Okay, it is not what you expect from the title; however, this article seeks to introduce the prospect of developing a National Emergency Response Force (NERF). Addressing the same issues raised by Lieutenant Colonel McLeod Wood in his article Considering the Heretical: Whole of Government Universal Service in Australia, this would enable a stock reserve force to be trained in base-level combat skillsets (weapons, medical, communications), base-level modulated firefighting (and associated equipment), and base level evacuation health and safety. This force could then be called upon in the case of a national emergency, be it flood, fire or conflict.

Some may conclude that this training and force structure has a similar identity to the current Reserve Force. While current Reserve soldiers train or are training in specific skillsets, this topic of discussion seeks to integrate a more flexible and adaptable soldier that can ‘plug and play’ across the multi-domains of an emergency environment.  

The Defence Strategic Review (DSR) opens with the statement “There is no more important and consequential task for Government than protecting the security, interests and livelihoods of its people”. This goal should not rely solely on a top-down approach focused only on building combat power across the five domains. It may be possible to strengthen Australia’s future combat capability through a bottom-up approach of training all Defence Force members in fundamental skills to protect people and property from threats like fires and floods at home.

With this base training, Defence Force members could also mobilise and adopt a combat role if needed in times of conflict. This approach would leverage the entire Defence Force in building foundational skills for national security and emergency response at the individual level first.

While growth in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is a priority, the ability to recruit and retain a force large enough to meet a long-term and sustainable force structure is diminishing. With an indicated plan to grow the ADF workforce to over 100,000 by 2040 and a current separation rate of above 13% (Army) and 10% (Navy and Air Force), it seems unrealistic to say that we will be able to meet the ambitious target of 80,000 permanent force members by 2040.

Recruitment and retention will not improve overnight by simply committing $38 billion and promising to ensure that we have the right people and skill sets to protect Australia. While the ADF offers job security, a competitive salary and career development opportunities, it struggles to provide work/life balance, flexibility, and at times, a healthy workplace culture. The ADF remains a results-driven organisation and short of a bone-crushing economic recession, it will continue to experience a high employee turnover rate as people search for autonomy and flexibility.

What are the potential benefits of a NERF?

Currently, the ADF employs approximately 60,000 full-time soldiers who have demonstrated personal resilience and an ability to work effectively in a challenging and dangerous environment employing their specific skills. If the ADF introduced a requirement for each member to be competent in employing firefighting equipment and techniques (e.g., extinguishing fires, crewing fire trucks) then they could be used as a force multiplier and be attached to the relevant state service in times of emergency such as fire control and evacuation.

Similarly (and stopping short of using phrases such as drafting and conscription) if each volunteer service (e.g., Fire – 190,000 and SES – 43,000 Australia-wide) received basic military ‘NERF’ training, they too could assist in a national emergency conflict (assuming the role of a combatant). If 40% successfully completed NERF training (93,200) and 10% of those joined the ADF full-time (9,300), the ADF could achieve half of its 2040 recruitment target.

Upon a full-time member transitioning from the ADF, the Australian Government has then also facilitated the development of a skill set that can be employed to assist a volunteer organisation with their operations in the member's location after separating. Noting that many members separate to different areas of Australia, they would be welcome additions to the numbers listed for each state in Australia: WA = 26,000, NSW = 70,000, Vic = 50,000, QLD = 28,000, TAS = 5,000, NT = 280, and SA = 13,500.

Recruitment – ‘What’s in it for me’?

Targeting members of society that already contribute voluntary hours of service to the nation, NERF could provide a ‘stand by’ annual stipend of $750 (post initial military training) to remain employable if called upon to do so. If called into action for emergency service, members would be paid at current service rates, much as Reserve Forces are now.

A Choice to Serve

In his article Considering the Heretical: Whole of Government Universal Service in Australia Lieutenant Colonel Wood suggests a Universal Civil Service Model indicating an initial mandatory service period of 24 months for people between the ages of 18-20 years, with a recall period expiring at age 55. A NERF model would not look to employ conscription or a mandatory recall period.

Instead, a NERF model would look to train members of the community who are already service-orientated individuals, provide a financial payment for their service if called into action and offer a $750 a year bonus for retaining base-level standards of employment as part of the service.


The current recruitment targets and retention numbers within the ADF are not currently aligned with a realistic force structure out to 2040. In order to be able to provide depth in a trade and skillset capacity, it may be worth considering a 'Plan B' to support a whole-of-government approach to our actual National Emergency Response capability. The creation of NERF would fall short of the DSR targets for Permanent Force members; however, it would provide a pool of Australians to be able to be employed in case of a national emergency be it fire, flood, or conflict.