Valley Veterans | Some facts about Defence support in a crisis

Fire and Rescue New South Wales members board a C-130J Hercules, for their home flight to RAAF Base Williamtown from Defence Establishment Fairbairn, Canberra after fighting fires in Southern NSW since New Years Eve 2019. Photo: PTE Rodrigo Villablanca, ADF
Fire and Rescue New South Wales members board a C-130J Hercules, for their home flight to RAAF Base Williamtown from Defence Establishment Fairbairn, Canberra after fighting fires in Southern NSW since New Years Eve 2019. Photo: PTE Rodrigo Villablanca, ADF

There is no end to the amount of opinion on main stream and social media regarding the causes and responses to the the current bushfire emergency griping the country.

From the time the crisis started here on the NSW Mid North Coast up until the high profile Australian Defence Force (ADF) participation in NSW and Victoria I have had many people ask me 'why are the government not calling out the ADF to fight these fires'?

In this article I do not intend to pile onto existing opinion, but rather detail some fact regarding ADF capabilities when it comes to assisting in disasters like those currently being experienced.

I would firstly like to dispel the notion that adding troops to stand beside RFS personnel on the hoses at the fire front is a good option. Effective fire fighting is a skill that requires training and experience and firefighting appliances are increasingly more specialised.

While the ADF does have some trained firefighters they are few in numbers and are required for specific roles at Defence establishments. Pouring manpower into the fire zone would result in untrained personal getting in the way and hindering the RFS.

The time to march the troops into the affected areas is in the aftermath.

What the ADF can do is provide niche capabilities and many of those are made available from the outset of a disaster situation.

Long before the seemingly poorly coordinated response by our Prime Minister to provide a massive ADF response, Defence was already providing assistance where it was needed. In fact the ADF has been supporting other agencies in the current crisis since September 2019.

The ADF has the mission of defending Australia and its interests and within that mission must maintain levels of preparedness. There are many capabilities linked to its mission and the requirement for preparedness that the ADF readily makes available to civil authorities when they are needed.

The ADF has scalable plans in place to assist in times of disaster and it is now that we see those plans enacted. Here on the Mid North Coast the Royal Australian Navy had its MRH-90 helicopters supporting the RFS around the Kempsey area.

The state-of-the-art MRH-90 was able to lift RFS specialist ahead of the firestorm and check in on property owners. The lift capability and speed of the MRH-90 exceeded aviation assets routinely used by the RFS and freed RFS aircraft for other critical work in the fire grounds.

The Army's Tiger Helicopters have also been incredibly useful in South East Queensland and North NSW due to their advanced ability to operate at night and use thermal imagery equipment to see through the smoke and accurately map out the fire front for firefighters on the ground.

Again, this capability was being used months before the Prime Ministers recent announcement.

ADF support has included accommodation on military bases to firefighters, significant airlift of personnel and equipment, ground transport, engineer support, large scale logistics support, maritime transport for evacuation and medical support. The list continues to grow.

The ADF has now established a number of Joint Task Forces to manage the increasing Defence commitment to the current crisis.

In areas where recovery has already begun some media outlets have reported that ADF personnel may have the grisly task of burying tonnes of livestock that were killed by the fires.

With the activation Defence Reserves and an unimaginable amount of clean up and repair required, it is then time to pour in the troops for recovery operations and allow the RFS to stay on the front line fighting the fires.

If you are eligible to join U3A and think you might like to learn more about contemporary military operations, such as the one the ADF is undertaking in the current crisis, I am delivering a course on this topic for U3A.

To find out more you can come along to the U3A Open Day on Wednesday, January 29, between 10am and 12 noon in both the main and the small hall of the Nambucca Community and Arts Centre in Ridge Street, Nambucca Heads.

Please note that RSL NSW has assistance available for Veterans and their families in bushfire affected areas for the purchase of essential items. If you think you may be eligible you should contact your local RSL Sub Branch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mick Birtles DSC is a retired Army Officer now living in Nambucca Heads. During his 36-year career, Birtles served in Bougainville, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for command and leadership.