As I begin to write this in an office at Tasmania Fire Service Headquarters in Hobart, reflecting on the week I’ve just had, I am feeling very grateful. For the last three years I have been undertaking PhD studies in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. My research looks at the application, value, and implications of emerging technologies which enable increased public creation and exchange of geographic information, such as social media, smartphones and online mapping platforms, in the context of community bushfire preparation engagement and disaster risk reduction. I’ve had great support in my work from a number of people and organisations, but in particular the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) and Peter Middleton and the Bushfire-Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN) team at the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS).
The BNHCRC supports end-user driven research projects in the field of emergency management for university researchers and students right across Australia. BRN is a community engagement program within TFS that aims to build resilience and capacity in bushfire prevention, preparedness and response in Tasmanian communities at risk to bushfire through a sustainable community engagement approach. The BNHCRC and BRN have been integral to my PhD project in many ways, and have also contributed to my professional development. Recently this included an eight-day student placement based in Tasmania with BRN as part of a BNHCRC initiative to enrich higher degree research students’ experience through exposure to the natural hazards and emergency management industry via immersion in a relevant organisation.
During the placement I participated in a range of activities with the BRN team and various other parts of TFS – some directly linked to my PhD research, but some not – to give me a broader understanding of the range of organisation activities and functions, and an appreciation of the context in which my research might be utilised in the future. Here I will provide a brief description of the key activities I undertook, followed by some general reflections on my student placement experience.
BRN monthly team meeting: I sat in on a BRN staff meeting which involved an update on various projects, presentation of each team member’s recent work highlights, and planning future tasks. As I have been working with BRN for my PhD, with Tasmanian communities as my study sites, I also used this time to present and discuss with the team my research activities and findings to date.
BRN community selection planning day: A planning day was held for the BRN team to begin planning how they will select the communities they will work with for the next round of their community engagement works. We worked through the program aims and objectives, identified gaps in current engagement works (e.g. youth, tourists), and workshopped the criteria for community selection.
UTAS – BRN mapping platform project meeting: A project to produce a mapping platform for BRN to use with communities in their engagement works is being orchestrated by the University of Tasmania and BRN, with my participation. We had an encouraging meeting to discuss the project direction and possible funding and grant applications.
Hobart Fire Brigade tour: I had a tour of the fire station with a chance to chat with a few of the firefighters about their role, training, and the tasks they complete. Cheers to Sandy and Jo for giving me a VERY detailed tour of all the fire appliances, their tools and functions, with interesting illustrative examples of applications!
Introduction to TFS Firecomm: I spent an afternoon in the TFS communications room learning about their computer systems, communication structures, and emergency incident/alert procedures, as well as what happens if it all goes wrong!
Community engagement – Golden Valley phone tree/website: I joined in a BRN meeting with some highly active community members to talk about some of their community-led bushfire safety initiatives, including a web-based phone tree system, a local mapping project for the brigade, and an alerts smartphone app proposal.
Community Liaison debrief/workshop: I participated in a workshop to debrief what went well, what didn’t ,and what improvements can be made in the future for BRN team members and others who played key roles in community liaison for the recent extended bushfire campaign in Tasmania.
BRN supervisor staff meeting: I sat in on a ‘catch up’ meeting between Peter Middleton and his manager in Community Education, Sandra Barber.
Review of bushfire survival planning tools: BRN is producing a tool for community members to make Bushfire Survival Plans online, and I assisted by reviewing the content and language.
Introduction to TFS State Operations: I was given an introduction to TFS state operations, including response procedures, fire fighting aircraft, public and media information publishing, and role responsibilities by the Senior Station Officer, Phil Smith.
Introduction to Community Protection Planning: Chris Collins gave me an introduction to the different kinds of mapping TFS use in public safety, including community protection plans for the public, and response plans with important local information for brigades to use in responding to an incident.
Reflecting on all these activities, three overarching observations come to mind. First, I was struck by the scale and diversity of what goes on within the organisation and all the specific details required to make things happen, from the fit-for-purpose tools on the fire trucks on a small scale, to the multi-faceted roles within individual teams and departments, to the broader scale of the overall functions the agency performs. Second, I was impressed by the positive attitude to work and the productivity of all the people I met, but particularly the BRN team, especially in the face of various challenges. For example, while the debrief workshop around community liaison following an extended fire campaign did aim to highlight challenges in the work each team member experienced through having to perform many tasks in high-stress situations outside their usual roles, these challenges were dealt with as opportunities for improvement. By the end of the session there was an extensive list of practical suggestions the team will begin to action to enable them to perform better in their roles going forward. And third, I saw very clear examples of some of the complexities in the organisation that must be navigated for effective delivery of emergency management initiatives. In particular, I observed differences between some of the community-focused engagement works and the more traditional top-down structure of the broader organisation. Community engagement is a relatively new approach to emergency management in Australia, and it appeared to me reconciling how this approach fits within the legacy of emergency response service delivery in organisations is still a developing area, as opposed to being functionally developed. This may present challenges when working with community groups and is perhaps an area for improvement going forward.
Overall the student placement was an immensely enriching and valuable experience. It proved a useful opportunity to increase my networking within the professional sector, impart some of my knowledge, gain insight into the fire service and broader field of emergency management, learn about the high variety of important tasks and responsibilities, and to appreciate the organisational structure and challenges emergency management professionals have to work with. This has important implications for the potential utilisation of my research findings in the sector, and is something I will continue to consider as my research progresses.
I feel grateful for this opportunity and the continued support of TFS and BNHCRC of my research and my personal and professional development. I feel grateful for the generous people I have had the privilege of meeting and working with and who have had nothing less than confidence in me. I feel grateful for all the experiences I’ve had in my PhD so far, especially those with the BRN such as this placement, as they have shaped my work to be something more meaningful, and shaped me to be a more robust researcher who is more skilled and more knowledgeable with a better understanding and appreciation of the professional and societal context in which my research sits. I’ve learnt a lot through my engagement with TFS and the emergency management sector, and I encourage other students and agencies to undertake placements, as it was a truly rewarding experience.
Thanks to Peter Middleton and the BRN team, Suzette Harrison, David Cleaver, and Lesley King, and the Tasmania Fire Service for hosting me, and Peter Middleton, Eleanor Bruce and the BNHCRC for making the placement happen.