The crisis of the Australian bush fires has attracted international coverage. Fire services and departments around the world are taking a massive interest in how firefighters are tackling the bush fires down on the ground and how state and federal governments are supporting them. International Fire Fighter recently caught up with Brent Clayton, who as an active firefighter, a firefighter recruitment expert and an Australian citizen, is able to offer an unprecedented personal, not official, perspective from the ground up.
IFF: Tell us about the unique challenges that local fire services are facing in Australia’s bush fire crisis?
Brent: Australia is in a drought, so the land was parched before the more recent fires started. There was a lot of fuel out there to burn. In a hotter and drier climate, there are fewer opportunities to do hazard reductions.
What the experts expected would happen played out as the worst possible scenario – bushfires joined together and turned into megafires, generating their own weather and spreading the fires further. Their intensity was unprecedented and will take weeks to contain in some areas.
We’re also starting to see our fire seasons extend well beyond the summer months. Climate change and human use of the land are transforming our ecosystems, but not in a good way.
As I write this, almost eight million hectares of Australia have burnt, more than 30 lives have been lost (including three American firefighters), 2,500 buildings destroyed and conservatively an estimated one billion animals have died.
IFF: How many volunteer and full-time firefighters does Australia have? Who does the work on the ground – do their roles overlap?
Brent: It’s tricky to put your finger on the exact numbers, but there are just under 200,000 volunteer firefighters across the nation. In our largest state, New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) comprises of 70,000 volunteers and 900 paid staff. This makes it the world’s largest voluntary fire service. We’ve got issues, though. It’s been estimated we’ve lost 18,000 volunteers due to an ageing workforce.
With regard to career firefighters, each state does professional firefighting a little differently – some combine fire and rescue services, there are forest service and defence force crews, too. Plus we have metro firefighters in large provincial towns and cities. Our largest state, New South Wales, has almost 7,000 professional firefighters.
IFF: What contribution do volunteer firefighters make in Australia?
Brent: Most firefighters in Australia are local volunteers and with that comes convenience. Australia has a huge expanse of land for a population of 25 million. Superimpose our ‘island’ over Europe and the UK and you might just see Scandinavia poking out.
Volunteers are close by when fires spark up. They know the land, weather conditions and local fuel burden. Historically, there’s been a very strong culture of volunteer firefighting and the recent megafires across our nation have strengthened that.
They’re a crucial part of our arsenal against the worsening fires. You may hear the volunteer firefighters referred to as our ‘surge capacity’ because when we need to boost our forces, they’ll be on hand. In saying this, when there are long duration large scale fires as in now, it does put a strain on the human resource side of things, which is why different states and countries lend a hand where they can.
IFF: What can governments do to be more effective in supporting local firefighters’ efforts?
Brent: As an employed firefighter, I’m in a delicate position, so can’t criticise the government about policy decisions. I can, however, share that in December, 23 former fire and emergency service leaders went out on a limb, urging the government to declare a climate emergency. They also wanted more funds allocated to water-bombing aircraft and resources for firefighting.
There have also been calls for a national review into how we’ve managed the fires and the fallout. However, the discussion brought up the fact that past reviews have been done after horror fires, without much uptake on those recommendations. NSW has already started its own inquiry into the bushfires to look into the impact of climate change, hazard reduction burns, human activity and of course, drought.
But on the ground, we need to look at equipping our country better against these ferocious flames. In one Australian state, many new rural fire sheds have been built, but they’re largely empty. No trucks, no equipment, nothing. The funds didn’t go that far. Resourcing them is an urgent task.
IFF: What do you think the world will take from the decisions and actions Australian fire services and governments will make in the next 12 months or so?
Brent: The fight’s always on for more funding and training so we’re not behind the eight ball.
The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a move to pay volunteer firefighters who work more than 10 days up to $AU300 a day or $6,000 in total. But that only happened in the most populous state, NSW, where most of the fires were. We might see similar moves around the globe which also experience severe fires.
It would also be brilliant if we could create strong learning communities across nations about how to better manage fires and the aftermath. I love the idea of having a team of people that go around the world working in incident control centres as this is an area that seems to struggle for good resourcing during tough times.
Residents need to know when to leave and when to be resilient and prepared. Just because there are fire trucks in your street, doesn’t mean the resources will stretch to saving every property. Taking responsibility for themselves effectively reduces the stress and strain on the services – and firefighters. I’ve heard of residents doing just that in the Bega area of NSW. With some farms facing four major fires in a month, they’ve bandied together and help each other fight the fire because there simply aren’t enough firetrucks and personnel around to support them.
All countries need to look at firefighting not just as a service, but as a national effort with communities playing their own part.
IFF: What fire tech would you love to get your hands on so you can do your job better?
Brent: More water-bombing aircraft would be great, but you’d expect that. We have a massive way to go in harnessing innovative technologies. We need real-time data coming into incident control centres. You might have a strike team of five trucks and one miscommunication could mean they’ll end up doing their own thing, nothing or be in a blazing area. If we knew their location, we could reassign them to where they’re needed. Or it could be worse. In there’s an urgent investigation into two firetrucks carrying Fire & Rescue NSW crew who were in broken down N NSW, two firetrucks with eight crew members were left immobilised as one of the trucks was overrun by fire. It could have cost lives.
It’s about making timely decisions and being able to communicate them efficiently. It’s potentially an easy fix with the funds and correct leadership.
IFF: Why are you expecting many more people to become firefighters – fulltime or voluntary – due to the bush fires?
Brent: Out of this tragedy, the bush fires kindle a spark in some people to do community service. That’s the drawcard for most firefighters. Media coverage has shown them what we do and the challenges we face.
Firefighting is considered as a bit of a noble vocation; a good public service and that’s what attracts people initially. Once people start a career as a firefighter, very few leave the profession. We’re diehards because it’s incredibly rewarding and after you get used to the shift work, you can achieve a great life balance if you’re a good fit for the job.
IFF: What’s the competition like for people who want to fight fires for a living in Australia?
Brent: It’s tough. In Australia, roughly two percent of people who apply get in. I know people who increase their chances by applying for the Australian and New Zealand fire services at the same time and take whatever job offer they get.
But the competition might be easing slightly. I believe we’ve been playing catch up in regards to recruitment. Recruitment had a stagnant period until the past decade while there was significant population growth. I saw this play out in one state, when metro fire services and the rural (mostly volunteer) force, doubled their professional firefighting staff to over 1000.
There has never been a bigger opportunity for full-time professional roles with higher than usual recruitment happening and approximately 30% of the fire service workforce in Victoria are heading into retirement in the next five years as just some of the reasons for an increased need within fire services around the country.
IFF: Firefighting’s risks and dangers means there’s a limit to how many years you can work in this field. Should firefighters be thinking of creating their own businesses?
Brent: I think it can be a good idea for the right personality type doing it for the right reasons. I started Fire Recruitment Australia in 2009 as there was a real lack of support and resources for good people wanting to join the fire service. I found it really difficult to join the fire service on my first attempt. Once I figured it out and got in, I thought there must be others who need help through the process and I could help them avoid wasting time, money and disappointment. I created a range of resources and online courses to upskill people through the recruitment process so that they have the best possible chance of getting in. I have also helped coach current firefighters to secure promotions within fire services in Australia & NZ.
IFF: Thank you Brent for your honesty and providing us with a unique insight into the struggles being faced right now in Australia.
For more information, go to www.firerecruitmentaustralia.com.au
Brent Clayton is an active firefighter, and the founder and Managing Director of Fire Recruitment Australia. It’s one of Australia’s leading platforms that help aspiring firefighters get on the fastest path to a fire fighting job. He has also written five books, including a best seller. Anything expressed in this interview is the sole opinion of Brent Clayton and does not represent any public sector fire service in any capacity.