Behind the scenes: inside the fire HQ control centre

Bushfires burn in Tingha, Tabulam and Jennings: Northern Tablelands RFS monitor the situation from Glen Innes


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Deputy incident controller Liz Ferris is part of the incident management team working from the Northern Tablelands fire control centre in Glen Innes. Pictures: Andrew Messenger

Deputy incident controller Liz Ferris is part of the incident management team working from the Northern Tablelands fire control centre in Glen Innes. Pictures: Andrew Messenger

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As bushfires burn out of control, the RFS are keeping a close watch from their new HQ in Glen Innes.

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Teams of professionals clad in uniforms of yellow and white work intensely but in an upbeat mood in a single windowless room with white walls.

It’s almost a cliche scene at the Northern Tablelands fire control centre, exactly what you’d get in a disaster movie.

Two massive screens display an up-to-date map of the devastation of people’s homes from surveillance aircraft, with a dozen smaller TVs and magnets stuck to a whiteboard showing a dizzying array of information about the battle to protect them.

There’s also another TV playing Studio 10.

WATCH: A C-737 drops a line of fire retardant adjacent to a property flanking the Tingha fire (language warning)

Armidale’s Liz Ferris is the deputy incident controller. She said for two of the staff on the incident management team the fire is literally close to home. One has a relative near the Bruxner Highway fire, and the other is from near the Wallangarra fire.

“It does make it a bit different for them, we have to take that into consideration,” she said.

The teams are from Glen Innes, Armidale, Inverell, Tenterfield. They’re literally defending their own homes, their own communities.

They work 12-hour shifts, with a skeleton crew overnight, five days on, one day off.

“We are all very upbeat, but saying that very tired. The hours (are) mentally tiring,” Ms Ferris said.

One of Liz Ferris' tasks is to keep up the morale of the staff.

One of Liz Ferris' tasks is to keep up the morale of the staff.

Her job is to look after the team, making sure they have the resources they need and that morale stays high.

“The other part is making sure they have their breaks. If we have a fire break out like yesterday (Wednesday) it’s very hard to be making sure that people take time off and look after themselves.

“When we have an outbreak you can see the silence comes in as everyone concentrates. Morale is actually good this early in the fire.”

Liz Ferris takes a phone call.

Liz Ferris takes a phone call.

In front, three rows of professionals sit on the phone directing traffic, speaking softly.

They are, in order, communications, operations, then behind a plastic sound barrier, the liaison team, which includes several police. In a separate room to a side is the planning team, looking a day, and two days, ahead.

All of them sleep in Glen Innes motels, which are so packed they’ve considered shifting firefighters to other towns.

From this room professionals and volunteers direct dozens of fire trucks across multiple blazes, as well as aircraft, police and even ambulances. They constantly receive calls from homeowners begging - or perhaps demanding - help. The stakes are unbelievably high.

Captain Earl Sharman is one of the people they’ve been directing. A town firefighter, he’s been out with station 302 from Glen Innes. They spent two days fighting the Tingha blaze. On Wednesday their team, Delta, was sent to defend the township itself.

They were later deployed to hold off the fire from a bulk avgas tank at the Inverell airport.

“We were flat out in that high wind,” he said.

They lost hoses and even “Had to run for their lives in some cases”.

“Nothing you could do would stop that, it was a no-win situation.”

It’s the first time out for the $3.4 million new asset, opened in August. And the job isn’t done yet.

This article first appeared in the Northern Daily Leader

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