Tactical and Technical
JTF1110 Op Bushfire Assist Experiences | Combat Engineer Troop CommanderBy Edward Pym March 2, 2020
Over a two month period spanning from early December 2019 to late January 2020, I had the immense pleasure of deploying as a combat engineer troop commander in support of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), and various local government area (LGA) councils across NSW, in both response and recovery capacities to the bushfire crisis facing Australia. In writing about my experiences, I intend to highlight some of the many skills reservists bring and develop on operational service to their community and what they take back to employers.
As background, 2020 marks my sixth year serving as an Australian Army Reservist, my third as a combat engineer troop commander, and OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19/20 is my first period of operational service. In my civilian career, I am an Investment Specialist and Product Strategy Associate with DWS Group, the majority owned asset manager of Deutsche Bank.
A State Wide Emergency – Tailored and Timely ADF Support
Phasing my operational experience between three distinct phases, being firstly as the Defence Aid to the Civil Community (DACC) Commander to the Northern Rivers Region of NSW, secondly as an ADF Specialist Liaison Officer, and lastly as a Composite Engineer Troop Commander, there can be no doubt that the experience gained over the preceding two months of service is equivalent to multiple years of traditional Army Reserve service.
During the first phase of service staged from the 41 RNSWR depot in Lismore, NSW, I had the incredible opportunity to command a team of ~25 Regular Army and Army Reserve personnel in our direct response assistance to the NSW Rural Fire Service and NSW State Government Response to Section 44 Emergency level fires in the region. This team were drawn from across the 5th Brigade and 17th Brigade and brought with them skills from across the army including catering, transport, engineering and infanteering. What this translated to on the ground incuded: a catering effect for up to 350 firefighters from across Australia and international visitors from New Zealand; a logistics team who were able to deliver meals, fire-fighting equipment, vehicles and personnel throughout the region (in doing so relieving pressure on the NSW RFS Support Brigades); and finally an aerial refuelling team who were able to reload up to fifty sorties of RFS and contracted aerial firefighting aircraft with fire retardant and foam. This particular region had never seen fires spread so far and wide with such ferocity; they lasted multiple months with no reprieve. In this first phase of service, the various civilian skills of the soldiers under my command were brought to the fore, with our effect enhanced by administrative, mechanical, emergency services and heavy vehicle transport expertise. Throughout, I was consistently impressed at the willingness and tenacity of the team to both learn from our RFS colleagues and offer guidance and potential operational improvements based upon their ADF and civilian work experience.
Transitioning between the response and recovery phases of my operational service, I had the pleasure of being an ADF Specialist Liaison Officer to the Quirindi Fire Control Centre near Tamworth, NSW. In this role I established an understanding of which ADF support assets would be most appropriate in the region and how we would be able to best support the region despite the dynamic nature of fire behaviour across the state and indeed the country. As a personal reflection, I found it particularly rewarding to be able to translate the experiences of my team over the preceding month into a tailored and timely ADF support response following my report and recommendations.
The third and final phase of my participation saw me staging out of the 1/19 RNSWR depot in Bathurst, NSW. My role, and our broader objective, pivoted to the provision of both construction and combat engineering support during regional recovery operations. These spanned from Mudgee to the Western townships of the Blue Mountains. During this phase, I had the further privilege of commanding another team of ~25 Army Reserve personnel with increasingly diverse corps backgrounds in construction and combat engineering, medical, infanteering and even Band Corps and air dispatchers. With existing council resources and local contractors stretched well beyond capacity, our effects were predominantly centred on the use of heavy plant and equipment to re-open roads, assist in fence line removal and replacement, felling and removal of fire damaged trees, and finally the construction of erosion and soil control barriers to prevent future flooding. The ultimate outcomes of what the composite engineer troop were able to achieve during the month exceeded my furthest expectations, and we were able to re-open access to fire damaged communities, assist dozens of local residents, and also assist the NGO BlazeAid to rebuild fences and assist local farmers despite hot, dusty and fatiguing conditions.
Skills Development to both the Army Reserve and their Employers
Operating and liaising with everyday Australians who had been impacted by the devastation caused by the fires, I was continually reminded as to the deep empathy shown by my soldiers to the communities they ultimately serve and their constant willingness to go ‘above and beyond’ to get the job done. Many soldiers who had operational experience gained over the last decade from across Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor noted how this operation felt different and how good it felt to be in their own backyard helping other Australians in their time of need. Finding purpose and motivation in their work was therefore not an issue, with many soldiers having family, friends or colleagues that lived and worked in many of the communities we had the privilege of supporting.
For the reservists themselves, the skills and knowledge they gained over the course of this operation are multi-faceted and apply to both their Army Reserve and civilian careers. All soldiers were able to continue their professional skills development in their respective corps and potentially apply them in ways they may not have considered previously under a humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operation rather than warfighting application. Further to this, and due to the highly geographically fragmented nature of the fires, mission command and independent small team leadership was exercised at every level throughout the operation – with decision making under pressure being a particularly important skill set for every Reservist returning to their civilian workplaces.
For junior and senior NCOs - as well as myself as a junior officer - the opportunity to exercise command and control in addition to the demands of task status reporting in highly dynamic, time sensitive, complex and often hazardous environments was particularly rewarding and forms the basis of my key learnings from the operation. Stakeholder engagement at all levels between RFS, local residents, LGA councils, NGOs, Media and ADF were also a critical skill set developed during the operation that aided in mission success – ensuring the effect that we were delivering was tailored to the needs of our supported agency and appropriately reflected in local media to provide re-assurance and information to local residents.
The Future of the ADF Reserve Force in Domestic HADR
In summarising the experiences of the preceding two months, I believe it to be an accurate reflection from both my own and my soldiers' perspectives that it has been an incredible opportunity to support our NSW State Government emergency services colleagues in being able to deliver the effect that the ADF Reserve Force does best – showing mateship and delivering tailored and timely effects, where and when they were needed, in an empathetic and disciplined manner.
Facing a national disaster on such an unprecedented scale, the effects that the ADF delivered on the ground to supported agencies and communities made a genuine and long-lasting difference, providing re-assurance of support from across the country from other Australians. Having seen the significant effects able to be applied by even small teams of ADF in a Domestic HADR context, I believe the ADF Reserve remains uniquely postured to continue to develop and apply this capability into the future in the context of increasingly volatile environmental conditions.