Operational Art

An Entrenched Culture - Part One: What the Army could learn from the Emergency Services

By Kathleen Pisani September 24, 2021

Innovation is often touted as a tenet of the Army, so there is a clear disconnect between what we are striving for and advertising, and the reality of an entrenched culture. Despite opportunities to learn from organisations and people outside of our own, there is an innate stubbornness and desire to retain our reputation of being tough and doing it tough. We get in our own way.

This article will draw from this author’s experience working for the NSW State Emergency Service (SES) as a volunteer and with emergency services on OP NSW FLOOD ASSIST 2021. Wanting to be respected for being ‘hard’ is not a reason to do things inefficiently and to manage our people poorly. I argue that our traditions, stubbornness, and an ingrained superiority complex, have combined to paint us into a rather uncomfortable corner.  

A shift in focus

The Army has had an increased focus recently on domestic operations, particularly for disaster and emergency management. We have an excellent reputation of being efficient and resilient once on the ground. However, when compared to the emergency services, we are not as efficient at deploying and getting to said ground. This is in part due to the nature of our resources and equipment. However, large delaying aspects are also due to deliberate planning procedures, the structure of traditional orders, and administration requirements. Some of this administration is somewhat self-inflicted, as I will explain below.

The focus for emergency management

Emergency management for NSW is covered under the State Emergency Management Plan (EMPLAN). The stages of this management are Prevention, Preparation, Response and Recovery (PPRR). The stage in which the ADF is generally involved is the Response phase. Interestingly, an additional phase was introduced during OP NSW FLOOD ASSIST 2021 of Transition to Recovery. This added some complexity for the HOTO process from Emergency Services to local councils and Resilience NSW.

Emergency management in NSW is focused upon two key concepts: all-agencies and all-hazards. All-agencies identifies the fact that single entities cannot address all aspects of a particular event or hazard, and a lead agency will need to coordinate numerous others. The all-hazards approach is based on the concept that systems of operation which work for one event or hazard are likely to work for another. To align this to more familiar terminology for the readers, the concept of multi-agency or skilled approach is not unknown to us. As we all know, however begrudgingly; logistics does not just happen (pauses while the war-fighters grumble). The all-hazards approach is somewhat akin to SOPs or even initial action drills. Therefore, we have the skills, the language and the ability to do this. And yet on far too many occasions; we do not.

Key findings and recommendations

Deliberate versus reactive

The Army conducts a large amount of deliberate planning; guided by our MAP doctrine. This includes individual planning, conferences and time spent preparing and delivering lengthy orders. Depending on the level of command, you may even have a team of stressed staff officers whose sole job is to contribute to this.

On the other end of the scale, the SES will be called to their unit, briefed on the task, broken into teams based upon qualifications, load additional equipment, and deploy en route to task within 15 minutes. A common theme amongst the Army personnel on OP NSW FLOOD ASSIST 2021 was surprise at the reactiveness and reduction in planning of the emergency services, but more importantly, surprise at how well it worked. And yet, we continued to conduct further, deliberate planning and orders, and worked much longer hours than our emergency counterparts.

Pre-deployment requirements

Whilst there are certain elements on DACC NTM, as we have seen with floods, fires and COVID, we often have to draw more forces. Pre-deployment administration is not effectively differentiated from domestic to international, and I got to spend a full two and a half days getting a force ready to deploy on OP NSW FLOOD ASSIST 2021. Which was relatively fast considering we are a training establishment and certainly not the first area to draw a DACC force from. This was still two days to move to a task that was two hours away. Also, please compare this to my role as an SES volunteer, where I am kept on ‘job ready’ status. I may receive a Request for Assistance, turn up to the shed and depart on the job within 15 minutes.

Use of technology and tracking

The traditional operation of a CP includes numerous white boards and staff officers dedicated to moving pins around maps. This is human intensive, antiquated and can be inaccurate. We require a fundamental mindset shift regarding knowledge sharing of our assets across an area of operations.

Depending upon the specific situation, our purpose on DACC tasks is a deliberate show of support to the affected population. Also, working within the emergency management all-agencies principle requires information sharing. During OP NSW FLOOD ASSIST 2021, aspects of the force trialled using a live tracking app designed to be utilised by families for safety tracking. I tasked my 2IC to find something, and he decided we were enough of a family to use this one.
The information placed on the app was de-identified, and the live feeds dramatically increased our operability. Further to this, the use of Power BI within the Hawkesbury Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) showed that the Army should be better utilising technology and applications currently available, especially those that can be used in an inter-agency environment to share information and resources.

I am not saying what we used was perfect, but that we should reconsider the level of OPSEC required for domestic operations, and certainly not use the concept as a reason to resist innovation and improvements. Outside of the bush, our ‘camouflage’ makes us rather obvious, and this is not a bad thing.

Fatigue management

Army personnel are incredibly hard working, and we take a lot of pride in this. However, this pride can be counter-productive and contribute to a lack of sustainable fatigue management. On OP NSW FLOOD ASSIST 2021, those I worked with in the EOC worked from 0700h to 1700h. They had a rotation where they took every third day off to spend with their families.

For the Army personnel, we worked much longer hours and spent time in orders and planning meetings well into the time which may otherwise have been used for sleep. Days off were also not on the menu. As tasks were not allocated until the following morning, much of this planning would be discarded. At the end of two and a half weeks, I will admit I was exhausted. Of course, I would never say as much whilst deployed. We are expected to work hard, so we do. Sometimes, this is to our own detriment.

Why are we so full of it?

What was disappointing regarding the points above, was the superiority with which Army personnel viewed the way we did business. With a lot of pride and certainty that our way was superior, then occasional surprise when different methods to our own were so successful.

Our ingrained culture meant that we felt superior to the emergency service personnel for knocking off after 10 hours, going home to their families, and needing a day off. For openly sharing their information where anyone could see it. For not staying up until midnight planning for the next day, and getting rest instead. The ingrained culture of Army meant that we felt we were tougher.

Where has this superiority complex come from? Working in domestic emergency response is relatively new for us. We have a rich, meaningful history we are all proud of, but it does not make us infallible. There is much to be learned from experts in the field. Let’s learn from the people who are doing it better.




Kathleen Pisani


Major Kathleen Pisani is a Health Officer currently posted as an OC at the School of Infantry. Her previous postings have involved working in close and general health battalions, in a Brigade HQ Operations Cell as well as being trained as a linguist at the Defence Force School of Languages. She has conducted international engagement activities in Malaysia and Thailand; and has worked as a Health Development Officer for the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme. Major Pisani is a volunteer for the NSW State Emergency Service and a member of the United Nations Association of Australia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Having been in the Cdn Army as a Regular and Reservist and then in emergency management at the provincial (state) and federal level, I have some similar thoughts as does the author. I would note however that whether military folks or EM folks realize it, the EM C2 doctrine including organizational aspects is a direct gift from the military. There are some interesting similarities between the two depending on which nation but there are just as many differences. The real dividing line is that the enemy is usually another well trained intelligent set of soldiers in the case of armies and for EM personnel their enemies are not normally other people but instead the vagaries of nature. This is critical and underlines the approach and attitude of armies vs civilian emergency organizations. Officers and soldiers, when assigned to assist in EM ops, could stand to adjust the attitude as the author says. That part of critical for success. The military is coming to help out, usually when things are very bad. The last thing the civilians need at that point is a bunch of guys/gals with a superior approach. If the military does its job properly (even if we plan everything to death…), kudos will come from the EM folks, from Govt leaders and from the media.

With 30 yrs in Defence and 35 yrs in emergency services, including police and fire, the author is right on target. There's again the factors of what Army can learn from the emergency services rather than seeing its own systems as superior. In any 24 hr period, there are thousands of police and emergency service personnel (including volunteers) on operational duty across Australia. These are teams of experienced people used to making quick decisions under critical circumstances. As 2 DIV takes responsibility for domestic HRWE responses, it would clearly be beneficial for Army's response to have a team of civilian emergency managers/Reservists with high-level EM skills embedded within the HQ.

As the NSW State Emergency Service (SES) today deploys two Strike Teams and a small HQ element to Victoria in response to a request received less than 24 hours ago, I had cause to reflect on MAJ Pisanis's article. Having served in the ADF and Australian law enforcement and emergency service organisations (ESOs), I have experienced (and perpetrated!) any number of triumphs and atrocities in planning, logistics and operations. A comparison of operating models and culture is worthy of a book in it's own right, but Phil Pyke makes some key observations in his reply; police and emergency services are on 'active service' undertaking the equivalent of small unit operations every moment of every day, operating within a lean C3 environment with tactical and operational decision making residing at the lowest effective level. While doctrine, policy, procedure, contingency plans and CONOPS exist, a higher HQ/planning staff is generally pulled together as and when required for a major event. 'Fluid' and 'dynamic' are well worn terms, but apt in this context; this is the operational culture. In many respects it mirrors the operational posture of a QRF (for local response) or a Ready Deployment Group (for Out of Area Operations, the NSW SES term for deployments outside the local AO up to and including interstate deployments). Domestic EM operations are increasing in frequency, intensity and complexity with associated implications for DACC requests. It would be beneficial for ADF units and formations tasked with a high likelihood of being requested to provide DACC support to establish a readiness posture reflecting the potential for short to very short notice to move tasks. Once the initial deployment is conducted the battle rhythm could then be streamlined to more closely match that of the ESOs being supported, as per MAJ Pisani’s recommendations. One thing I am confident of: we will have many more opportunities to observe and learn from each other in coming years.

Add new comment

Cove App


Fast access to The Cove anywhere, anytime. Additional feature of receiving notifications for new content.

Reflective Journal


Record your reflections in a structured way to improve your performance.