I’ve recently moved from an operations focused role in emergency management to an academic one. It’s a new challenge for me as I watch colleagues and friends do battle with ridiculous weather conditions and hazards that have quickly become deadly. I am in awe of the way they push their skills, knowledge and experience to their personal limit and then use their creative imagination to problem solve beyond that.
For the first time in many years, I am one step removed from the ‘action’. As frustrating as it is, being here is giving me the opportunity to consider the part so many people play in contributing to ‘front line’ defence without actually stepping foot onto the incident ground.
Whilst the images we see on the front page of the papers are almost always of red and blue lights, don’t forget the Triple Zero call taker on the line with someone whose loved one has just collapsed. The calm, reassuring approach they take as they talk the caller through how to perform effective CPR is just as difficult and exhausting as front-line response. Perhaps in some instances, it would be worse, given they can’t do anything physically to help.
As the firefighter climbs down from the truck and grabs their breathing apparatus and a hose, behind the scenes is the trainer who spent hours teaching the correct procedure to fit the air cylinder to the back plate properly and when to make the decision to head back to the check point, conserving just enough air for your own safety.
When a family arrives safely an evacuation centre, pets in tow and enough clothing and medication for a three day stay, remember the community engagement officer who, a long time beforehand, designed and delivered a targeted evacuation action campaign for the at-risk area to ensure people were aware of how to be prepared and what to take in their Go-Bags.
For each food pack the wonderful Salvation Army volunteers hand out to crews in the field, a Finance Officer will be collating all the receipts for the food and packaging needed and then processing the payment for the vendors through the ‘system’.
In my first few years as a volunteer firefighter I frequently took part in what was then referred to as a ‘STARG’ – a State Tactical Area Response Group, now referred to as a ‘TaskForce’. In truth though, among firefighters it was commonly referred to as ‘Speed There Arrive Rest Go-Home’ due to the number of times we would be responded somewhere to fight a blaze, only to spend some time waiting at a staging area instead of being deployed directly to a fire-ground. The thing is, we can’t all be in the ‘action’ all of the time. Sometimes there is a greater need to work behind the scenes, in roles that are equally important but are never going to make the front page of the paper.
During a flooding incident in 2016, I walked into an Incident Control Centre on the night shift to see the IC quickly running a vacuum over the carpet during a lull in activity. The Logs Officer and their team were out arranging the sandbags and shovels into a more effective arrangement for crews to pick up in the morning. Not long after I heard a swift water rescue operator complaining about being bored whilst they sat in the kitchen waiting for their next rescue job. They were from a Unit in another Region and had been sent to ‘save people’, according to them.
I wish they had known that without even getting their feet wet, they were actually ‘saving people’. Simply because they were in the local area, and available for response tasking, the local teams, exhausted, were able to sleep without interruption for the first time in over a week.
There is a lot of focus on the ‘sexy’ smoke and stories of heroic action during emergency incidents. The behind the scenes roles are just as important and make a huge difference to the response to the incident and recovery of affected communities.
Everyone contributes something valuable to collectively save lives and protect communities, only some of us do it by getting our feet wet.
Wherever you are located, whatever role you are doing, and from whichever agency or team you belong, thank you for your contribution to the bigger picture of public safety and emergency management. It is extremely valuable.