To celebrate the many women across Australia and New Zealand who work, volunteer or study in disaster resilience and emergency management, we want to highlight the work of women who work in Incident Control Centres (ICC) or are part of Incident Management Teams (IMT) during emergencies.

Image left to right: Vanessa Giles, Anna Stamkos and Danielle Fowler

Staff that work in the ICCs are at times the unsung heroes during emergency events; making sure people and equipment are in the right place, the air fleet is dropping their payload in the right spot, the community is kept informed and, of course, that those on the front line have something to eat and a roof or canvas over their heads when it is time to sleep.

As Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) continues to work towards greater gender diversity and equality in its fire and emergency roles more women are taking the opportunity to take on roles in ICCs or in IMTs.

This AWED, we spoke with 3 women who are ready to jump into action in the IMT when an emergency event happens.

When they aren’t stood up to work in an ICC, Danielle Fowler is a Senior Program Officer in the Grampians’ Land and Built Environment team, Anna Stamkos leads emergency preparedness in Port Phillip region and Vanessa Giles is a Geographic Information Systems Officer with Hume region.

During an emergency, Danielle is a Level 2 Logistics Officer which involves making sure everyone is fed, hydrated, and has a bed to sleep in.

‘However, when an event scales up it can be anything that needs to be done!’ Danielle said.

‘This could be arranging a tow for a G-Wagen that’s broken down, picking up a pilot from the airport or getting supplies from FFMVic’s Altona warehouse.’

Anna’s role is as the Regional Agency Commander (RAC) which holds the responsibility for the overall command of the FFMVic resources within the region.

‘This involves working closely with District Duty Officers to put in place arrangements for high fire danger days, ensuring we have enough crews, machinery and aircraft to respond as required.

‘The role also links in with the other emergency response agencies to staff ICCs within the region.

‘Depending on the scale of the emergency, the RAC may act as the Incident Controller to initiate the first ‘attack’ at the fire or emergency event until an IMT is set up.

‘Or if the incident is escalating, and an Incident Control Centre is stood up, the RAC will be embedded into the Regional Control Team. The RAC then becomes then becomes the intermediary between districts, state and other agencies involved.’

Vanessa’s primary emergency response role is as a Mapping Officer, although she is also an accredited general firefighter (GFF).

‘Over the years, deployments as a GFF have been really important in building understanding about fire and weather behaviour, the stages of a fire event and the operational roles,’ Vanessa said.

‘It’s helpful to close the gap between field staff and the IMT so that everyone can feel more comfortable about working as a team.

‘We primarily produce operational maps to service both IMT and field crews

‘The mapping officer role is pretty cool!

‘But can be very stressful. Literally everyone from the Incident Controller to members of the public want to see a map!

‘But they want it now, and the software and networks are never as fast as we would like them to be, and computers and plotters inevitably break down at the worst possible time.’

When asked if women bring anything special to the ICC, Anna believes that having a mixed and diverse team benefits emergency management.

‘We all bring our own skills and perspectives to the table,’ Anna said.

‘As an agency we have encouraged diversity through the way we train and deploy staff.

‘One aspect is that over the past decade I have seen more staff who work part time in their substantive roles, both men and women, participate in emergency response.

‘For me personally that shift has meant that I have been able to juggle my family of 3 kids under 8 and continue to do emergency work.

‘Overall, there is a greater understanding of staff needing to balance their families, work and response.’

Being a mum and a woman, Danielle feels it has helped her been more adaptable when she is working in an ICC.

‘I feel it makes us able to adapt to many different situations and take whatever comes at us,’ Danielle said.

‘During an emergency, things can change quite quickly so we need to be able to adjust to what the current situation is.’

Vanessa feels that women often pay more attention to the communication needed between IMT units and between the IMT and field staff.

‘Women are often good at support roles because they are attentive and thoughtful to the needs of others,’ Vanessa said.

‘But of course, a healthy amount of diversity within any team can ensure a breadth of complimentary attributes.’

All 3 women have been involved in many emergencies and we asked them which event stood out the most to them, good or bad.

Anna was heavily involved in the June 2021 storms, spending several weeks at the ICC in Ferntree Gully.

‘This was the first time I had attended a storm event of this size,’ Anna said.

‘The complexity of the response that was required across various agencies, in the face of communications and internet being down, limited access to electricity, supporting vulnerable members of the community, trying to integrate State Emergency Services, FFMVic and AusNet crews, led me to appreciate how the agencies work together.’

Danielle remembers the time last season when the fire crews nearly didn’t get their expected hot evening meal due to a power outage.

‘The crews had been out fighting a fire on the Wimmera Highway just before Edenhope.

‘I had arranged for evening meals to be made and collected in Edenhope, but about 30 mins before the meals were due to be picked up (the staff from Horsham were already on the way) I received a phone call.

‘Edenhope had lost power due to the fire so had only made half of the meals!

‘I panicked for a second then jumped into gear.

‘I was able to find a supplier in Horsham who could make the rest of meals and then rounded up more staff to drop them off.’

The crew enjoyed their meal that night, not realising the work Danielle had to put in to ensure they were fed after a hard day fighting the fire.

‘Thank goodness for good relationships,’ Danielle said.

Working in an ICC isn’t an easy job at time and for Vanessa her most memorable emergency was the 2019/20 bushfires was a time of sadness and loss as it was for many Victorians.

‘For the Upper Murray District, the 2019-20 season began with a bang,’ Vanessa said.

‘17 fires started in a single afternoon within remote forested areas which kept us busy for a month before Christmas due to it being so difficult to access the areas.

‘After Christmas we were stood up for the Walwa fire that started on Boxing Day and raced across the border (the Murray River), travelling at least 80km overnight.

‘It was a surreal New Year’s Eve driving home late at night, seeing people celebrating and enjoying fireworks whilst others were sleepless in the wake of the unfolding catastrophic event.

‘Tallangatta was overrun with personnel from every government agency managing the emergency, as well as people evacuating from the affected areas and others trying to get in or desperately seeking news of loved ones who were affected.

‘Roads were closed. Communications were down.

‘Drives to the ICC each morning was filled with dreadful statistics about lost persons, property, and stock across the country, followed by repetitious announcements about which localities were currently under threat.

‘Some IMT staff had to leave at various points when their own families or properties were under threat.

‘As the summer dragged on, the sadness and loss of the season was punctuated by the deaths of several colleagues.’