Agency Commanders need to be fully aware that responders may be at risk of harm and becoming either primary or secondary targets of violence. The challenge for organisational leaders is how to best understand and manage the evolving and contemporary threat whilst concurrently maintaining traditional and routine service delivery capabilities.

The key challenge is to have a comprehensive understanding of the threat, one that is informed and evidence based. Once an organization has a robust appreciation of the threat and embeds that understanding into their organisational risk management process, planning, leadership development, and training programs, both capability and capacity evolves relevant to the current and evolving terrorism risk environment. This challenge may be perceived as taxing given the low incidence but high impact of terrorist events. However, today we face a far more dynamic and unpredictable security environment and all accounts suggest that the threat is growing and another attack in inevitable.

Image courtesy of Darren Conlin


In order to develop a common understanding of the nature of the threat organisational leaders require access to intelligence products. Traditionally, access to intelligence products has been regarded as the domain of law enforcement agencies, while fire services have been regarded as a response oriented discipline. However, firefighters are subject matter experts who when exposed to relevant intelligence can assess the likelihood of a threat, embed that understanding into organisational risk assessments, and develop appropriate response strategies.

Fire services have long been involved in intelligence gathering for prevention activities. Based on intelligence gathering through fire investigation reports, post incident analysis and understanding of building construction and design techniques, fire services have been able to influence through legislation and advocacy the building design and approval process. A detailed understanding of how a building will then perform during emergencies has impacted on operational training, equipment, planning and resourcing. This has created a safer environment, not just for communities and building occupants, but for firefighters responding to these sites to undertake emergency activities.

Not unlike the lessons learned and initiatives implemented to enhance firefighter and community safety in the field of structural fire safety, fire services need to fully understand the terrorism environment and to find ways to be innovative in their approach and open to change. Intelligence sharing should take a prominent role in influencing planning, training, budgeting and operational safety through enhanced situational awareness.

Intelligence Sharing

Many areas of intelligence are appropriately the domain of law enforcement as it is tied to current criminal investigations and release may run the risk of compromising these investigations. When this type of intelligence becomes critical, and potential consequences reach beyond the capabilities of Police, it is often shared with government and other community safety agencies via identified threat assessment teams. The challenge however, is it is often shared at the last minute and does little for response agencies other than to place them on alert and in a defensive position waiting for possible events to occur.

While the receipt of some intelligence to fire services may be restricted in its delivery, there are other intelligence products that present as of significant value to understanding complexities within the current risk environment. Intelligence products that build understanding on terrorism techniques, global trends and target risk awareness are vital to enhancing situational awareness and improving safety of all emergency responders.

Emergency services and law enforcement leadership require a close working relationship to facilitate a high level of understanding and effective cooperation during the planning phases of response to acts of terrorism. When emergency services understand a threat and embed that knowledge into organisational risk assessments, then address vulnerabilities through effective planning, training, resourcing, operational procedures and budget implications, significant progress can be made to minimise the impact of any current threat.

Strategic Partnerships – Consumers and Contributors

Recently within the State of Victoria the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) with support from the Country Fire Authority (CFA) have developed a strategic partnership with Victoria Police to enable and enhance the understanding for local implications of national intelligence, enabling better protection of local communities and emergency responders.

In order to achieve this outcome the role of Commander Counter Terrorism Coordination was developed by the MFB. The position resides within the MFB’s Emergency Management Directorate; however, the incumbent is physically located and positioned within Victoria Police Counter Terrorism Command. The primary focus of the position is to establish a formalized structure for increased information sharing pathways between organisations and to identify and establish points of contact where information can be directed.

Via the establishment of this strategic partnership, fire services are more able to contribute to and receive information and intelligence on terrorism techniques, global trends, and target risks to enhance situational awareness and proactive measures for protecting the health and safety of all emergency responders. The initiative concurrently provides an important dimension to all hazards risk assessments, preparedness activities and operational strategies through provision of a fire services perspective within the Counter Terrorism Command. The fire services perspective promotes a shared multi-agency understanding and approach to emergency management arrangements, plans and legislation and effectively value adds to an integrated framework for the management of the consequences of a terrorist attack.

Image courtesy of Darren Conlin


In this evolving threat environment all Emergency Management organisations are compelled to understand the complexities in order to be appropriately prepared for a call to action. The MFB and CFA via the establishment of a strategic partnership with Victoria Police have developed an enhanced awareness of the current risk environment. This has enabled the organisations to build capability through integration of terrorism preparedness related issues including risk awareness, security, personnel, equipment, organisational structure, command and control, interagency relationships, and training related capabilities and vulnerabilities into their service delivery models.

For more information, email dconlin@mfb.vic.gov.au

Top image: Reviewing plans with A/Supt Brian Curley (Vicpol).

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Darren Conlin is 32 year veteran with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne. He has extensive experience in all elements of the MFB’s service delivery model including Operations, Emergency Management, Building Fire Safety and Operational Training. His current role is Commander Counter Terrorism Co-ordination, this is a new role developed by the MFB, which sees him co-located within the Victoria Police Counter Terrorism Command.

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