Fire fighter volunteers - How can we keep them, and keep them safe?

Issued by La Trobe University

La Trobe University scientists are playing important roles in the new Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) established to improve all aspects of preventing and fighting bushfires.

The Federal Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, launched the new CRC—one of a number financed by the Federal Government to bring together researchers in many organisations working in the same field— in Melbourne on 9 December.

La Trobe University senior lecturer in the Department of Psychological Science, Dr Mary Omodei, will lead a team investigating two vital aspects of fighting bushfires. One concerns the recruiting and retention of volunteer fire fighters and the other the safety aspects of decision making while fires are in progress.

Dr Omodei has worked in bushfire research for a number of years and played a dominant role in developing the use of tiny cameras in fire fighters’ helmets to enable those at central control to have a clearer picture of what is happening at a fire front.

Dr Omodei says that levels of fire fighting volunteerism are declining at such a rate that there could be a serious lack of volunteers within a decade. ‘Part of our research is aimed at better understanding individual, community, and demographic factors which impact on recruiting and retaining volunteers,’ she says.

‘These factors are not well understood but there is evidence to suggest that they range from motivational and personality characteristics of the individual volunteer to structural and legal aspects of the roles available within volunteer organisations.

‘In order to enhance the number of suitably skilled volunteers it is important that the full range of such factors be identified and appropriate strategies be implemented..

‘The other part of our research pertains to decision making and the safety of fire fighters. We all know of the tragedies that have occurred in the past and our research aims to eliminate or at least minimize the chances of such tragedies re-occurring.

‘Despite heavy reliance on fire prediction and hazard models, and fire control and suppression technologies, fire fighting is ultimately a human activity requiring individual fire fighters to form risk assessments on the spot and to initiate courses of action.

‘Fire fighter safety, both in bushfires and brigade activities and training situations, requires that individuals be aware of, and give adequate attention to, the safety implication of any decisions they might implement.

‘Previous research suggests that human decision-making ability deteriorates in rapidly changing and relatively unpredictable situations such as a bushfire.  It is unclear what factors cause such a decline in decision-making ability, particularly with regard to threats to safety.

‘There is evidence to suggest that such factors range from inherent limitations of cognitive processing abilities through stress and overload, to pervasive effects of an organisation’s overall safety climate.

‘To optimise safety relevant decision making, it is important that the full range of causes of impaired decision making be identified and appropriate recommendations and guidelines be developed to counter their effects.

‘Such recommendations and guidelines comprise not only those pertaining to operational procedures, but also those pertaining to the design of operational decision support tools, and to brigade activities and training situations more generally,’ Dr Omodei said.

Her team comprises Dr Ken Greenwood, Dr Geoff Cumming, Jim McLennan and Dr Bob Jamieson from La Trobe’s Department of Psychological Science, Dr Rosemary Wearing from La Trobe’s Department of Sociology, and Dr  Alex Wearing of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychology.

Further information: Dr Mary Omodei 9479 1747