The ACT Government maintains a wide range of response capabilities to allow a rapid and effective response to bushfires, both within the ACT and in the surrounding regions.

The strategic planning and governance for bushfire planning and operations has been drawn into a Draft Bushfire Hazard Sub Plan. This sub plan includes the Emergencies (Concept of Operations for bush and grass fires in the ACT) Commissioner’s Guidelines and the ACT Strategic Capability Framework.

ACT Strategic Bushfire Capability Framework

The Emergencies (Concept of Operations for bush and grass fires in the ACT) Commissioner’s Guidelines 2017 (the Guidelines) state that first response to all bushfires will be by the nearest available and most appropriate resource, irrespective of the service’s jurisdiction. The guidelines require that any fire agency must take appropriate action to suppress any fire nearby if it is safe and practicable to do so.

A key determinant in containing a bushfire is speed of response. The ACT Strategic Bushfire Capability Framework establishes capability targets relating to the deployment of assets. The framework also establishes deployment level targets based on bushfire size and complexity. Targets have been set for deploying firefighting resources to a bushfire and containing the bushfire. The focus on containing a fire, rather than extinguishing it, reflects that a bushfire can be safely controlled within containment lines and pose no further risk to life or property, despite the fire not being fully extinguished.

To ensure effective firefighting operations, the ACT has heavy tankers, compressed air tankers, medium tankers, light units, pumpers, and contracted helicopters for the bushfire season. ESA has career firefighters, rural fire service volunteers and staff that are required to undertake firefighting roles. EPSDD has staff trained in firefighting and incident management.

To support our crews and vehicles, there are four fire towers that are staffed on days of high fire danger. These towers are located strategically around the ACT at One Tree Hill (North), Kowen Forest (East), Mount Tennent (South), and Mount Coree (West). This year to enhance bushfire detection capability, the ACTRFS participated in a trial of the use of ‘ground sensing’ cameras to improve detection and monitoring of bushfires. The cameras were placed on the fire towers and operated 24/7. The data from this trial will assess the viability of automated monitoring for early bushfire detection on a national scale.

There are weather analysts who provide predictive services with weather information, fire behaviour predictions, smoke modelling and analysis. There are media liaison officers, remote area firefighters, mapping specialists, communication specialists and a wider logistical and support capability that supports our emergency crews in the field. Both ESA and EPSDD contract heavy plant and machinery as needed to assist with fire preparedness and suppression activities, and for recovery and fireground rehabilitation.

The tools used to deploy assets are the ESA Emergency Triple Zero Call Centre Computer Aided Dispatch system, Mobile Data Terminals (MDT) installed in every frontline vehicle, BoM week ahead weather forecast, Fire Tower early detection network, Common Operating Picture (COP), Incident Control On Line (ICON), ARENA online aviation dispatch, TRACPLUS GPS tracking device, Line Scan aircraft, Specialist Intelligence Gathering (SIG) Aircraft, and Firefighter mapping.

Aviation Firefighting capabilities

Firefighters on the ground use aircraft and other aerial resources to help them fight bushfires. The ACT, through the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC), contracts one light helicopter with SIG capability and two medium helicopters to provide dedicated aerial firefighting services to the ACT.

These aircraft were supported by a fixed retardant batching plant, a telehandler, forklift, tractor, tug and an all-terrain vehicle for the helicopter dolly and transporting equipment around the Canberra Large Air Tanker (LAT) Base and Hume Heli Base. The medium helicopter also provided the ACT with a winching, bombing and crew transport capability.

The SIG allows for real time streaming and spatial data collection of incidents and the infrared camera, provides critical fire line and hot spot information to Incident Management Team (IMT) or divisional commanders in the field via a secure video link. The SIG technology has the ability to rapidly inspect access roads, threatened assets, water points, and containment options.

Over the 2020-21 bushfire season, the SIG equipped aircraft was also used to assist ACT Policing in a successful missing person search.

The La Nina influenced weather conditions resulted in a very limited need for aviation resources. Aircraft logged two flight hours operationally supporting incidents locally and 20 hours of training and competency flights for Remote Area Fire Fighters (RAFT), Air Attack Supervisors and Air Observers.

Figure 48 - Image of the SIG Helicopter over Parliament House

Figure 48 - Image of the SIG Helicopter over Parliament House

The ACT Government fast-tracked certain infrastructure projects to support local jobs and business through COVID-19. As part of this initiative, the ACTRFS Hume Helibase received upgrades, including the installation of two new helipads, water tanks, and an irrigation system. The Helibase facility is an essential asset for aerial firefighting during the bushfire season.

Incident Management Team Capability

For all incidents, control refers to the overall direction of emergency management activities at an incident. Authority for control is established under the Emergencies Act 2004 and carries with it the responsibility for tasking other organisations as required. The system used across Australia to manage incidents is the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS).

Each year internal and cross-jurisdictional Incident Management Exercises (IMXs) are conducted to prepare for the fire season. ESA personnel attend local IMXs at Fire Control Centres in our surrounding NSW fire districts. The exercises test the effectiveness of the dissemination of information, warnings and advice, within government and to the public using existing communications systems.

The AIIMS provides a nationally recognised common management framework for the effective and efficient control of all incidents. Accredited AIIMS training courses have been delivered to staff across ACT Government Directorates, utilities and federal agencies.

Emergency Services Agency Training (ESAT) delivers training to ESA members and key ACT Government stakeholders in AIIMS awareness (one day) and the AIIMS full course (two days).

There are three categories of incidents:

  • Level 1: A Level 1 fire incident can be controlled through local or initial response resources within a few hours of notification. All functions of incident management are generally undertaken by the first crew or crews arriving on the scene.
  • Level 2: A Level 2 fire incident is more complex either in size, resources, risk or community impact. Level 2 incidents usually require delegation of a number of incident management functions and may require an interagency response. For a level 2 incident, an IMT may be established, with an incident controller appointed; and
  • Level 3: These incidents are characterised by degrees of complexity that may require the establishment of significant resources and structure for the effective management of the situation. Level 3 incidents are managed by an IMT directed by the incident controller.

Members are then able to progress their skills and knowledge through other Level 1, 2 and 3 incident controller courses.

During 2020-21, ESAT trained 170 members in AIIMS (one and two day), 54 members in Level 1 incident control, 29 members in Level 2 incident control. ESAT Training did not deliver a Level 3 Incident Control program in the 2020-21 financial year as it was deemed as not required.

ESAT also conducted Recognition of Prior learning assessments for a number of ESA members who participated in functional area (Incident Controller (IC), Operations (Ops), Planning (Plan), Logistics (Logs) training with NSW, and were not assessed as part of their participation in the NSW courses.

The standardised incident management structures established under AIIMS have supported emergency responses at local, national and international incidents and are critical to the effective management of bushfire responses during the bushfire season.

Cooperation and Resource Sharing arrangements

The ESA participates in national, cross-jurisdictional and within jurisdictional arrangements for mutual cooperation and resource sharing relating to bushfire management.

The ESA has identified the need to develop ACT doctrine to support national and international resource sharing.  The development of this framework has been commenced in this reporting period.

National Arrangements

The Australia-New Zealand Emergency Management Committee (ANZEMC) is responsible for “influencing and advocating for national policies and capabilities that reduce disaster risk, minimise the potential for harm and uphold public trust and confidence in emergency management arrangements”. ANZEMC implements and reports against agreed priorities, national strategy, plans, frameworks and other key documents. It reports to the Ministerial Council for Policy and Emergency Management and is responsible for driving implementation of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework.

ANZEMC is chaired jointly by the Commonwealth (represented by the Department of Home Affairs) and an alternating jurisdictional member on a one-year rotational basis. ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan is the current jurisdictional co-chair of ANZEMC. The ACT is represented on ANZEMC and the Mitigation and Risk Sub-Committee of ANZEMC.

ANZEMC endorsed the Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS) Program to redesign the forecasting of fire danger in Australia. The AFDRS is a project of national significance being developed collaboratively by state, territory, and the Commonwealth government. It aims to improve public safety and reduce the impacts of bushfires by:

  • Improving the scientific accuracy behind fire danger predictions
  • Improving the way that fire danger is communicated
  • Providing government and industry with better decision-making tools, and
  • Reducing the costs associated with bushfire impacts.

ANZEMC endorsed the Guiding Principles in the Australasian Arrangement for Interstate Assistance developed by AFAC. That arrangement guides the operations of the National Resource Sharing Centre (NRSC) established under AFAC. The NRSC enhances the efficiency of resource deployments to an interstate or international natural hazard emergency event. Through its creation of partnerships and agreements, national resourcing capability is deployable through a collaborative operating model.

The ESA is a member of AFAC and uses that forum as a mechanism for information sharing nationally. AFAC is representative of fire, emergency services and land management agencies and was established to create synergies across the emergency management sector. ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan is a council member of the AFAC. Both local and federal Government are members of the various working groups of AFAC, including the Commissioners and Chief Officers Strategic Committee (CCOSC). CCOSC’s role is to develop, progress and oversee national fire and emergency services operational capability and capacity.

During a significant incident, CCOSC may meet more frequently to share situational awareness and resource sharing requirements, and implications. Emergency Services commissioners and chief officers do not sit on CCOSC as representatives of their governments but as representatives of the organisations under their command.

The ESA works in collaboration with the NRSC and the NAFC to support the facilitation of interstate and international sharing of personnel and equipment. These interstate and international deployments provide invaluable training and experience to ACT firefighters and access to external resources if required. The ESA is a stakeholder on the Australian Institute Disaster Resilience Project that develops, maintains and shares knowledge and learning to support a disaster resilient Australia.

Cross-jurisdictional Arrangements

The ESA has established cross-border Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and Mutual Aid Agreements (MAAs) with NSWRFS, NSW Fire and Rescue and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. The ACT Government maintains MoUs and MAAs with surrounding local government areas in NSW to share personnel and resources when required through NSWRFS and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The ACTRFS organises cross-border operational and strategic readiness meetings prior to each bushfire season and participates in Regional Bushfire Management Committees. These committee have delivered improved bushfire management strategies in the local region, including collaborative cross-border planning and responses to bushfires during the bushfire season. There were no interstate or international deployments over the 2020-21 Bushfire Season. The season was very different than the previous year, with the La Niña influenced weather conditions, reducing fire activity.

Jurisdictional Arrangements

The ESA has established MOUs, MAAs and other types of arrangements with other agencies within the ACT related to preparedness and response to bushfire events. The MoU between the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Coroners Court of the ACT, ACTF&R and the ACTRFS for “Service Concerning Investigation of Fires in the ACT” outlines procedures and clarifies the roles of the parties for the efficient and effective investigation of fires within the ACT, and the provision of timely advice to the Coroner by the AFP, the ACTF&R and the ACTRFS. The number of fire investigations undertaken in the built-up area annually is recorded in the annual Productivity Commission Report on Government Services (ROGS).

Volunteer Capabilities>

The ESA has approximately 1710 volunteers across the ACTSES, ACTRFS, Community Fire Units, and Mapping and Planning Support. Each of these volunteer groups provides fundamental capability that enables the ESA to work together to care and protect the ACT community.

The ESA continues to invest in its volunteer groups to ensure that they remain well-resourced and well-trained to deal with any emergency incident that may impact our community. Having a fit and healthy volunteer membership is critical to the ACT's bushfire response operational capability.

To support the ACTRFS volunteers in their fitness goals, the 2017-18 Budget contained funding over two years to provide a $100 re-imbursement to ACTRFS volunteers for gym memberships and similar health/fitness expenses. ACTRFS continues to support this initiative, in 2020-21, 55 members submitted
a claim for reimbursement on eligible purchases made for health and wellbeing products and services.

Volunteer Recruitment, Training and Retention Initiatives

During 2020-21 ACTRFS continued their staged recruitment model that contains several stages that allows new recruits to gain an in-depth knowledge of the service before committing themselves, and which contains improved options to retain members over the long term. The ACTRFS will implement an exit survey for any members wishing to leave the service. This will allow for a better understanding of any issues which may have assisted in the decision to leave the service. ACTRFS reviewed its training program and established a yearly training calendar to coordinate and deliver specific courses at the same time each year. The yearly training plan will assist ACTRFS brigades and membership to conduct their training needs analysis, plan for their career progression and improve retention.

During 2020-21, the ACTRFS trained new recruits and provided skills maintenance for existing members. The courses provided were:

  • Basic Firefighting
  • Advanced Firefighting
  • Crew Leader
  • Prescribe burning
  • Village Firefighting, and
  • Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS) training.

In previous years, the ACTRFS holds an Employer Awareness and Recognition event was held to recognise the support of ACTRFS volunteers’ employers in providing them with volunteering leave. The event highlights the importance of a good employer and employee relationship, and the support required for volunteer involvement. ACTRFS relies very heavily on the generosity of employers to grant its members leave and flexibility to assist with incident operations, preparedness activities and community engagement. The contribution of their time and efforts would not be possible without cooperation from their employers.

Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, the 2020-21 Employer Awareness and Recognition event was not able to proceed, due to the COVID-19 public health emergency; however, letters of recognition were sent to employers.

Figure 49 - ACTRFS members participating in a hazard reduction burns

Figure 49 - ACTRFS members participating in a hazard reduction burns

National Review of the Australian Fire Danger Rating System

The Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS) is a nationally significant project to design and a new system for fire danger ratings across Australia. The AFDRS will strengthen the ability of fire authorities across Australia to communicate current levels of bushfire risk to the community. It is based on updated science and data and will enhance agency, industry and community readiness and preparedness and contribute to improved risk management.

The ESA is a key stakeholder in the AFDRS project and is working with other jurisdictions to develop a consistent national warning system to communicate fire risk better to the community. When the public travel throughout Australia, the messaging will be consistent for all jurisdictions.

The new Fire Behaviour Index (FBI) will be looked at in two ways, terrain and fuel characteristics using fire science across eight new fuel types (Forest, Woodland, Grassland, Spinifex, Mallee-heath, Button grass, Shrubland and Pine. Until now, there danger indices were based only on two fuel types; Forest and Grass Fire Danger Indexes (FDI).

The new system will support decision making for prescribed burning, fire preparedness, bushfire suppression, and improved community messaging about fire danger. The new system will run concurrently with the existing system, and the public will see the current system with the new system running in the background. It is expected to be fully operational for the 2022-23 bushfire season.