As fire fighters we often talk about spot fires… those fires that are caused by burning embers from another larger fire. They are carried by the wind and can settle to ignite another blaze somewhere distant from its origin – the perfect analogy for the psychological impact of our recent bushfires. In such a tragedy we always think, as we should of those directly affected. The greater effect though often goes unrealised, for there is always a ripple effect, in this case, the psychological spot fires that were lit by those initial blazes.
Following the recent bushfires I assisted with debriefs for the communications operators at FRNSW who were on duty on Thursday 17th October when so many people lost their homes. Almost without exception the operators spoke of their sense of helplessness and even guilt as triple 000 calls flooded in at such a rate that the calls were backing up in an ever increasing queue. When the callers did get through they were invariably screaming ‘I’m in my house. It’s on fire, I can’t get out. What shall I do?’ The fire-fighters on the end of the telephone line found themselves having to give advice immediately to a person they could not see, based only on what they heard, that could ultimately result in life or death. Resources were stretched beyond capacity such that the nearest fire truck available at some points was more than 40km away and even when there was a fire truck nearby, there were times when there was simply no water. In short, there was nowhere to turn and radio operators were left unable to provide help on a phone line set up purely to do just that – to help people in emergencies.
Every single one of those operators went home that night wandering if that lady or man they had spoken to had perished in their house, if their decision had potentially resulted in someone’s death. Had they given the right advice? Had that woman died in trying to leave her home? Most of those operators were working continuously for hours on end with no break and no chance to reflect on the decisions made. Mobile lines were jammed such that once the caller was gone they had no way to contact that person in distress, no way to follow up, to reinforce advice, to reassure, just a lingering thought of ‘is she ok?’….
Only through the media in the ensuing days did they discover that no lives were lost. The silver lining of course, is that no-one died and everyone played a part in that, but spare a thought for those effected by the spot fire effect next time a disaster comes our way.