In the sweltering heat of summer a bushfire rages, leaving blackened and burnt out bushland in its wake as it gets closer to a nearby suburb.
Despite the apparent danger, Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Incident Controller (IC) Allan Riley remains composed – he’s been here before.
As an IC, he is the person in charge of providing on-ground leadership and managing the resources needed to fight the fire. His role is crucial in keeping others up to date with what is happening on the fire ground.
Allan Riley has been a firefighter for over 30 years and after working his way up to become Superintendent four years ago, he has been based out of Joondalup for the past two as Superintendent of the North Coastal Metropolitan region.
Having been involved in many bushfires in the last few years, including fires in the Avon Valley, Bullsbrook, Gingin, Lower Hotham and Waroona, Superintendent Riley said the January 2015 Bullsbrook bushfire was one of the worst he has seen.
“It was a difficult one to contend with for a lot of reasons. The fire spread quickly in pine plantations, there were large areas of boggy acid sulphate soils which hindered access and were also susceptible to subsurface fires,” Superintendent Riley said.
“Coupled with that, we had strong south easterly winds, ember attack and areas of unexploded ordnance around the local military range.
“Fortunately we were able to save more than 100 homes in the area, with the only losses after nine days of firefighting being two disused houses and five sheds.
Superintendent Riley said the primary responsibility of the IC is formulating a plan to combat the fire.
“We have objectives we want to achieve depending on what the fire is doing – we may want to extinguish it, contain it to a certain area or evacuate people out of harm’s way. That is all part of what an IC has to consider.
“Firefighting is only part of our response. Other responsibilities include ensuring the community is informed about the bushfire and determining if evacuations or road closures need to be put in place for community safety.
“We also liaise with other agencies such as the local government and Western Power so we can share vital information and coordinate our responses.”
During large scale bushfires the IC has an Incident Management Team (IMT) that works together to manage the incident, including roles such as logistics, resources, planning and media liaison officers.
“I have a lot of people helping me - they each assess their area of responsibility and make recommendations to aid in my decision making. For example, the operations officer might say we need more firefighters or heavy tankers to fight the fire based on its size or ferocity, or more machinery to help with establishing containment lines.
“I assess those recommendations and direct the logistics officer to obtain them.
“During the peak of a fast-paced incident, I’m usually making constant decisions on strategies, tactics and community considerations.
“This can mean that I’m making more than 100 individual decisions every hour until a stable pattern of activity is established.”
Superintendent Riley said when it comes to large bushfires like Avon Valley, Bullsbrook and Lower Hotham it is not uncommon to have 200 to 300 firefighters and IMT members under his command.
“The number of personnel is very dynamic and it can rise and fall depending on the time of day and the weather conditions,” he said.
“Like bringing together any new group of workers, an IMT goes through the stages of group dynamics.
“However, forming, storming, norming and performing happens very quickly in emergency situations and I put this down to the nature of emergency workers and the training that we receive.
“Working with groups of people you already know helps but even if you’re thrown into an incident in a region with unfamiliar people from other agencies there is still a sense of camaraderie and that you’re all working towards a common goal - the safety of the community and each other.
“As a firefighter I have spent a lot of time putting water on fires. I have seen people lose everything they own except for the clothes on their back, however I’ve been extremely fortunate not to have seen the loss of lives.”
Superintendent Riley said he handles the stress of making decisions under pressure through drawing on his vast experience and the use of well planned procedures.
“Knowing how long it will take to get items that you may need is important. You have to think about ordering food for firefighters and volunteers hours before you actually need it and ordering lighting towers well before the sun goes down,” he said.
“As an IC it is also important to monitor your own wellbeing and fatigue as there is a lot resting on your shoulders.
“I am usually thinking about what is the worst case scenario, but also what is the most likely scenario, and trying to strike a balance between the two so we are reasonably prepared if the situation does worsen.”
Although bushfires are unpredictable by nature Superintendent Riley said during an incident the IMT is quick to gather intelligence about forecast weather and are ready for changes in wind direction, wind force, other weather condition like lightning and storm cells.
“However, it’s not an exact science and the unexpected can happen.
“If there is a sudden onset of changed conditions, we have a communication system known as ‘Red Flag Warnings’ to quickly get the message out to all crews on the fire lines.
“The Telephone Warning System can also be used to pass warnings on to a large number of community members, however people shouldn’t wait for a warning – if you see smoke and flames act immediately.
Ahead of this year’s bushfire season, Superintendent Riley said it is of paramount importance to be prepared.
“Firefighters are gearing up for another busy summer and it is essential that people maintain their properties, have a bushfire survival plan and understand the different Advice, Watch and Act, and Emergency warnings issued by DFES.
“We do everything we can to combat bushfires, but people also need to recognise their own risk and act accordingly – it’s a shared responsibility.”