Teaming with the Rural Fire Service

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From late 2019 through early 2020, I had the opportunity to serve as an Australian Defence Force Liaison Officer (ADFLO) to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) as part of OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20.

The RFS is the lead combat agency for bush fires in NSW. Working closely with other agencies, they respond to a range of emergencies that include structure fires, motor vehicle accidents and storms that occur within rural fire districts. The NSW RFS is the largest volunteer fire service in the world (with over 72,000 volunteers and only 900 full-time staff). Members of the NSW RFS are trained to very high standards to ensure they know what to do in an emergency.

During my time working with this organisation, I witnessed first-hand how the ADF fits within a system of systems composed of government and non-governmental agencies that all respond when we need to help, support and enable Australian communities in need. Further, I saw in action the three key principles for successful emergency management: informal liaison, innovation and ‘a focus on response’. These principles provide a foundation for responding to emergencies and create a culture that fosters relationships with the RFS’ external stakeholders. It’s important to understand the NSW RFS’ emergency management culture and way of doing business; doing so will enable us to team quickly and achieve outcomes when government directs that we work together. 

However, I will caveat that it is important to remember how the unique circumstances of the ADF will temper and inform any ‘lessons learned’. The ADF’s ‘emergency management’ is principally the management of a battlespace in conflict. There are huge differences and there are some significant similarities in the way both organisations do business.

Informal Liaison

Formal liaison and highly efficient battle-tracking ensures the success of the RFS. However, informal liaison also plays an important role in driving the RFS; it underpins their ability to grasp new ideas and action them in rapidly developing situations. The speed with which they operate is not dissimilar to the OODA loop methodology that the Australian Army is taught to employ in conflict. 

Within the RFS Headquarters (HQ), the main floor where all planning occurs is purpose-built. The floor is circular, and all desks point inwards and forward towards an array of screens designed for battle-tracking; each shows varying levels of information about incident logs, activity summaries, weather forecasts and news outlets. However, the layout of the workstations achieves more than just access to visual information. It facilitates the flow of information and communication to the centre of the circle where the State Operations Controller (SOC) works; think of the SOC as an Operations Officer (OPSO) only at a much higher level and overseeing a much more densely populated area.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Headquarters in Sydney Olympic Park.

In the HQ, every government agency present, Federal and State, are able to liaise with one another, understand their positions on-the-ground in real-time and to begin to formulate plans through informal liaison. This helps when agencies are thrown into unusual circumstances (in this case, bush fires). While I observed that the state agencies tended to understand each other’s capabilities and strengths quite well, the informal liaison provided a sophistication that smoothed over friction points that remained. It’s not dissimilar, for example, of the friction points observed when the Australian Army and domestic police services coordinate during OP Magpie. In NSW RFS HQ, where a web of agencies are required to follow unfamiliar processes and respond effectively to an ever-changing ‘hydra’ emergency, informal liaison and information sharing is essential. 

It allows for quick battle planning, reduces reliance upon slow-moving, incorrectly staffed formal requests and allows resources to be quickly unlocked and prepared while a formal request is finalised through the formal channels. It also empowers each agency to better understand their partner capabilities for future collaboration. 


Innovation occurs when people are thrust into unusual circumstances and so develop means to engage with new partners; sharing information quicker, better and clearer is key. The RFS has a sophisticated handle on sharing and developing messages internally and externally through electronic means. The ‘Fires Near Me’ application for desktop and smart devices enables people to submit incidents that have occurred, find incidents near them, and receive guidance on what to do next in an emergency. However, in the back end of the system, the RFS members can take this information, compare it with the currency of their own battle tracking and deliver a world-class personnel management system on a platform that receives inputs from both internal and external stakeholders. This has improved the flow of information, enables RFS members to ‘surge’ to key locations, and gets Situation Reports (SITREPs) back to Command elements (even when dislocated).

The focus on innovation ensures continuous improvement occurs on this platform and enables emergencies to be triaged efficiently in real-time which is something the ADF also aspires to achieve.

A Focus on Response

The RFS is focused intently upon emergency response against a dynamic adversary that is only likely to worsen in the future: the natural disaster environment. The RFS is tasked to act as the main emergency response agency in a time of a fire and to operate across the full spectrum of response and recovery at short (almost no) notice. The RFS prepares their people for the most dangerous acts of Fire Response– from fighting fires to evacuating civilians from deteriorating and life-threatening conditions. Each training level (from Foundation, Technical, and Supervision through to Command and Strategic) is a comprehensive package focussed on the centre of their excellence: competency in delivering emergency response. 

The RFS does not compromise of delivering bottom-line response. 

As the ADF readily understands, situations change, and few things go to plan. However, the RFS’ ‘focus on response’ sets the theatre for continually dealing with these changes. When their response doesn’t go as planned, they rapidly reposture and continue their pursuit of delivering high level emergency management. The RFS’ mantra permeates all things: … [to provide] the highest standards of training, community education, prevention and operational capability.”

The reflections I’ve set down here are not intended to be linked directly to the ADF; nor does it provide something tangible and ready to be integrated. It highlights how the RFS has a new approach to these underpinning, simple methodologies in order to be high level strategic players in their field.

Some lessons learned are not as simple as applying the lesson directly to another organisation. The RFS are distinctly different from the ADF. They do not undertake the same tasks or achieve the same effect with their people. However, parallels can be drawn from these themes and can guide the ADF to being increasingly effective.

For example, the ADFs version of a ‘focus on response’ might centre on mission critical outcomes; the power of informal liaison to enable rapid responses can encourage thinking about how we communicate; the ADF might innovate to better present data in a way that is useful for warfighting outcomes. That is not to say that the ADF needs a ‘Fires Near Me’ application, but perhaps the ADF may need to start to think innovatively about how to represent, show and store data in our own combat agency methodology.

There is no ‘cookie cutter’ method to applying the RFS’ principles to the ADF, but there is something to be learned from agencies that are profoundly different to ours. 

This is the first article in a three-part series from the Australian Defence Force Liaison Officer (ADFLO) to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) as a part of OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20.

About the Author: Lieutenant Emma Watson is posted to Regimental Headquarters at 11th Engineer Regiment and most recently served as an Australian Defence Force Liaison Officer in OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20.

Cover Image: Australian Army soldier Signaller John Mackey providing tactical satellite communications on the fire grounds in Balladonia, Western Australia during Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20.