News from the CRC


Japan deployment. Photo: Tim Fox AFSM
Japan deployment. Photo: Tim Fox AFSM

Research strengthens incident management team development

By Brenda Leahy. This article first appeared in Issue One 2018 of Fire Australia.

The most powerful learning and leadership development often comes from when you were way in over your head, according to Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) incident controller Rob McNeil.

His moment of truth came in 2011 during his deployment as NSW task force leader for the Australian Incident Management Team (IMT) to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The catastrophic incident, which involved continuing earthquakes, tsunami, flooding and nuclear reactor meltdown, claimed 14,000 lives leaving devastation and destruction in its wake.

Even with three decades of operational experience, including incident management and hazardous materials (HazMat) expertise, Rob says the complexity and scale of the assignment challenged his thinking and decision making.

“At times my legs were shaking,” he recalls. “I made good decisions and flawed decisions.”  

The good decisions were due to his technical and operational expertise in HazMat and understanding of the risks of radiation. The flawed decisions were due to unfamiliarity with the complexity of multiple, converging, and extraordinary risks. These included the tsunami, flooding, continuing earthquakes and the threat of a nuclear meltdown.

Rob had the opportunity to reflect on his thinking and decision making at the Fukushima incident and what he learned during an interview to become a Certified Incident Controller under the Emergency Management Professionalisation Scheme (EMPS). In the interview, candidates for EMPS are assessed by a panel of peers against a checklist of incident management core capabilities which include thinking and decision making at the incident ground.

The evidence-based core capabilities provide three very good statements in relation to skills and capabilities that IMTs have to learn and develop, Rob explains.

“The process challenges you to critically review your own performance. Naturally, it can make you feel vulnerable,” says Rob who leads the management of three regional area commands, consisting of nine zone commands with over 150 fire stations, 2500 on call firefighters and 300 career firefighters.

However, he says, “it’s that openness to and awareness about where you need to review and improve that provide the most insightful learning experiences.”

Rob has also mentored more than 10 incident managers from FRNSW through the EMPS certification process. The agency uses EMPS internally to support the development of performance plans and their personnel who show significant potential for leadership. The capabilities have also been cross-checked with their agency training and exercising programs.

Launched in 2015 as a priority initiative of the AFAC National Council, EMPS provides the first dedicated pathway to credential incident managers in Australia and New Zealand.

The Scheme sets out the core incident management capabilities for effective incident management, provides a process for certification and offers guidance for continuing professional development for IMTs and other specialist roles.

EMPS has been collaboratively developed and trialed with end users from the AFAC membership and utilises the research evidence outputs from AFAC’s Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) partners, the former Bushfire CRC and current Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Over the past 14 years, the CRC program has delivered a robust evidence base in IMT capability, leadership and human factors.

The core IMT capabilities are clustered into three broad themes encompassing leadership and teamwork, thinking and decision making, as well as critical interpersonal skills, such as self-awareness, self-reflection and giving and receiving feedback.  IMT members can use these capabilities to continuously review and improve in current and future roles.

Since EMPS was established over 40 practitioners have been certified, including 13 incident controllers who convene as the EMPS Panel. The EMPS Panel oversees the scheme and is drawn upon to assess candidates seeking the Certified Incident Controller (CIC) credential.

The evidence-based capabilities also underpin the EMPS guidance resource for Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Incident controllers certified through EMPS can use this resource to self-assess their ongoing development needs to maintain their credential. A number of activities available through the Australian Institute of Disaster Resilience’s (AIDR) national education program are recognised as EMPS CPD. AIDR clinics in decision-making and debriefing attract EMPS CPD credit, and have also been developed from the CRC research evidence base.

AFAC member agencies are also drawing on the evidence-based IMT core capabilities within their own jurisdictions to develop agency-wide or multi-agency leadership, learning and development frameworks. Victorian reviews by the Inspector General of Emergency Management into accreditation and operational readiness have also been informed by the evidence-based standards.

The latest AFAC research utilisation case study features Rob’s story and outlines how the CRC research was utilised in EMPS and to create and strengthen leadership, learning and capability pathways for current and future incident management workforces across AFAC’s membership.

The case study focuses on use of the CRC evidence base for EMPS and highlights factors critical to its successful utilisation. The case also explains how Victoria’s Country Fire Authority drew on the EMPS core capabilities and the broader CRC research evidence to create a portfolio of incident management leadership capabilities for its workforce and a system to develop and grow these capabilities.

The case study is available to download from the AFAC website,

For further information on EMPS, contact Claire Brentnall, Member Services Manager, AFAC, on or visit the AFAC website.

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News archives

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a look at two checklists that are helping emergency management teams when there's a breakdown in communication, the findings on community preparedness after three catastrophic bushfires swept across NSW in early 2017, four utilisation case studies that are helping agencies and incident management tools to enhance communication and capability
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, investigates what catastrophic flooding could look like in Sydney, asks if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels, highlights our research in incident management development and looks at predicting blow up bushfires.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.