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Fatigue in volunteer firefighters

With fire season approaching, we wanted to take a look at the independent NSW Bushfire Inquiry, which was released in late August and contained many insights into how the RFS dealt with fatigue during the tragic 2019/2020 season and how they recommend managing it going forward.

In theory, RFS protocol caps shifts at 12 hours maximum, with nine hours of rest, and no more than five days or three nights in a row. In practice, those “fatigue management requirements may be altered in circumstances where life and property are at imminent and serious risk”.

On the issue of fatigue, the inquiry noted that unlike the paid workforces of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Fire and Rescue NSW, the RFS “does not have oversight of the volunteers’ activities outside of NSW RFS actions”.

One of the submissions encapsulated the issue very well:

Fatigue management was an extraordinarily difficult issue for the Brigade to manage this fire season, not only on the basis on individual shifts, but across the entirety of the fire season. While there were attempts to generally keep crew shifts to a maximum of 12 hours, it was not unusual for day and night shifts to extend to 14 and sometimes 16 hours at a time. These extended shifts occurred because in many cases it was simply not possible to leave the fire unattended, the fires breached containment lines at the end of a night shift when the sun rose or replacement day crews were delayed by briefings/feeding and were unable to relieve nighttime crews who were left in the field. This did not include additional travel time that some members had to add after their shift had finished.

I spoke to ISS CEO Dr Adam Fletcher to get his thoughts on the issue:

How well do your plans accommodate reasonably foreseeable scenarios? Obviously, in the case of firefighting, reasonably foreseeable scenarios are quite complex and quite scary, but proper understanding of what resources are available in normal circumstances, what resources you can release under moderate demands, and potentially what other resources you can release or invite in really serious situations – and basically having the plans ready to roll before anything happens is crucial. I’m not saying they don’t have that level of planning, but what frequently happens is that the normal rules get ignore as soon as there’s a major crisis.

It’s critical to have total clarity on what resources can be made available or invited in at different levels of severity, so that the rules around hours of work, and the rules around minimum rest aren’t naturally thrown out the window as soon as something demanding happens.

It’s not only with firefighting, it’s pretty much any emergency service, and especially any natural disaster response.

There are other key factors here, retaining volunteer pools is getting a lot harder. Historically, volunteer pools have been larger, it’s hard to say precisely why that is the case, but with fewer volunteers, the cloth probably doesn’t quite stretch as much as it did.

But overall, plan ahead for the things you know could happen realistically so that you don’t throw the rules out for things that you could have seen coming if you took the time to look ahead before it happened.

If you want to read more about this issue, this is an excellent SMH article – Battle weary: as fire season looms, volunteers still coping with the last one

1 Comment
  • Bob Stanton
    Posted at 00:49h, 18 November Reply

    In the US both acute and cumulative fatigue on large wildland fires is addressed through “tour limits” both on shifts and tours on fires out of region.

    Last year the US sent many wild land firefighters and speciality management teams to AU in large part to give AU incident management staff support and the ability to get some time off.

    A HUGE issue in both the US and AU is that often local volunteers are not under the supervision of regional or national firefighting agencies. Its hard to take time off a large fire to get the rest you need when its your or your neighbors house being threatened.

    Good article.

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