The 3:15pm Switch

As a young child growing up in Australia, I learnt that after the heat of a scorching summer’s day, a southerly buster would usually blow in around 3:15pm and bring with it a torrential downpour. I know the time sounds rather specific, but that’s when school finished and it was always a 50/50 chance you’d get caught on the walk home and end up soaking wet. That fabulous sound of a quick hiss as falling droplets splashed against the stinging hot bitumen, releasing pockets of steam trapped from within!

From my experience, that 3:15pm summer moment completely switched the environment I lived in. It quickly turned school time into home time, dry into wet and heat into cool.

Pushing through the most difficult fire season we have seen in decades, as expected, talk is beginning to turn towards possible royal commissions, coronial inquests and formal investigations. We don’t need to wait for the final reports to be handed down to begin preparing for the next incident. Regardless of the role you or your organisation had in this season’s fire emergency, we can all find something to improve what we do, ready for the 3:15pm switch.

I’ve recently heard fire agency colleagues joke with black humour that there’s nothing left to burn. Whilst that’s not entirely accurate, the sentiment isn’t misplaced. When the drought finally breaks, the flooding rains will come. So in my mind, that’s where we should start. How can we take our summer fire season lessons and prepare for the next major floods?

I asked several emergency service colleagues and friends about the things stood out for them from this season. By no means is this a critical analysis of any specific incident that occurred this summer, but what struck me was how common the themes were to previous After Action Review recommendations. Let’s step into a few of the more general topics and break them down…

In every after action review I’ve been involved in, communication is the number one issue raised. No matter what the hazard is, there is always an situation when communication broke down, where vital information didn’t get to the decision makers or there was a misunderstanding about where a resource was or should have been. Relating that to flood, storm and other combat agencies, now is the time to be looking to confirm communication channels, testing radio and email procedures and reporting expectations.

If you’re in a volunteer unit, you could schedule refresher training on radio procedures, check your email distribution lists and confirm the contact numbers and addresses you have for key internal and external stakeholders. If you have an online messaging group, check that people are receiving notifications, or if you’re old school and using pager, when did you last change the battery?

Whether you’re the person who missed out on an opportunity or the person who felt like they were on every shift because there was no one else available, filling rosters is always a challenge. Before there is a genuine need for a response or incident management team, why not complete an audit of your members’ skills and determine their capabilities? By finding out what your team is able to do, you’ll so soon figure out what you’ll be struggling with because it is missing.

Organisations can use this information to inform decisions on training schedules for the next year but if you’re in a volunteer unit, why not make a quick skills sharing program a priority? Simply ask for people to step up to share what they know in a 6 minute mini-lesson at the start of your unit meetings?

I’ve come across a lot of people who are capable of doing something new, but are scared by the thought of getting it wrong. Why not start a mentoring program for a few months to help your members get a grasp of a new role? By shadowing someone else for a few weeks, it may help them get over their fear of looking silly or not being good enough.

I’ll share upfront that I am a believer in the benefits of pre-formed teams. Pre-formed teams are groups of people with complementary skills who work well together because they know in advance who they are working with. Pre-formed teams provide an opportunity for people to dig a little deeper and learn how each team member tackles problems, their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Teams that train together, maintain a common understanding of how tasks are to be completed and know who is responsible for what have a greater chance of achieving success.

Pre-formed teams sound like a luxury when working in a volunteer space, due, in most part, to people’s availability. But you can have teams of people training and exercising together. Put together small groups of members with similar training needs and have them work together each week over a period of time (such as a school term). Match ‘skills needed’ with ‘skills known’ – look at how people can share what they know with one another. In a volunteer unit, why not include a series of round robin team building activities into your training schedule? Getting to know people during the quiet times goes a long way to helping a team work more efficiently in the field.

Top sporting athletes train together outside of competition times. You’d never see a football team read about a play from a textbook and then walk onto the field for a big match expecting to be able to execute it perfectly. It’s no different in emergency management. We need to practice our tactics and strategies with other team members, pushing ourselves to learn the best ways of working before the incident occurs.

Continuous improvement includes testing capabilities in a safe environment and identifying where there is a need to make adjustments and changes. Volunteer units can do this by running an exercise based on a previous incident, or developing a new scenario to address a potential threat in their local area. Assign roles and responsibilities, test internal procedures and practice the tasks or activities you will likely undertake if the situation was real.

I’ve had great success before with a special scenario day, where the leadership group hosted a BBQ lunch on a weekend day and team members came together to manage an 8 hour pretend-emergency. The first half of the day saw members practice the responsibilities of their own roles. After lunch they switched it up and tried a job they hadn’t done before to extend their skills and knowledge. Why not give something similar a go?

Some other key topics that have come up in conversations about lessons we can learn are:
* Language and how we use it
* Safety vs efficiency
* Working with difficult people
* The optics of politics
We’ll have a look at these topics in my next post.

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on areas we can start preparing for now, before the next big one. What is your recommendation? Leave you comment in the box below.

One thought on “The 3:15pm Switch

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  1. Hi Alex, great reflections! All easy things for teams to accomplish. I’d also be interested in how community preparedness can be fostered, especially in a manner that allows them to have a high degree of agency as they move through the preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation cycles. So often communities are passive participants in this process, at the expense of better outcomes, but that being said, in smaller communities the voluntary first responders of SES or fire services are active in some aspects of the cycle, and passive in others. Thanks for a great read!


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