In July 1983, the Forests Commission ran a three-day staff workshop to review the previous calamitous bushfire season.
The formation of the Department of Conservation, Forests, and Lands (CFL) had only just been announced at the time of the meeting.
Police Commissioner Mick Miller’s Inquiry, and Coroner Anthony Ellis’s probe into Ash Wednesday were also underway.
Speakers at the FCV workshop addressed a wide range of issues and formulated actions on crew safety, management of resources, firefighting tactics, shift changes, equipment, skills training, communications, liaison with other agencies, logistics, use of aircraft for reconnaissance and firebombing, as well as weather and fire behaviour forecasting.
Included in the review was improving command and control at large bushfires.
Traditionally, District Foresters were responsible for any fire within the Fire Protected Area (FPA) and took overall control as “Fireboss”.
It was an entirely normal arrangement to have a FCV Fireboss in the field directing operations, for example, as at Greendale.
While it had advantages, the Fireboss role in the field had some serious shortcomings too, particularly if the fire escalated or became fast moving and complex.
The Forests Commission had begun experimenting with new fire control arrangements from the mid-1970s based on shared experiences with the US Forest Service. Different arrangements had been trialled at Cann River and Warburton.
But after the 1982-83 bushfires there were major changes in how the FCV approached large fire suppression and control on State forest and National Parks.
Whereas the CFA were responsible for fires on private land and operated independently on separate radio frequencies under a group structure.
Cross agency issues sometimes arose within the “Marginal Mile”; so FCV and CFA liaison officers were often appointed in the event of large or complex bushfires.
During 1984, Kevin Monk from the FCV’s Fire Protection Branch travelled on a Churchill Fellowship to California to study the United States National Incident Management System (NIMS).
Kevin brought back the NIMS documentation and developed a Victorian version, which became known as the Large Fire Organisation (LFO).
Importantly, the LFO was designed to be scalable; from Level 1 for simple local incidents, through to Level 3 for complex multi-agency and campaign bushfires.
By the summer of 1984-85 the LFO was being progressively adopted, with dedicated Incident Management Teams (IMTs) complete with Incident Controllers, Operations, Planning and Logistics units identified and trained within the new CFL Regions.
Under the new arrangements, the traditional role and title of FCV Fireboss at large bushfires all but disappeared.
Athol Hodgson was appointed CFL’s first Chief Fire Officer (1984-87) and was a strong advocate of the LFO. The fires of January 1985 in the alps near Mt Buffalo were the first major test for the newly formed department. It was also the largest deployment of firefighting aircraft in Australia up to that time, including 20 helicopters and 16 fixed-wing aircraft from the FCV, Australian Defence Force and NSCA. The LFO was given a thorough test run at these fires.
Later Chief Fire Officers, Barry Johnston (1987-90), Rod Incoll (1990-96) and Gary Morgan (1996-2005) maintained the momentum for changes to command-and-control arrangements at large bushfires.
Brian Potter, the Chief of the CFA (1985-91), also visited the US and became an enthusiastic supporter of NIMS, the LFO, and later, AIIMS.
Significantly, in 1986, the Emergency Management Act provided for a single controller to be appointed for each joint CFA/CFL bushfire.
Later in 1988 the Australian Association of Rural Fire Authorities adopted the principals embodied in LFO and NIMS.
The LFO became the forerunner of the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS) which was adopted nationally in the early 1990s under newly formed Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC).
AIIMS was jointly adopted by the CFA and CFL in 1991 with the intent of bringing emergency services together under one control system with common terminology, although it there was resistance to change within the CFA ranks and it took many years for some to make the full transition.
The operation and slow uptake of AIIMS was one of the key issues at the Coronial Inquest into the deaths of five CFA firefighters at Linton in December 1998.
The first international deployments in 2000 of Victorian firefighters to the US under reciprocal arrangements was made possible because of AIIMS.
Changes to AIIMS were introduced after the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires.
Photo: The Large Fire Organisation (LFO) developed by the Department in 1984-85 became the forerunner of the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS) which was adopted nationally in the early 1990s. White tabard – Incident Controller, Yellow – Planning, Red – Operations, Blue- Logistics. Source: Peter McHugh, Traralgon ICC – 2013.