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John grew up on a large cropping and cattle and sheep grazing farm. His father was both the first captain of Stradbroke brigade and a local councillor so John learnt a lot of local knowledge from the sidelines of childhood. By his teen years he was out fighting fires and has now been a member for 54 years.
When it comes to local knowledge, “I learnt by doing,” he says. “We’ve holidayed at Loch Sport all our life – that’s also in Stradbroke Group – so it’s knowing that local area.
“Being so close to the coast, the big issue for us is the sea breeze. It’s a south easterly and it’s very hard to forecast. It’s variable and it tapers off further inland. You get to know when the change is going to come. You know it will be a bit slower coming on a bad fire day. You get to know the fuel loadings and where the powerlines and the water points are.
“Lightning has a history of starting a lot of fires here. The first fires from the 2002/03 campaign started about 6am here from a lightning storm.
“Once I know the location of a fire, I have a fair idea of exposures. I think about what time traffic leaves the gas plant and when the school buses are on the road.”
John is operational but is also now “further up the command chain. I have a remote radio at home and I’ll take calls from tankers and order up more trucks. You need someone on the tanker who knows the roads but you really need people in a control centre who know the area, and I’m a good strategic thinker.
“We have a DivComm at Stradbroke. I’m a Level 3 incident controller and I’ve been a divisional commander but I don’t like going further away than Sale. It becomes too difficult to pick up local knowledge.”
And how is local knowledge passed on in an ICC? “I always hope to have a half hour handover,” says John, “and I don’t mind a phone call once I’ve gone. I hate going back the next day, things haven’t gone well and no one contacted me.”
John has experienced the complexity of strike team response from both sides. He’s addressed visiting strike teams at the staging area and briefed strike team leaders, but he’s also chased up locals when he was the one on strike team duty.
As for the passing on of local knowledge to other brigade members including new recruits, John is enthusiastic about tactical exercises without troops or TEWTS. They’re making a comeback in Gippsland with both Regional Director Mark Reid and the Chief Officer encouraging their widespread use.
“Years ago we did lots of training with maps on the floor,” says John, “and we see it as a great way to push our members towards decision making. We use toy cars and look at things like boggy or light sand tracks, changing the scenario every time.
“The second DGO John Mowat and Group Officer Alistair Anderson are very generous with their knowledge so it’s a conscious mentoring process. We encourage people to come up with difficulties and solutions they haven’t thought of before. They certainly get better at making decisions the more they do it.
“What we say is that two heads are better than one. Have a talk before making a decision but understand that any decision is better than no decision. That means you’re making the best decision at the time based on the information available.
“Someone needs to bite the bullet and decide but then you also have to be flexible. Fire is a dynamic thing and you might have to change your plan. We’ve been on the fireground and thought we had 20 minutes until the wind change but five minutes later it’s upon us and everything speeds up.”
It’s Mission Command Stradbroke-Group style and it’s vital to fill in gaps in experience caused by an absence of managers on local properties. That means fewer locals making everyday decisions about their land and learning from their mistakes. If people don’t learn how to make decisions about what job to do on the farm today, based on the weather, or when to move the cattle from the top paddock, how can they be confident evaluating information and making good decisions on the fireground?
“Our group is about 100 kilometres long which means support can be 20 minutes away,” says John. “Seaspray is our only town with a water supply. Longford township has no water. You have to learn to work with these local limitations so we train three or four times a year throughout the group.
“We work well in conjunction with Parks [Victoria] and DSE. That message of us all being part of the one team is filtering down and playing out.”
Certainly John has lived the CFA mission of protecting lives and property. “I’ve had lots of successes,” he says.” It’s just great having support in your group and working as a team. I love managing people. I’ve had a great run.”