Cobaw Bushfire Staff Ride.

“Walking in their shoes”.

Staff Rides can trace their origins back to the Prussian Army after the Napoleonic Wars. They were adapted by the US military and then more recently by many American fire agencies. They are now considered an essential technique to develop senior leadership skills.

The Cobaw Bushfire Staff Ride in 2011 was the first attempt in Victoria. Another followed at Linton in 2014.

The escape of a Fuel Reduction Burn (FRB) from the Cobaw State forest 20 years ago during early April 2003 couldn’t have happened at a worse time.

The escape was against the backdrop of the huge alpine fires in Victoria and NSW together with the loss of some 500 homes and four lives in Canberra. People were angry and several state and federal government inquiries were announced.

On the face of it, the FRB at Cobaw seemed simple and routine but in fact proved very complex. There was no “right” answer, and the “truth” may never be fully known.

The Cobaw Staff Ride consisted of three distinct phases:

  1. Preliminary Reading about the bushfire event, often weeks before the staff ride, involving forensic study of investigation reports, individual biographies, first-hand accounts, weather information, maps, photos, logs, media reports etc.
  2. Field Study walking across the fire ground in small groups with a facilitator to understand the unfolding story from the perspective of people actually involved and discuss major assumptions, events and critical decision points.
  3. Integration Phase to share impressions and lessons learned with other participants.

The Cobaw Bushfire staff ride presented a unique opportunity to learn from a past incident and was not about blame. The best decision maker, even taking all reasonable steps and precautions will still make misjudgements.

Every firefighter will know that bushfires are a dynamic and complex environment, and every decision made in real time is imperfect. The Staff Ride:

  • provided a chance to learn from low frequency but high-risk events.
  • gave an opportunity to analyse the key decisions and assumptions together with a study of the actual terrain and to demonstrate the effects of weather, slope, topography and fuels upon the fire.
  • focused on leadership, communications, decision making, biases and human factors.
  • encouraged discussion and debate between participants.

Bushfire staff rides are a powerful form of experiential learning because participants can see, hear and feel the environment where the decisions took place. Firefighting is often characterised by:

  • rapidly changing circumstances.
  • risky and sometimes life-threatening situations.
  • ambiguous instructions and objectives.
  • limited time for analysis, reflection and consultation.
  • failure to communicate clearly, or at all.
  • lack of adequate fire ground intelligence.
  • lost opportunities caused by failing to act quickly or seize the initiative.
  • lack of situational awareness.
  • over / under estimation of people’s capabilities.

“Staff Rides are told as stories and experiences”.

When constructed like stories with beginnings, middles and ends, bushfire staff-rides can be a profound method of learning.

Unlike many bushfire training exercises, (or worse still death by PowerPoint), with their often-rigid outline of facts and statistics (including the presumption that all the “facts” are known, the behaviour of the fire was inevitable, and could have been predicted), a bushfire staff ride, constructed like a story, places the same fire event using the same facts and statistics into a storyline with a strong narrative structure.

People involved with the bushfire tell, in their own voices, using their own words, the story of what happened to them.

Stories can more easily deal with ambiguity and the “fog of battle” that is so common to bushfires. Within the framework of a staff ride story, a bushfire event becomes more intricate and complex.

The outcome of bushfires or planned burns is rarely the result of a single decision made by one person. It is usually the result of many decisions made in an environment of competing demands, incomplete information, and pressures of time.

Participants were challenged to push past the basic questions of what happened. And unlike a simple historical tour they got to stand on the actual fire ground for themselves and “walk in the shoes of others”, then consider through a series of challenging tactical decision exercises what they would do in the same situation.

For many course participants it proved very uncomfortable and confronting to shift from their initial standpoint of “what the hell were they thinking”, to then realise that they probably would have done exactly the same things and made exactly the same decisions.

This shock realisation was often accompanied with a lot of “feet shuffling” and “hand wringing” and common blame shifting phrases such as … would’a… should’a… could’a…

But as I often used to say, “nobody sets out to have a bad day” and “everything seems inevitable in hindsight”.

The Cobaw Staff Ride ran successfully from 2011 for several years for many hundreds of participants but ceased after the Lancefield escaped burn under similar circumstances in October 2015. The independent review of Lancefield noted the importance of the Cobaw Staff Ride and recommended it continue.

The career of Lee Gleeson, the experienced Fire Management Officer from Bacchus Marsh, was a significant casualty of the Cobaw and Lancefield burn escapes. More importantly, Lee deserves to be commended for his willingness to share his story so that others may learn.

The Cobaw Staff Ride was evaluated by the Bushfire CRC and also won the prestigious Victorian Fire Services Award in 2012.

This was followed by an invitation from the US Forest Service in 2014 to be a participant/instructor in their senior level fire leadership course, which was run by the US Marines, and which examined the lessons learned from the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The invitation also stretched to the South Canyon Staff Ride in Colorado where in 1994 fourteen USFS smokejumpers and hotshots died when a fire overran them.

“If you want a new idea, read an old book” – Ivan Pavlov.

6 thoughts on “Cobaw Bushfire Staff Ride.

  1. I used to run a TEWT for all APMF staff who could find themselves in a command position at any level at a wildfire.

    This went on for about 12 years, and it has been interesting to see that two of the fire scenarios I set have actually happened.

    I also used the format of a Battalion Quick Attack Order to brief our force ahead of a potential major fire.

    My time in the Army was not entirely wasted!

    Oliver RAYMOND, PO Box 1362 or 32 Kassandra Drive, TRARALGON, VIC. 3844 AUSTRALIA 0411420345

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: