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Lessons from the Dunalley Fire

"Decisions taken on the fireground, at the location of any kind of emergency or military engagement, are driven by the demands of the situation. As such, they can not be prescribed in advance, nor captured in a set formula or procedure. A successful action taken under one set of conditions, such as mounting an internal attack or initiating a back burn, may have entirely different results when repeated under other circumstances. The potential for error, the prospect of failure, is always present."

The statement above is taken from the introduction to our case study into the 2013 Dunalley Fire in Tasmania. It continues,

"At the same time, however, high consequence decision making, where the risk of a catastrophic outcome can not be eliminated, is predetermined to a large extent. The decisions taken in the heat of the moment, at critical points during the response to an emergency, are shaped by the organisational context within which they are set, within the local unit, at an agency, and an inter- agency level. No response to a call out starts entirely from scratch. Instead, this context generates a series of inputs into the decision making process on the fireground, and these have the power to make all the difference between success and failure, and sometimes between life or death.

Organisational inputs do not arise during the course of any single incident, they pre-exist it. Many are determined years and even decades in advance of any concrete situation, in historical events and how they are remembered, in legislation on the statute books, in decisions over what platforms and equipment to buy, in the setting of strategic priorities, in how to train crews, in what culture to promote internally. These factors define the operational environment within which crews respond to call outs, and they do so continuously, every day, and in every situation."

The Dunalley Fire is instructive from this perspective. Here are some of the issues that were thrown up during the course of this incident.

The document then goes on to investigate exactly what these organisational inputs were, and why they turned out to be both unhelpful and inadequate.

The aim of this case study is to provide emergency planners and senior commanders with the knowledge of what to look for among their own organisational inputs, and how to evaluate their effect on fireground decision making, for better or for worse. As Dunalley shows, this can make ALL the difference, and because this activity can be carried out long before any incident occurs with a negative outcome, TIME exists to fix any problems identified.

The Dunalley case study is available on request from Avoiding Catastrophe. If you would like to discuss the issues it raises and how they might apply in your context, by all means get in touch with us at

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