State Operations Centre – behind the scenes during a bushfire
Everyone knows that when the threat of bushfire looms over Western Australian communities our dedicated firefighters answer the call, don their protective gear and go out to battle the blaze.
Less understood is the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes at the strategic level when the State is plagued by multiple high level incidents.
When the smoke starts billowing and the sirens are wailing, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ (DFES) State Operations Centre (SOC) in Cockburn is quickly gearing up to manage the emergencies, no matter where they are in the State.
Situated at the DFES Emergency Services Complex, when the SOC is fully activated there may be more than 50 people working there at one time on a 12 hour rotational basis, supporting frontline incidents and providing emergency information to the community.
Wearing fluorescent vests with their roles printed on the back it is easy to identify who is doing what during the height of an emergency situation. Roles range from the Duty Assistant Commissioner who is responsible for oversight of the major incidents around the State through to logistics and liaison officers, public information coordinators and bushfire behaviour specialists.
DFES Chief Superintendent Paul Ryan, responsible for the operation of the SOC, said during major incidents, such as out of control bushfires threatening lives and property, the role of the SOC is to manage the emergencies strategically rather than tactically.
“The role of the SOC is not about fighting individual incidents such as bushfires - that is for the Incident Management Teams and firefighters on the ground to coordinate,” Chief Superintendent Ryan said.
“We are continually analysing information such as weather forecasts and how incidents are developing from throughout the State, so we can determine if incidents are likely to develop or escalate.
“When we have multiple severe bushfires or other incidents running at the same time in different regions, personnel in the SOC will examine the bigger picture and provide strategic intent, State level planning and direction for how resources are allocated across the different incidents.
“In a way it is like playing chess – not only do we look at the current state of play but we also think about how the situation may potentially develop, examine where our ‘pieces’ are and what they can do, and determine where they are going to be best placed for the most favourable outcome.
“Before we send firefighters or appliances to an area we also need to make sure we’ve left enough resources free to combat new fires, in case they develop into large scale incidents too.”
Personnel in the SOC look ahead at the developing State situation and the likely consequences. They anticipate the resources needed on the ground to resolve the incidents and prevent the loss of important infrastructure and homes. For example, the SOC will call in additional aircraft or firefighters from around the State and interstate if necessary.
“In late January this year when lightning caused more than 120 fires in one week, including the bushfires at Northcliffe and Boddington, we needed to call for reinforcements not only from across the State but from interstate as well.
“The SOC coordinated nearly 400 firefighters and support staff who came to our aid from across the country, bolstering our ranks and enabling our firefighters to be rested.
“We also arranged for the support of two large air tankers from the Eastern States, which were based at the RAAF Pearce temporary base and used to protect critical infrastructure in the Northcliffe area.”
District Officer Ray Buchan, who manages Operational Communications, said the SOC team also liaise with other agencies to share information and keep the operational teams on the ground informed.
“DFES works alongside agencies such as Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia Police, the Department for Child Protection and Family Support and lifelines such as the Water Authority, Horizon and Western Power,” District Officer Buchan said.
“We all have a part to play during emergency response and this interagency cooperation means we can provide a coordinated approach to managing major incidents at the State level including multiple bushfires.
“We hold regular teleconferences throughout incidents to make sure that everyone involved has access to the most current and up to date information that they need from across the board.
“We also use a web based software system that allows us to share information for major incidents across the State. This enables us all to be on the same page and see what is going on.
“In the case of an emergency the State Emergency Coordination Group, comprised of chief executive officers and directors general of emergency management and associated agencies, are also kept abreast of what is going on.”
In addition to this, Public Information Coordinators in the SOC speak directly to representatives on the fire ground to get the latest information about bushfire incidents. This information is relayed in community warnings issued to the public, with call takers also on hand to answer the 13 DFES information hotline (13 3337).
Despite the stresses of emergency management and dealing with ever changing situations, the SOC runs smoothly during bushfires.
“Everyone knows what to do in their role,” said Chief Superintendent Ryan. “DFES holds regular training with emergency simulations throughout the year, so when major incidents occur everyone is prepared and well versed in what to do.
“Likewise, community members should create a bushfire survival plan that outlines what they will do if a bushfire occurs, and practise it regularly with their family so they are ready to respond and take action immediately.
“Being prepared for the bushfire season is a shared responsibility between the government, agencies and the community – everyone needs to play their role to ensure they are bushfire ready.”
Who does what in the SOC
There are a diverse range of different functions within the SOC, all working together to support the strategic management of incidents. Some of these include:
Duty Assistant Commissioner – responsible for guiding the operations of the SOC and the strategic decision making process during high level incidents.
Meteorologist - an on-site meteorologist from the Bureau of Meteorology provides regular reports on weather conditions which can have a huge effect on bushfire behaviour.
Bushfire behaviourists – examine factors such as weather, fuel loads and topography to predict the fire’s behaviour.
Mapping specialists - provide geographical information to assist with situational awareness and strategic management, such as detailed maps of fire affected or threatened areas.
Resource and planning officers - assess the needs of firefighters and plan what support is needed.
Coordinators of public information - speak directly to the incident controllers or public information officers on the ground to receive the latest information about the bushfire. This information is relayed in community warnings issued to the public.
Call takers - answer the 13 DFES information hotline (13 3337). Decked out with headsets and armed with the latest information they speak directly to concerned community members about matters such as road closures, relocation centres and community meetings.
Logistics officers – ensure that firefighters and other responders receive the facilities and support they need on the ground, such as medical and catering services.
Air operations – coordination of air support required, such as aerial intelligence and fire suppression.