With almost 4000 bushfires recorded in Western Australia last bushfire season, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ (DFES) Communications Centre (Comcen) was kept busy responding to triple zero (000) calls at all hours.
As the Comcen team gear up for another demanding summer, DFES is urging people to prepare for the season ahead and look out for their safety.
Communication Systems Officer (CSO) Michelle Hoskin, one of the reassuring voices on the other end of the line, started in Comcen in 2009 and has since been involved in the response for the Parkerville, Roleystone, Bullsbrook and Waroona-Yarloop bushfires.
The 45 year old mother of two says the team speak to people when they’re at their most vulnerable.
“We have an appreciation of their emotional state and their ability to provide us with information when they are distressed, anxious or simply overwhelmed by the situation,” Michelle said.
“We have empathy for the person calling and their situation and understand it can be difficult for them to communicate to us what they are experiencing or provide relevant information.
“We are trained to take control of the call and prompt the caller for the essential information and also provide them with instructions.
“Whenever there are lives or property under threat, we receive triple zero calls from people seeking guidance as to whether they should evacuate.
“However, callers are in the best position to make decisions about their safety and if they should evacuate. I always believe if they are calling triple zero and seeking advice on whether they should evacuate, they really already know the answer.”
Michelle said the most difficult incidents to deal with are those when there is life in danger or a fatality involved.
“Whilst I’m an experienced CSO, I’m also a mum, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a team mate,” she said.
“When there is a fatality it’s at the forefront of my mind that the person was someone who was loved by a lot of people, and those people will be grieving their loss.”
Michelle vividly remembers answering a call from a young man during the evening when Yarloop was hit by the fire, where she could hear the smoke alarm active in the background.
“He told me he was 14 years old and his house was being impacted by fire,” Michelle said.
“When I asked if there were any adults with him, he said his parents where there but were too anxious and distraught to speak. He remained quite calm himself.
“They had no running water or power by that stage so I told him to get his parents and wait in the area of the house least impacted by fire.
“I took their address and contacted the Incident Controller on the fireground to tell him there were people trapped, and give him the location so he could send a crew to get them if possible.”
While the outcome was positive in this instance Michelle said it could easily have had a very different outcome.
“Families and community members need to start having conversations with each other now and decide what their triggers are to evacuate and where they are going to go.
“If they talk about it before danger arises then they can be free from emotion and confusion. They can have a robust discussion and make informed decisions about what they will do if there is a bushfire threat.”
With the Comcen being a hive of activity during the bushfire season Michelle said their job is only just starting when the call has ended.
“Regularly there are several large bushfires running at the same time, or we could be responding to other incidents across the State such as cyclones, house fires, vehicles fires or road crashes that require rescues or hazardous materials to be managed.
“For each of these, once we have obtained the information from the caller, we need to mobilise the appropriate resources and the attendance of other agencies.
“At the time you are so focused on doing your job, getting the trucks on the road, and making the appropriate notifications that you often don’t have time to digest what the call actually involved.
“When it’s busy, hours can pass by before you even have time to look up or comprehend what the time is.
“There are days and nights when you just start to feel that we are gaining the upper hand and then there is a new fire and we start all over again, before you have had a chance to catch your breath.
“Sometimes the enormity of a particular call or day won’t come into perspective until I get home after work and I’m walking my dogs or cooking dinner.”
DFES Deputy Commissioner Steve Fewster said that while CSOs play a vital role in bushfire response, community members also have a critical part to play.
“You need to take responsibility and ensure you and your family are prepared for bushfires, and are not putting yourselves in danger,” Deputy Commissioner Fewster said.
“That means preparing your property and having a bushfire survival plan in place so you know what to do, including leaving the area well before the fire arrives.
“If you see smoke and flames act immediately – don’t wait for a warning.”
Visit areyouready.wa.gov.au for information on how to prepare for and respond to bushfires.
Calling triple zero
When calling triple zero there are a few really important things that can assist DFES to respond effectively:
• Your location – the Emergency + App is a great tool that can assist with this
• What size the fire is and roughly how high the flames are
• The traffic situation in the area
• Updated information if the situation changes.