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Being a Level 3 incident controller

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CFA’s Level 3 incident controllers often say no two jobs are the same. We asked two incident controllers, who are also volunteer firefighters, to share their experiences. 

Being a Level 3 incident controller

Level 3 Incident Controller Graham Healy

Lachie Gales – helping people to do their best

Wangaratta Deputy Group Officer Lachie Gales became a Level 3 incident controller by working his way up through the fireground leadership roles.

“I joined CFA as a volunteer firefighter in 1986 and I was lucky enough to have people like Stewart Kreltszheim, Peter Creak and Paul King to mentor me in the role,” Lachie said.

“I’d be quite happy on the back of a truck chasing grassfires, but I do appreciate that this is the kind of role that’s not for everybody and if I can make a positive contribution in the role, then I should.”

Lachie (pictured receiving his accreditation) has been an accredited Level 3 incident controller for five years and said the role is about consequence management.

“A Level 3 job, which we saw last summer, has the potential to have statewide impacts. Level 3 incident control teams are made up of people from a range of areas and agencies and with a vast amount of experience.

“While Level 3 control teams often get criticised when things don’t go as well as they ought to, it’s never because people aren’t doing their best. My role is often around making sure people get every opportunity to do their best, making an atmosphere where members feel they can bring what they know and contribute.”

Lachie said he will always remember the 2019 Black Summer fires.

“I was the incident controller on the first three nights in Walwa,” Lachie said. “The first night was an enormously fluid situation, where the fire moved across mountainous terrain like no one had ever seen before.

“We had a fire prediction that proved to be accurate. It predicted we would have fire in Corryong in the early hours of the next morning and at the time we didn’t have nearly enough resources to protect the town,” Lachie added. “We had to make a Code One call to get members out of bed from over 100 kilometres away in Benalla, Wangaratta and Wodonga to bring strike teams in.

“They got there at dawn in the nick of time. It was the right call and I remember that morning when I was released just how emotionally drained I felt throughout the whole thing.

“You don’t make those decisions on your own; an incident control team makes them together.

“I guess that’s the challenge for the incident controller – to make decisions from an imperfect set of information and get it right.

“We need more volunteers to step up into these roles because they bring knowledge of what happens on the fireground.”

For Lachie there are many reasons he continues to be an incident controller.

“It’s not onerous for me to give up my time because I’ve gotten so much out of the training and personal development. It has benefited both my personal life and my career.

“The first formal CFA bushfire training I had back in the 80s was from Graham Healy. He was at the very start of my journey and he made such an impression on me. So now, viewing Graham as some sort of peer is just staggering to me.

“I feel blessed that people had faith in me to take on this role, as it has enriched my life. Although it’s demanding, not everything in life is meant to be easy and the rewards have been there for me.

“I hope to be able to contribute at this level for some time.”

Graham Healy – everything we do is for the community

For Graham Healy the pathway to becoming a Level 3 incident controller was quite different. Graham has been a volunteer since 1965 and was previously an assistant chief officer at CFA. He became a Level 3 Incident controller in 1997.

“Back then CFA had a Chief Officer Endorsement Program to facilitate a common use of the AIIMS arrangements in Victoria,” Graham said.

“In 2012 CFA and what is now DELWP adopted an assessment and panel review for Level 3 appointments. CFA decided to put all the existing L3 controllers through the process,” Graham added. “The assessment was two days at Fiskville Training College followed by an interview in front of a joint CFA/DELWP panel.”

Graham later went on to become one of these panellists, helping assess members wanting to qualify as Level 3 incident controllers.

“The pathway for incident controllers is now very different. It’s about presenting evidence of the experience you’ve had, which can make the process slower as not everyone gets experience all the time.”

Graham is currently a firefighter and group comms officer at Wodonga Fire Brigade.

“In the north-east all our big fires are multi-agency and with our river systems prone to flooding there are opportunities for Level 3 ICs to work across all agencies.

“We work closely with DELWP as our landscape is about 90 per cent forest,” Graham added, “and being on the NSW border means we also make sure NSW Rural Fire Service is involved. It doesn’t matter what agency you’re working for or the colour of your shirt, we all have the same goal and working together is crucial for success.”

During his 23 years as a Level 3 incident controller Graham has led a wide range of incidents. The one he remembers most vividly is the 2009 fires.

“I remember doing the first two night shifts at Kilmore. The day shift members handed over to us and we were trying to play catch-up, but the fires were so colossal we just couldn’t keep up.

“There are always lessons to be learned as an incident controller. You might not always have the answers but it’s about working as a team and understanding what members need on the fireground.

“Everything we do in an incident control centre should directly relate to our people and the community, and if it doesn’t then we don’t need to be doing it.”