Fire Planning Helped by Research

This article was published in the Autumn 2011 edition of Fire Australia magazine.

New Bushfire CRC research is helping incident management teams improve firefighting performance by looking at how firefighters communicate during fires and how they plan for possible worst-case scenarios during an incident.

Senior lecturer Dr Christine Owen of the University of Tasmania’s Faculty of Education, a Bushfire CRC research leader, led the first systematic review of the emergency incident management systems used in Australia and New Zealand, identifying areas that were working well and those of concern and needing attention.

La Trobe University Bushfire CRC PhD student Claire Johnson studied the extent to which firefighters prepare for the worst during incidents, highlighting the importance of being ready for a worst-case scenario and finding inconsistencies in preparation for such scenarios. Fire agency end users have praised both sets of research.

“Our systems of incident management are crucial to the way fire and emergency services achieve their mission in the community. This work is critical to help us to understand the changes needed for moving forward and to working smarter, not harder,” says Euan Ferguson, Chief Officer, Country Fire Authority, Victoria, of Dr Owen’s work.

“Claire Johnson’s research has identified potential barriers to worst-case scenario planning and provides fire services with opportunities to refine our decisionmaking processes by incorporating worst-case scenario planning,” says Mark Thomason, Manager, Operational Improvement, South Australian Country Fire Service.

A review of IMT systems
Dr Owen’s project looked at how incident management teams work under the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS, used in Australia) and the similar Coordinated Incident Management System (CIMS, used in New Zealand).

“One of the key issues arising from the 2009
Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was whether organisational changes would benefit or hinder future emergency management response,” Dr Owen wrote in a Bushfire CRC Fire Note on the work.

“This research represents the first systematic national review of Australia’s emergency Incident Management System to be conducted since its introduction in Australia and New Zealand. It points to where strategic change can be implemented to improve organising for emergency management.”

The four-year research project indicated that the original functional purpose of the AIIMS and CIMS worked well, particularly in predictable and routine emergency events. However, evidence suggested strains happened during complex emergencies.

“The review undertaken suggests that, in terms of strategic implications, changes in various parts of the AIIMS/CIMS system may be useful and also require differing levels of intervention.”

The research found that one in every three fire personnel interviewed for the project reported that they experienced factors that inhibited them from being able to carry out their job effectively.

“The concerns of personnel on the fire or incident grounds are, not surprisingly, for resources. Also highlighted are concerns regarding securing needed support from the Incident Management Team (IMT) in a way that is temporally responsive.

“Personnel working within functional units of the IMT reported lowest levels of satisfaction with interactions supporting distributed sense-making between the IMT and the fire ground. There is a need to strengthen the interconnections between planning and operational functional units within the IMT because it is between these two units where the first disconnects and coordination breakdowns occur.”

People working at a regional level suffered most from concerns about personnel capability. They reported lower levels of certainty of what needed to be done; with familiarity with the incident management systems being used at that level; and understanding about who to contact for information or expertise.

Personnel at a state level reported experiencing higher levels of contradictions in policies; experienced higher levels of competing demands; and reported a greater degree of having to go outside normal procedures as well as being asked to go outside the chain of command.

“These results show how the activity of emergency incident management transforms into different sets of demands depending on the location of work teams within the AIIMS/CIMS structure and the demands of the incident. Areas for potential improvement can also be considered in terms of the degree of change needed to address the issue identified.”

Dr Owen concluded that, in some areas, all that may be necessary is a realignment of policy or an articulation of job functions, such as reviewing relationships within functional units within the IMT. Other issues may require greater change or reforming processes, such as building better ways to share more timely information between the IMT and the fireground.

“Finally, there may be greater changes needed which indicate a need to re-engineer parts of the system. For example, at a state (Australia) and national (New Zealand) level the coordination systems and processes may need to be re-engineered to create appropriate processes to support effective multi-agency coordination networks in incident management.”

Planning for the worst case
Claire Johnson’s project investigated how worst-case scenarios influenced the decision-making processes of Australian bushfire fighters.

“A failure to consider worst-case scenario possibilities has been implicated in a number of high-profile investigations into Australian bushfire disasters,” she wrote in a Fire Note on her work.

Worst-case scenario thinking involves identifying possible worst-case events and implementing actions to prepare for those events, she says. Benefits of thinking this way include to avoid being surprised by unexpected events, to highlight faulty assumptions and errors in decision-making and to identify possible actions to mitigate the severity of consequences if worst-case events cannot be avoided.

“While receiving little previous research attention, worst-case thinking is a critical skill that is challenging to develop and difficult to execute.”

She undertook three distinct studies. Study One saw an analysis of 54 interviews of paid and volunteer bushfire fighters with a range of experience levels who made decisions at a range of command levels, from crew leader to incident controller. Interviews were carried out as soon as possible after a non-problematic incident. The analysis identified numerous worst-case scenarios, all spontaneously reported by interviewees because no interview questions specifically asked about such events.

Study Two interviews differed from Group One because they explicitly asked interviewees about worst-case scenarios, targeted expert decision-makers with extensive experience in managing bushfire situations, focused on the incident management level of decision-making and discussed critical incidents from the past five years that interviewees felt had challenged their decision-making skills and required all their expertise to manage.

Study Three was developed to explore the practical implications of the results of studies One and Two. Some efficient methods were identified for developing worst-case scenario thinking skills and incorporating them into incident management practice. These methods were discussed with eight fire agency personnel who each had substantial experience in training development and operational improvement.

“The research findings highlight the importance – and challenge – of adequately preparing for worst-case scenarios,” Claire Johnson says. “However, the reported inconsistency of worst-case thinking suggests further effort is required to ensure all decision-makers adequately identify, plan and prepare for such scenarios.”

For more information
The Fire Notes prepared by Christine Owen (Number 73, Strategic implications for incident control systems in Australia and New Zealand) and Claire Johnson (Number 77, How bushfire fighters think about worstcase scenarios), along with other work in their areas, can be found at