Tactical and Technical
JTF 1110 Op Bushfire Assist Experiences | Combat MedicBy Kristie Connell February 17, 2020
Op Bushfire Assist - A deployment like no other
Since the 4th of January 2020 I have conducted numerous tasks as an integral medic embedded within Army Engineer troops throughout the Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands and southern parts of NSW. I have been a Combat Medic for 14 years and I have been a qualified registered nurse for nine years, predominantly working in intensive care. I have worked in both rural/remote locations and regional trauma centres.
Tasks completed by the Army engineers during Operation Bushfire Assist included road clearance, tree felling and fencing. Being an integral medic within a troop allows for continuity, consistency and building of rapport which is important in becoming an important member of the team. From my experiences it assisted in reducing injury, illness and ensuring the safety of soldiers during activities.
Support to the Civil Community
On the 21st of January I was required to assist a lady who was in the late stages of labour in Upper Brogo. I was supported well with a Troop commander and Troop signaller to assist in coordinating the scene. Feeling supported by both the command and health structure ensured I was able to assess and treat knowing there was an effective plan. One of the most important things from this is the feeling of support the family felt and the subsequent increase in trust from the community when the story was shared in national papers and on social media.
The ability to respond quickly and be in location 30 minutes prior to NSW Ambulance Service arriving on scene was due to the leadership of MAJ Reynolds (1/15 RNSWL), the Officer Commanding of Response Team Bravo. Her quick coordination of troops to task ensured there was a command element with the medic that responded. As the medic responding, I was able to contact a Medical Officer (MO) who organised assistance from another MO with obstetric and paediatric experience. This was provided within five minutes of the initial call. Teamwork and effective communication skills were pivotal in ensuring a positive outcome for all involved.
The need for clear policy guidance
A potential issue that needs to be reviewed - and written guidance provided - revolves around Combat Medical Attendant (CMA) and use of Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) registration. Prior to Op Bushfire Assist, CMA’s with AHPRA registration were not recognised and not authorised to treat civilians. On this operation the situation changed and senior health personnel advised CMA’s with registration that they were permitted to treat civilians. I raised the issue of being covered by Defence’s indemnity insurance but no one could provide written notification that this has occurred. This leaves CMA’s in a difficult legal position without formal legal cover in the event of civilian complaint. I contacted the NSW Nurses union and discussed indemnity with a legal officer especially in regards to events on 21st January. The union advised if defence wouldn’t cover indemnity that the NSW Nurses union would provide cover.
For future civilian operations I believe there should be two distinct teams. The first would be those caring solely for soldiers with integral medics supported by Primary Health care teams. The second team would provide care to civilians and could be embedded within recovery centres that have capability to move within communities providing basic first aid. This is important if access to civilian health facilities is unable to be achieved and if urgent medivac is required.
Sleep and fatigue management
Soldiers worked hard in order to complete tasks and work safely. This was at times impeded due to the inability to be provided with equipment such as safety boots, wet weather gear, sleeping bags and replacement uniforms or boots if damaged. Many soldiers were impacted by the initial FRAGO’s where required equipment was dive bag, not deployment priority one (DP1), equipment. There were also issues with work/rest ratios and extended work hours from 0600 till 2000 with radio pickets during the night, with many not being given opportunity for time or days off. This was potentially risky for engineers operating plant and chain saws. The need for engineers to participate in extended pickets was due to the requirement for drivers of both protected mobility vehicles (PMV’s) and other defence vehicles to have eight hours sleep per night.
It should be noted that there were no significant injuries in the 5 Engineer Regiment Task Group during Phase 1 of Operation Bushfire Assist. Looking ahead, I believe from my personal experience working closely with engineers over the last seven weeks that a minimum number of hours sleep per night needs to be considered on domestic operations aiding the civil community. Specialist advice should also be made available to commanders on how best to manage extended work hours for personnel using dangerous equipment. This would reduce the risk of sustaining major injuries from fatigue when using plant equipment and chainsaws.
The morale of soldiers throughout the deployment was high due the type of work being conducted within communities and due to the response and feedback received. Operation Bushfire Assist was rewarding and being able to assist the people of Australia through their hour of need was important to me. As an Army we should be proud of the dedication, hard work, resilience and team work displayed by those involved.