Twelve-hour shifts and the most challenging of conditions can take their toll when fighting fires - but one local Rural Fire Brigade captain says an increased focus on crew members' mental welfare is seeing benefits.
Fire brigades across the South Coast were on stand-by when the news of the Coolagolite fire came through, and by evening several teams from further afield were deployed to assist.
Candelo Rural Fire Brigade captain Phil Banks said his brigade was among many that experienced prolonged firefighting deployments during the Coolagolite fire on Tuesday, October 3.
"I was there from 7pm to 7am and when you add in the travel time and the day on standby at the shed, you start to get a bit bleary eyed," he said.
Mr Banks said all brigades and communities had been warned of the dangerous conditions expected that day. So when the fire broke out in Coolagolite, it "hadn't really come as a surprise" for the captain.
"We were told to prepare for a certain level of danger, so on Tuesday we had a crew standing by at the station, ready to deploy immediately should something happen," he said.
Due to the fire being further afield and there being a need for brigades to be available in case of other fires breaking out, the Candelo Brigade wasn't called to action until evening.
"We didn't get deployed immediately, but when it escalated they began to request overnight crews and that's when my brigade became involved," he said.
Travelling to the Bermagui area with his brigade, Mr Banks left behind his captain hat and put on a new one - that of the divisional commander.
Upon arrival he met with the divisional commander who had been overseeing the fire during the day and once briefed he began the night shift.
Mr Banks said his firefighting experience of the Coolagolite fire had been different to his experiences of the Black Summer fires in 2019 and 2020.
"It was not like the '19/20 fires when we had those huge temperatures and terrible winds, this time round the temperatures were quite mild, especially at night," he said.
That being said, Mr Banks said the discomfort started to really kick in after several hours of deployment in the overnight shift.
"It basically comes from fatigue because the adrenaline will come back down at some point and then it gets pretty demanding," he said.
Mr Banks said when it came to extended hours of firefighting it was important to manage yourself, not just physically by staying hydrated and taking breaks, but mentally as well.
"There's so many levels of stress that get applied to you when you're in an area where trees and embers are falling down and visibility isn't great," he said.
"Mental health is a big issue from last time and it's something that the RFS is approaching a lot better than it has in the past," he said.
"There's a more heightened awareness around crew mentality, so taking a break is not frowned upon like it used to be, years ago."
Mr Banks said in terms of support there were structures in place which included debrief sessions, also known as after action reviews (AAR), wherein the crews would talk about what worked and what didn't.
"You start out talking about what we achieved, what can be done better and then people start to chat and share stories," he said.
Mr Banks said those needing to discuss it further had the opportunity to call support services, which were freely available to them.
Mr Banks said due to the scale of the fire that day, fire containment and property protection had been the main focus of the RFS.
"It's quite an extensive area, 7000 hectares we are talking about, so actually extinguishing something of that size is just about impossible," he said.
"It comes down to trying to contain it within boundaries like roads, anything that's a natural break."
Mr Banks said during the outbreak of the fire, dispatched brigades had "immediately gone into property protection" mode.
"There were houses in danger and the crews were working around those structures to actually stop the fire from impacting them," he said.
Mr Banks said it was then up to them during the night shift to "continue the good work that they'd done during the day".
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