Lessons Learnt - Experiences from Two Continents

Wildfire management experts from North America, Australia and New Zealand have recognized for decades that they share many commonalities.  This recognition provided the motive for numerous informal visits and formal study tours, on both sides of the Pacific over the years.

Also for many years, the Chief Public Land fire officers from Australia and New Zealand have cooperated under an international framework through a body currently known as the Forest Fire Management Group (FFMG). In 1998, the Chair of the US equivalent to this Group, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), approached his Australian equivalent seeking assistance with widespread fires then occurring in the US.

Subsequently, nearly 100 fire personnel from Australia and New Zealand traveled to Idaho and Montana, filling roles in both fire control and aviation management. Fire personnel from Australia and New Zealand made a similar deployment to the US again in 2000.

Firefighters and mapDuring the 2001/02 fire season, the NWCG and FFMG negotiated legal agreements to make future support arrangements more seamless.  In early 2003, more than 30 US personnel assisted in the suppression of, what was then, the largest wildfire in southern Australia in 60 years. Later that year personnel from Australia and New Zealand again traveled to the US. Most recently, during the 2006/07 fire season, around 110 US personnel again assisted with major wildfires in Southeast Australia.

These international deployments have succeeded in part because the Australian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS), the National Incident Management System (NIMS) used in the United States, and New Zealand’s Crisis Information Management System (CIMS) align well.

Staff members of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and the Bushfire CRC recently interviewed 12 fire management professionals from the US, Australia and New Zealand regarding their experiences on one or more of their major wildfire assignments as part of this exchange agreement.  Specifically, these men and women shared their challenges, effective practices, safety practices, and training recommendations.  Special thanks are extended to these individuals for sharing their significant lessons learned.

In the following sections, the perspectives of the Australasian personnel appear first in italics, followed by the US personnel perspective.

Putting ICS into Practice

Australians were able to experience the US ICS system operating in practice. Tasmanian and New Zealanders were trusted to manage a fire independently (at Alder Creek). For the Tasmanians there, who were all from different agencies, this was to become a landmark event that resulted in a number ground-breaking initiatives in the development of our interagency firefighting systems back home.

Integrating Australian, Canadian, and US Practices

Becoming a useful member of Incident Management Team (was a notable success.) People pick up rather quickly if you are competent in whatever role you’ve been assigned. A Division Supervisor in the US carries a great deal of responsibility – and decision-making ability is paramount. Fireline personnel look to the Division Supervisor for guidance and their well being.  I personally found my experiences on both deployments very rewarding in terms of the outcomes achieved and in the rapport established with those who were assigned to my Division.

The US teams integrated well with the Australian and Canadian teams. It took open-mindedness to assimilate and accept the differences in format. Each country organises its teams differently, though all consist of some type of command and general staff.  Consequently, personnel from the US needed to work to remain agile and open-minded about Australian fire operational processes. The Australians assign two complete teams per 24-hour period, one on day, and one on night.  Consequently, the operation requires two Incident Commanders and two transitions occur each day. Because fire assignments only last five days in Australia, lots of changes and transitions occur.

Integrating Strategies and Tactics

The integration of firefighters from the US with Australian firefighters was a notable success.  Overall, the US firefighters seamlessly integrated into the Incident Management Team and suppression operations, and the Australians readily accepted the US firefighters into the organization.  US firefighters participated in decision making and the formulation of both strategy and tactics.  As a result, information sharing and exchanges of methods between two firefighting cultures occurred, benefiting both groups.

Earning Respect

Initially the scale of operations was somewhat intimidating. There seemed to be an unlimited amount of resources allocated to the US fire complex. Any additional requirements requested were never questioned. I overcame this challenge by believing in my abilities and the faith which selectors had in me. I was chosen to go do a job halfway across the world and represent not only Australia but also Tasmania and the agency which I was employed.

When invited to help support fire suppression operations in another country, the guests should work hard to fit in and adapt to the host country’s way of running their organization.  On the other hand, we can learn from one another.  US personnel were able to simultaneously adapt, learn from the Australians, and teach them as well.  US and Australian crews operate very differently.  US crews emphasize structure and discipline.  Australian fire crews also tend to be made up of a younger generation people than the typical US Hotshot crew. Consequently, it seemed that the Australians showed interest in our structure and discipline.

Day and Night Transitions

One continual challenge involved the two transitions per day between two incident commanders and two separate teams. The Australians also take two days off after five days on a fire. It took some getting used to but US personnel were able to get into this routine and followed along with their program.

Learning Different Terminology

Language and different terminology - a tanker in Australia is a fire truck, while a tanker in the US is a large plane dropping retardant. These problems were largely overcome with time and increasing familiarity. Australians speaking slowly seemed to help! The most difficult challenge was to understand the range of different vegetation models that existed in the US. I used the expertise of local fire behaviour specialists to assist me.

Communications was a challenge because we were unfamiliar with Australian terminology and slang. We often had difficulty understanding radio transmissions.  As long as someone could interpret, radio communications went OK. Otherwise one frequently had to ask to have the message repeated.   Learning new terminology and jargon proved challenging.  For example, a typical statement would be “The POM is sending a float to pick up the plant on Twiggy track”.  Interpreted this means, “The Plant Operations Manager (Ground Support Unit Leader) is sending a transport or lowboy to pick up the dozer on the Twiggy Road.”  A big lesson learned was, if one was unsure of the instructions or terminology it was important to ask questions.

Overcoming the Language Barrier

One of the most challenging issues I faced was terminology and local accents. This certainly was not insurmountable and mostly was not an issue after the first week. It was entertaining for both parties learning each others’ slang and local terminology. It brought home how important it is to be understood at briefings and the like.

Believe it or not, the language barrier was a continual challenge. Even though both groups speak the same language, differences in terminology, slang, and interpersonal communication methods often presented a struggle.  The language barrier required people to spend more time than would usually be spent explaining or clarifying basic communications or conversations.

Gaining Acceptance

Aviation personnel in the state of Victoria operate in a small, tightly knit group.  A handful of people work in the State Aircraft Unit (SAU) in Melbourne, and they know all the vendors’ pilots, the aviation managers, unit fire managers, etc. As an outsider, it was a bit tough to break into this tight organization. When the US air operations person, who was female, would call a vendor, the vendor would often ask where the guy she replaced was. It took a bit of time to get them to recognize that the person assigned to do the job was a) an outsider b) from America c) a woman and d) was effectively doing the job.  It was not a huge deal, but it was the biggest challenge of the assignment.

Motors, maps and metrics

Jet lag was the main issue but after a couple of days that was overcome. There were four minor things that were a bit of a challenge; the map system, terminology, the Imperial measurement system and driving. The last three were soon overcome but the map system and how it operates is still a little hard to fathom. Some of us had grown up with the imperial system but it is a long time since we actually used it, since we have long used the metric system.

Learning the rules of the road and how to drive on the left side of the road was a definite challenge.  One American received a ten minute drive around town with an Australian and then the plan was for her to drive two hours at the end of the operational period to get to the town where the Rest and Relaxation (R&R) facility was established.   The American individual worked it out to pick up another American to travel with, who had already been driving for a few days, so the new individual was not driving alone across Victoria. After some experience with driving, the individual did fine, but it was a bit challenging getting used to it at first.

Understanding Accepted Practices

I found the way the fires were resourced very interesting and the fact that each ICS team, especially the Type 1 IMT, come in with their complete infrastructure i.e. tents, contractors, etc. Along with the way these teams ran, very effectively with a full structure and 2000 personnel originally from many parts of the world.

Understanding what was considered “generally accepted practices” in the Australian system, in order to merge seamlessly into their operations, was a challenge.  Not knowing how strictly Victorian fire personnel interpreted their own policy and procedure initially made it difficult to operate in a similar manner as the local personnel.  For example, the State of Victoria’s system requires that aerial coordination or "air attack" is present prior to any aircraft "firebombing," or dropping water or retardant on a fire.  Conversely, in the US, aircraft routinely initial attack fires without aerial coordination unless the airspace is complex, a mix of aircraft are working, or more than four of the same type of aircraft are working the fire.

Radio Communication Differences

One of the most effective practices that we learned was to formalise the communications plan for a large fire and to separate the Tactical from the Command radio frequencies. More broadly, fire understanding and communications were further strengthened by the regular participation of Divisional Supervisors in planning meetings. Operational communications generally and interaction between an IMT and front line firefighters is critical to the success of any operation and regularly features in operational analysis. Any improvements in communications will always be a benefit to firefighters.

One of the biggest challenges while working in Australia was radio communication.  Their radios are pre-programmed with over 100 frequencies but they do not scan.  The Australians have become proficient at talking very little on tactical frequencies.  The Divisions and Sector Bosses usually have two radios; one radio is for their tactical frequencies and one is for command.  Being in a foreign country fighting fire under somewhat extreme conditions, it was critical that we be able to talk to each other to continuously mitigate safety concerns.  We needed constant communication with our lookouts as well as other overhead on the crew to follow our rules of engagement while making sound tactical decisions.

Effectiveness of Smaller Organisations

I had a success working with Type 2 crews establishing new control lines and burning out pockets. This was very rewarding getting to know their capabilities and empowering them to carry out these tasks. The Type 2 crews were not accustomed to ‘burning out’ pockets as it seem like the Hotshot crews normally had the responsibility of doing this. The guys were enthusiastic and very easy to work with.

Americans learned a lot about how the Australian overhead teams work and relate to our Incident Command System (ICS).  Overall, Australians have much smaller organisations than we do in the US, although they are very similar.  The last Australian fire one US crew was on was over 2.5 million acres and the Australians had the equivalent of four large Type 3 incident management teams running it.  From a tactical perspective, Australians can fight fire aggressively because they have fewer people to account for on the fireline.  The Australians put in a lot of indirect line and conduct burn out operations, which works well for them given the terrain and fuel type.

The Work/Rest Cycle

14 day shifts simplified crewing and ‘change-over’ issues and people soon adapted to long duration shifts. If you cannot sleep in a tent on the ground without a pillow and work 14 days at 12-15 hour days then do not go (to the US on an assignment.)

Although many processes are similar between US and Australian firefighting, the Australian work/rest cycle is noticeably different from the US. After five days, replacement personnel are brought in. This practice presents a double-edged sword. Although well-rested people have arrived, these new personnel have to reorient and gain situational awareness of the incident.

LCES in Australia

The two most important safety practices I noted were the use of LCES (Lookouts Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones) to remind crews of the critical issues they must continually be mindful of and the appointment of a Safety Advisor in each IMT. Both were immediately adopted in Tasmania upon our return.

US firefighters in Australia needed to constantly maintain LCES just as they do in the US.  They needed to be aware of falling snags and branches in tops of the trees.  Fire will burn up the bark of the trees and burn out branches in the tops.  Branches and trees fall with little or no warning, so a critical need exists to constantly remain aware where you are walking and parking vehicles.

Safety is the Priority

Safety practices in the main were very good. We have started using Safety Advisors on major incidents since seeing how they operated in the US. The practice of 14 days straight then two days off is something that probably needs to be looked at in relation to safety. In my opinion 14 days is far too long for people to be working continuously on a fire. A 10 days on, two days off shift would be better. That would reduce the chances of accidents caused by fatigue and also still maintain some continuity. Also, the practice of carrying a fire shelter is one that needs to be re-evaluated. I don’t believe carrying one is good practice. It would be better to train people how not to end up in situations where they need to deploy their shelter.

The Australian Fire Management organization conducts business much like we do in the US with safety as the number one priority. The Australians have adopted a lot of rules that originated in the US.  Australian firefighters do not carry fire shelters and do not believe in them, though they train extensively on entrapment avoidance. They have an excellent safety record and very few burnovers. Similar to us, the majority of their injuries seem to come from trees falling on firefighters and driving accidents.

Send a Standing US IMT

The briefing and training at Boise was good but was hard to take in when somewhat jet lagged. Some briefing about forest types and vegetation could be done before departure. Teams will need to be pre-selected and be ready to go to get as much briefing before hand. An Australian view of what to expect when you arrive in a formal presentation, rather than ad-hoc discussion with previous personal would prepare people better.

I recommend dispatching a standing US Command and General Staff IMT to Australia for future assignments. The US team personnel had to learn how to work with one another and apply new practices because they had not worked together. We would have been more successful, more quickly, if we would have already known one another.  The US did not send incident commanders because the US teams did not actually take over an incident. The Canadians sent a full Command and General staff to Australia, and this worked out very well for them.

Sharing Lessons Learned for Future Assignments

We had a brief training session, half day briefing before we left for the US. It would have been better if we had time to allow for a couple of days training here in Australia on things such as conditions, terminology and what to expect. Map reading in US can be very difficult. Training and familiarization in the use of GPS is of benefit, though not essential.

US fire personnel received an appropriate two day orientation to the Australian incident command system, fuels, fire behavior, and culture.  US firefighters on this assignment recommend that the “lessons learned” or After Action Review (AAR) notes from both this Australian deployment as well as the previous deployments be consolidated and made available to those going on subsequent deployments.  This group of fire personnel did not have lessons learned, notes, or pointers (such as what to take with you, how to organize and operate when deployed, etc.) from the 2006 deployment, and that would have been very helpful.

(This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in Scratchlines, from the US Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center)

Release date

Thu, 31/12/2009