Australia’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) is one of the world’s largest volunteer firefighting organisations with over 35,000 volunteer firefighters and 1,300 career firefighters supported by more than 21,000 non-operational volunteers and staff across the state of Victoria; one of the most intense fire environments in the world and home to Australia’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. A world leader in large-scale bushfire-fighting, CFA regularly deploys firefighters to overseas bushfires, including to the US, Canada and Greece in 2018.
At home in Victoria, it has grown from a fire service focused on forest firefighting, to a fire and emergency service that takes in more than half of metropolitan Melbourne.
Victoria, known internationally for its Great Ocean Road, tiny penguins and devastating bushfires, is Australia’s fastest-growing state.
Its capital Melbourne is growing at a rate of around 2 per cent per year – fuelled by its growth corridors to the west, north and east where population growth is as high as 5 per cent.
Close to half of all Victorians were either born overseas or to a parent born overseas. Victorians come from more than 200 countries and while the majority of people speak only English at home, close to a third speak at least one of 250 other languages.
While regional Victoria’s population is growing at a much slower rate – and indeed decreasing in some parts – larger regional centres within commuting distance of Melbourne also record healthy growth.
A fire and emergency service like CFA must rethink how we best respond to the needs of new and emerging communities on the urban fringe, bordering on bush and grassland, which are also home to many migrants from countries unfamiliar with Australia’s bushfire risk.
Integrated stations meet new demands
Increasingly built-up estates in areas that were once proudly protected by volunteer-only fire brigades mean a growing demand for increased responses. It has led to an integration of career and volunteer firefighters who operate from our stations.
So, how does an organisation such as CFA ensure it has the capability to meet the challenges that these changes pose to its mission of saving lives and property?
Capability – while it sounds like management-speak – is actually about enhancing and making what we do, easier, safer, and more effective.
It’s not necessarily just about the response equipment we have, and at CFA we’re certainly looking beyond that.
It is also about the way we organise ourselves, and the decisions we make about our areas of focus.
While the communities that CFA service are faced with both rural decline and fast-paced population growth, this article focuses on our response to growing populations in metropolitan growth corridors and expanding regional centres – both in terms of our preventative work around community fire safety messages and in terms of our incident response to a wider range of emergencies
In 2015, the Victorian Government identified a need for more career firefighters in CFA’s growth areas and committed CFA to employing, training and housing 350 new career firefighters by December, 2018.
Boost to career numbers
The resulting 350 Firefighter Program (P350) has provided CFA with an opportunity to deliver some of the largest changes the organisation has undertaken in its history. This includes increasing service delivery capacity via the introduction of additional career firefighters to support volunteers to protect lives and property in their communities.
Through the program, we have recruited, trained and deployed 350 new career firefighters over three years – in collaboration with our colleagues at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) who have trained a further 100.
These CFA firefighters have now been stationed alongside volunteers across the growth areas around Victoria’s ever-expanding capital Melbourne and across strategic regional centres such as Mildura in the far North West, Warrnambool in the South West, Wodonga in the North East and Traralgon in the South East.
This allows us to better respond to emergencies relating to increase in infrastructure and more complex environments such as ports, power stations and large factories.
It also increases capacity across all operational ranks and ensures there is adequate space at entry-level ranks for the deployment of new recruits.
Capital investment in infrastructure
Upgrading our infrastructure and equipment to support these new firefighters and aligning training and rank to support and integrate the newest members of our organisation are some of our more challenging experiences. Purchasing appropriate land in the best location for fire service delivery has at times been challenging in areas of exponential population growth as well as upgrading our existing stations to accommodate our increased career firefighting workforce.
A capital sub-program is responsible for preparing CFA integrated fire stations and District head offices for increased career firefighter numbers. Areas deemed to need upgrading, expanding and new construction are divided into three categories; Infrastructure (including modifications of 18 fire stations and District offices, 10 eight new fire station builds), Vehicles (142 new heavy pumper appliances, three heavy tankers and 37 new vehicles for operational and training purposes) and Equipment (new operational and protective equipment to accommodate additional employees).
The P350 team works closely with a range of CFA departments, District headquarters and brigades as well as our partner agencies such as Victoria Police and other emergency services to ensure the changes implemented are smooth transitions for both CFA members and communities.
Taking our commitment to protect lives one step further, our firefighters are also trained in new skills such as Emergency Medical Response, which is now offered by all integrated stations and some volunteer brigades.
Innovative ways to spread safety messages
However, regardless of how well equipped and prepared we are to respond to emergencies, we know that the best way to fight a fire is to make sure one doesn’t start.
That’s why we’re also addressing the changes in population growth and demographics to ensure that we are reaching more people than ever, with more relevant messages for their circumstances.
The challenges of preventing industrial and residential fires in a fast-growing population in one of the most bushfire prone environments in the world means our Community safety team is planning for and undertaking a range of changes to infrastructure and education around how to protect life and property in a modern sense.
Our staff and volunteers are increasingly using new approaches and technologies such as virtual reality to help the community understand their risk and how to respond safely to fire.
To better reach the sections of the community who have never experienced or learnt about the bush or its inherent fire risk, CFA is currently recruiting for a number of casual bushfire safety presenters who are fluent in other languages – and cultures!
We’re excited to be recruiting diverse and multilingual staff who reflect our increasingly multicultural community. It enhances our capacity to work with communities in their first language and in a culturally appropriate way.
They will work within their own communities and be “on loan” to any region in Victoria that need their support.
We’ve already had some success working with the Karen community in Nhill and with fruit pickers in the North East and want to replicate that across more regions.
A small town in the far west of Victoria, Nhill is home to about 200 Karen people from Myanmar who have their own distinctive culture and languages. Here, CFA has worked alongside the Nhill Learning Centre and The University of Adelaide to engage with the local Karen community to develop a culturally relevant and meaningful fire safety film that was funded by a CFA grant.
By working with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, rather than just translating brochures and messages created for mainstream audiences, CFA can determine what fire safety information they need and how messages can best be tailored.
In Nhill, the Karen community was clear that its members wanted to better understand Victoria’s fire restrictions and fire bans, which can be difficult even for those who speak English as their first language
The film, which used actors from the Karen community and Nhill Fire Brigade, will benefit Karen communities across Victoria.
A lot of our brochures and information videos will be moving to a visual rather than language-based format to cover multicultural audiences, and we’re also working on a podcast series with information for people with vision impairments.
Also, training modules are increasingly moving online to ensure they can be accessed more efficiently by more people when it suits them.
One example is a Bushfire Safety for Workers guide that we developed. In the past, the course has been delivered face-to-face but by using technology we were able to make it more scalable and reach more people and it has had good uptake across a range of industries.
Firefighter safety is top priority
Another key focus for CFA to maintain and strengthen its ability to save lives and property is ensuring our own people are safe in a mental and physical wellbeing sense.
On the volunteer side of firefighting, we have trialled a Fit for Duty program to ensure that our volunteers are safe when they turn out to help keep people and properties safe. Volunteers are also better supported through a range of training modules such as the Entrapment Drill and the Hazardous Tree Familiarisation program.
Developed in by volunteers for volunteers, in collaboration with Deakin University, to address the physical and mental demands of firefighting, Fit for Duty is a three-pronged program with a health-screening component, physical tanker-based activities, and a Mental Health First Aid Course.
Feedback has been positive from the 430 operational volunteers in Victoria’s South West that have completed pilot testing, and CFA’s Chief Officer will consider a state-wide implementation later this year.
Last, but not least, we are continually improving our mental health support services for both our career and volunteer supporters as we know how important it is that we reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues stemming from the exposure to trauma in emergency service settings.
In summary, CFA is continually modernising the organisation to better reflect the community and equipping the regions with the things they need to continue keeping their communities safe.
Remaining agile puts us in good stead for any future challenges.
For more information, go to www.cfa.vic.gov.au