Tactical and Technical
JTF 646.7 Operation Bushfire Assist | Observations from the JTF Regimental Sergeant MajorBy Virginia Morris March 12, 2020
When I was appointed as a Medical Corps Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) at 7 Combat Service Support Battalion, I never thought I would be the RSM of a Battle Group deployed on an Operation to assist the people of Australia in their time of need.
Call out and deployment
On 5 January 2020, I received a phone call from the Commanding Officer (CO) stating he was recalling me as we had been stood up as Battle Group Victoria (7 CSSB), and we would be deploying within 72 hours. I was not expecting to be deployed over the Christmas period as we were not on call, and generally when a battle group is deployed the CSSB provides elements in support, so the callout was something of a surprise.
Twenty-eight hours later I arrived in Brisbane and gathered my equipment. I did not really know what to expect as I had been overseas and only seen snippets of the bushfire crisis on the news. Arriving at work to find that the Engineer Support Force (ESF) had already deployed to NSW, and the second battle group was formed and ready to deploy within 72 hours, demonstrated to me how important it is for us to maintain a readiness culture. I think we sometimes down play what it really means to be ready. However, the existing readiness culture, combined with the forethought of the Brigade Commander of 7 Brigade at the time to have a force on a reduced notice to move, shows how important readiness is no matter what stage of the Force Generation Cycle you are in.
I had received some briefings from key people to bring me up to date on the current situation, and the next task was to drive to Wodonga where we would initially base ourselves and become a part of JTF646 (based on 4 Brigade). I understood that there had been mixed opinions about how and when the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had been called to assist with the Bushfire Crisis, and we were prepared for a range of emotions we might receive when we got to the effected areas.
It was therefore with great joy that we experienced the reception at our first stop into the town of Coonabarrabran. The locals were assembled at the local bowls club, and as we rocked into the showgrounds they turned, waving and clapping as we drove in. They spoke with us and were very positive and thankful that we going to assist, and at that point it was a great feeling to see that people were happy we were coming to provide support. The next day, as we drove down the highway in our convoys, the waves and flashing lights we received was amazing.
Arriving at Latchford Barracks that first night we were all informed that we needed to down load the app Victorian Emergency Services. This provided up-to-date warnings and information regarding the fires around us. At this stage it still rather felt that we were on our way to a field exercise. That soon changed when the app informed as that there was a fire at South Bandaina and we needed to evacuate. We grabbed all of our personnel in to one area and lined up the vehicles to move to a safe location, which we had chosen to be Wagga if we were going to leave.
We were then faced with our first moral dilemma: we couldn’t evacuate, as we had over 380 civilians at the Latchford Barracks Evacuation Centre and we could evacuate them all in time. Who would have thought we would have to evacuate the evacuation centre? Thankfully, the fire was contained and we didn’t need to evacuate, but at that moment I realised where I was and there was a real threat and danger like I had never really experienced before.
Elements of the Reserves were already operating in this location, primarily running the evacuation centre and providing some support in the northern area of operations (AO) in Victoria known as AO Alpine. The south was AO Coastal and was being looked after by 22 Engineer Regiment and other elements.
Within 48 hours of arriving in the AO, we were allocated the east of Alpine and started to deploy troops into the area to conduct recons, as well as provide assistance where needed to support the local emergency services who by then had been fighting fires for a couple of weeks.
We quickly engaged in developing the necessary contacts in the Incident Control Centre (ICC) managing the region, and learned about the different organisations that were involved in the response and relief to the effected areas here in the north. Providing a military Liaison Officer (LO) in the ICC was crucial. It not only provided a link to the information on where we could assist, but also allowed the LO to provide insight on how we best could support the local agencies in the region. We were very lucky to have LT Sellers from 5/6 Royal Victorian Regiment as the LO. She was personable, forward thinking and informed, which quickly made her a key member of the team.
Troops to Tasks
Our first trip into one of the affected areas in our AO was Corryong, which was a 1 hour 45 min drive from Latchford. When finally hit the fire affected area it was surreal to believe what it would have been like to be in the town at the time of the fires. We attended the local community meeting, the first they had since the fires, and I was impressed with the resilience and the show of community support the town showed, as emotions were quite raw for a lot of the locals and some were still without power while other services were lacking.
This was the start for us, as we started to develop a true understanding of some of the roles we could assist with, and we were introduced to the theme of the beautiful little town, being the Man from Snowy River Festival that takes place the first weekend in April. For this region, the festival is a large tourist event with over 20,000 people coming to the town to celebrate for the weekend.
We now had to formalize our plan on how we were going to support this community. No matter what operation you are on, following doctrine and trusting the processes that you know will assist you in any situation. We commenced the deliberate planning cycle to understand what the art of the possible was going to be.
Courses of action (COA) were presented and it was decided that we would base the Engineer Call sign with support troops out in Corryong and use that as a base to provide support. While on the ground the men and women of the Battle Group conducted the following tasks:
- Route Clearance
- Fire Breaks
- Carcass Disposal
- Relief Centre Support (Communications, General Duties)
- Support to Local council welfare checks
- Management of Evacuation Centre – Latchford Barracks
- Support to CFA (General Duties)
- Assistance to local schools
- Assistance to local farms
- Support to Man from Snowy River Festival (potential route clearance for event in Apr)
- Medical support to force
- Water testing
- Hazardous Smoke Monitoring
- Situational appreciation of current fire affected areas
- Vet support
Some might argue that members of the Army Reserve are not employed to complete the tasks above; my response would be that the work that the men and women have done has made a huge difference in these communities. Clearing over 400 km of roads has allowed the locals to get back to their properties and has meant that towns were no longer isolated. Taking down a fence or building another for a farmer has saved them weeks of work so that they can now concentrate on something else to assist with their livelihood. All of the tasks were small wins to assist a community that has been through so much.
It has been humbling to see the great work being conducted, and we have always been mindful that the work we are doing is in direct support of another organisation or contractor, so that we are assisting the community and not taking away paid work for those around.
Understanding the DACC levels, and what is within our remit to assist, is very important. Being able to push tasks back to stimulate economic activity in the area was always a key factor in providing the support.
At the peak of the operation we had 16 different unit patches working under the JTF 646.7 banner, that being half Regular and part-time forces. The integration on the ground was fantastic, it was wonderful to see the teams working together and learning from one another. It was a different environment for all of us: the regular forces are generally reinforced by the reserves, but on this occasion the regulars were tasked to reinforce the part-time elements.
A few observations from my position as the Regimental Sergeant Major of a CSS Battle Group conducting a DACC task include:
- Trust doctrine: it can be used for any type of situation.
- The reserve call-out successfully mobilised a part-time force at short notice. Potentially it could have been a staged call-out allowing for the force to continue longer if it was staggered over the time.
- Be prepared to adapt your leadership and understand the situation around you. We had a full time force that had been recalled from leave (some members not even moving into their new married quarters) and also part time soldiers deployed with us in the location. With no end date in sight, it was important to manage the Work Rest Ratios as we were unsure of the length of time we would be deployed and we needed to make this a sustainable solution.
- Earn the trust from the local agencies, be confident in the support that you can provide, but don’t promise what it is not possible to achieve. Tracking and approving every tasks allows you to understand that it fits within the guidelines that are provided in supporting local disasters.
- Foundation warfighting skills puts us in good stead to assist in these type of operations. Providing specific skill sets will enhance the response that you can effect, but we don’t need to go over the top now to ensure that we all gain a chain saw qualification: it can be tasked, organised and only gained if the training and time is permitted within a normal training program.
It has been a great honour to be a part of a professional organisation that has helped and changed people’s lives - either directly or indirectly - as a part of Operation Bushfire Assist. As we continue to monitor the relief to recovery process, the community is well on the way to develop a sustainable recovery plan that will help to rebuild the community for the future to come.