CFA’s Level 3 incident controllers often say no two jobs are the same. We asked two more incident controllers, who are also volunteer firefighters, to share their experiences.
Every incident teaches you something new
“If you had told me 21 years ago that I’d be a member of CFA for 20 years and take on roles including captain and incident controller, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Cameron McKern said.
A Level 3 incident controller, Cameron lived in Melbourne for the first 35 years of his life and moved to Yackandandah just over 20 years ago.
“Before moving out to Yack I would have never thought I’d be a firefighter. I come from an IT background and lived in the city so it wasn’t something I even thought was possible.
“Like many people, a year or two after joining Yackandandah Fire Brigade I found myself in a lieutenant position and then the captain,” Cameron added. “I am now a Bogong Deputy Group Officer.
“After being encouraged by the district, I stepped into the incident control space but more as a planner. It wasn’t until the district commander asked me to step up into incident control that I took on the role.
“Naively, I thought only paid staff did the role but there are actually quite a few volunteers in this position and I’m honoured to be one of them.”
In December 2019 Cameron received a phone call asking if he would work in the Albury Incident Control Centre.
“I remember being asked if I could support in any way that I could,” Cameron said. “So I arrived, introduced myself and asked what I could do. They said, ‘didn’t anyone tell you, you’re the incident controller’. For the next 12 hours I was the controller for an unfamiliar state, people and systems.
“The team was in a sombre place due to losing two firefighters only hours before. It challenged me but everyone was supportive and I think I acquitted myself well. I learned so much from that experience.
“You learn something from every single incident that you control or work on.
“I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but honestly communication is the key. You need to communicate with everyone. Emergency management team, including other agencies, incident management team, you need to communicate with the community, regions, with the firefighters and they need to communicate with us,” Cameron added. “Without this your response falls apart.
“Five years ago, I led the first Victorian strike team to Sydney when they had fires in the Blue Mountains. There were busy times and quiet times; ‘hurry up and wait’ is a phrase members often use.
“I made sure I kept all the members on the strike team informed every 30 minutes. It kept members from feeling frustrated; they appreciate the communication and put their trust in you.”
Cameron started his Level 3 journey five years ago and has been doing the role for the past four years.
“I’m an organised person. I think you need to be mentally organised to perform the role because there’s a lot happening in an ICC and there’s pressure. You need to remain calm otherwise you can’t really do the job.”
Cameron finds the role intellectually stimulating and enjoys the challenge.
“I do enjoy the role but I know every time I perform it there are devastating effects out on the fireground. It would be nice if we weren't needed at all.
“I do think that I am contributing something even if it’s a small part. I’m helping my neighbours, community and state and that’s a reward in itself.”
Understanding the bigger picture
“As an incident controller you need to look at the big picture: how quickly will the fire grow, who will it impact, what might happen to the community and its assets? You can’t get stuck micromanaging; you have to work as a team,” Geoff Rowe said.
Geoff, pictured with his daughter Kate, is currently the captain of Lurg Fire Brigade and joined CFA when he was 18 years old. Geoff has taken on many roles in CFA and in addition to being captain, he is Benalla deputy group officer and a Level 3 incident controller.
“I gradually got involved with incident management at a local level,” Geoff said. “In 2006 I was the sector commander at Mount Buller when the fires went through. After the 2009 Beechworth fires, a formal accreditation process for level 3 incident controllers was set up and I was asked if I wanted to take part.
“The process took a couple of years and you have to maintain your accreditation each year by performing the role, attend training sessions and generally gaining experience.”
Geoff has now been accredited in the role for more than six years.
“I was the incident controller at a complex fire in Abbeyard just prior to Christmas last year. Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) and Parks Victoria were the main responders due to the steep, mountainous terrain. I enjoyed working with other agencies.
“The incident management team normally isn’t happy unless there’s a bulldozer line around the fire and we have a control line. But in that situation after some rainfall we needed to be flexible and managed to control the fire by patrolling, dealing with the hazardous trees and use of thermal imaging which benefited the environment.
“Every fire is different and you need to be prepared to be flexible.
“The role is about managing people. You don’t need to know everything, you just need support and to know who to get the information from.
“Volunteers bring not only their experience on the fireground to the role, but also their life skills through their career. Outside CFA I’m a full-time accountant with an accountancy practice and I also run a beef farm. These factors help me in my role as a Level 3 incident controller.
“The strength of CFA is in its volunteers; they bring so many additional skills to incident management teams and understand how it feels to be on the front line.”