Australia has ramped up their requests for firefighting help from the United States. So far during their 2019-2020 southern hemisphere bushfire season Australia has only requested individuals to serve in specific management or specialist positions on bushfires, except for one 20-person crew that left for Australia a few days ago.
But now according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Australia has asked for “several Type 1 Incident Management Teams” (IMTs).
The logistics and determination of which IMTs will go is being worked out now, with an estimated departure date around January 16, 2020. The basic configuration for Type 1 IMTs is 58 members including 14 trainees, while a “short” Type 1 team has 26 including 6 trainees. We have learned that early indications are that instead of multiple 58-person teams going to Australia, three 10-person teams will respond, but this could change before they are actually mobilized. Maybe they will come up with a new term for 10-person teams.
IMTs are organized in advance to staff the overhead or management structure needed for running a planned or unplanned incident. The organization is based on the Incident Command System, with every position on the team having a title and a position description. Specific training is required for each job.
A Type 1 IMT is the highest level team, comprised of individuals with advanced degrees, so to speak, within their particular area of expertise. In the United States rosters are set in the winter or spring for the following summer fire season. There is always some churn between seasons, but many serve for multiple years. The team concept helps to build relationships, trust, and efficiency — the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone understands their role and they know what to expect from their co-workers.
IMTs that are primarily used on fires are rarely needed between January and April, however that can vary depending on the geographic location. Since this is the time of the year when IMTs might be undergoing change, with some ending their appointment to the team and their replacements not yet having been selected, it could be a challenge reconstructing them. Other complicating factors could also play a role, such as the requirement for passports and being available for an unexpected assignment about twice as long as the typical 2-week mobilization on an incident in the U.S.
But if the teams are stripped down to just 10 people each, it simplifies the process.
Based on requests from the Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, the U.S. has intermittently deployed more than 159 wildland USFS and DOI fire personnel throughout December and early January. The U.S. firefighters are filling critical wildfire and aviation management roles in New South Wales and Victoria.
The U.S., Australia, and New Zealand have been exchanging fire assistance for more than 15 years. Until the December deployments the last time the U.S sent firefighters to Australia was in 2010. In August of 2018, 138 Australian and New Zealand wildfire management personnel were sent to the U.S. for almost 30 days to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in Washington, Oregon, and California. The Australian and New Zealand personnel filled critical needs during the peak of the western fire season for mid-level fireline management, heavy equipment, helicopter operations, and structure protection.
The ability for the U.S. to send firefighters to assist Australia and New Zealand is authorized in a formal agreement under the Emergency Wildfire Suppression Act. According to information from NIFC, “The agreement only permits the United States to send federal employees to Australia, which means that legally, the National Interagency Fire Center cannot mobilize non-federal employees, such as state and local firefighters, to Australia.”