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Viki Campbell. Viki Campbell.
19 February 2020 Posted by 

When fire breaks on the Coast, it's WAR for Viki

DALLAS SHERRINGHAM
WHEN a big bushfire breaks out on the Central Coast it is like fighting a full-scale war for Viki Campbell.

You see, Viki is the Superintendent for the Central Coast Rural Fire Service District and is in charge of ensuring our lives, businesses and homes are as safe as possible from the firestorms.
 
And as the 2020 Australia Day Ambassador for the Central Coast, she is the perfect person for the role during the worst bushfire season ever seen on Australia’s east coast.
 
Viki’s tireless work in the emergency response field includes the role of Incident Controller for the 2019-20 bush fire emergency on the Coast, an appointment by the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner.
 
She is currently responsible for the overall coordination of RFS firefighting capability and bush fire risk Management across the Central Coast and Lake Macquarie Local Government Area’s. This incorporates 57 brigades, 20 staff and more 2300 volunteer members.
 
This week I visited the Coast Headquarters at Charmhaven and Viki gave me a personal insight into what it takes to quell the big, life threatening outbreaks in one of the nation’s most fire prone regions.
 
The HQ is basically split into two big rooms – one for planning and capturing information the other for enacting the fire plan and operations, including plotting the locations and coordinating the work of ground crews and aircraft.
 
Viki explained the whole area was known as the Incident Control Centre (ICC).
 
“The planning and logistics cells are separated from the noise and general busy atmosphere of the operations cell within the ICC,” she said.
 
Planning has big video displays for satellite images and video feeds and large desks to display intricate fire maps and devise the plan of attack- and defense.
 
The operations room reminded me very much of a World War 2 air plotting facility, but with computers.
 
Every brigade has its own tag that is plotted on the display in front of the operations staff. The room is continually monitoring the progress of brigades and the fire and also monitors social media and public feedback.
 
Social Media
 
Viki said social media posts on fires could give a good guide to where the fire was impacting including flash fires caused by airborne live ashes.
 
As Incident Controller, she has her own office which overlooks the operations room.
 
“I am continually moving in between the two rooms; it gets a bit hectic in here when everyone is hard at it,” she said.
 
Viki said up to 30 people could be involved in fighting a fire at HQ. “When the alarm goes people suddenly turn up from all over the Coast.”
 
It is Viki’s job to co-ordinate and manage them all as the fire fight progresses. The staff work in shifts and some are volunteers and some paid staff.
 
“Some people have worked a straight 24-hour shift at times when we are busy,” she said.
 
However, the battle against the fire is just part of the operation. Representatives from organisations like Forestry, Traffic, the Police, SES and ambulance have their own position in adjacent offices with views over the ops room.
 
“We might have the block a main road, close the railway or door knock residents,” she said.
 
Then there are staff monitoring social media, answering phones and radios and liaising with the media.
 
“The media play an important role in getting the message out to areas in danger,” she said.
 
Viki took me through a fascinating rundown of the major fires and how they were fought in our region during the terrible summer of 2019-2020. These included the massive Gosper’s Mountain blaze; the Three Mile Fire and two outbreaks close to home.
 
On New Years Eve, a fire started on the north side of Wallarah Creek, jumped the waterway and, fanned by north east winds, heading straight for the HQ in Arizona Rd.
 
Suddenly Viki and the Coast were right on the firefront, with homes and businesses in the Woongarah, Blue Bay and Charmhaven in imminent danger.
 
As 150 firefighters battled the blaze on the ground, a fleet of eight aircraft and helicopters bombarded the fire and the areas in its path. The bighitting737 was called in along with Hercules as the northern Central Coast watched on in awe and in fear of losing everything.
 
Battle Won
 
Viki said the anticipated Southerly Buster hit at 8.30pm, sending the fire heading north across the Motorway Link Road to the Main Northern Railway and southern Wyee. As the wind died down late on New Year’s morning, the battle was won.
 
Just another exciting but terrifying night in the life of Viki and her band of brave volunteers on the ground and in the air.
In quiet times, she still has a lot of work to do, watching the weather, organizing and running backburns and arranging staffing.
 
On one wall of the operations room I noticed a wall full of touching, heartfelt messages and cards from the public and children thanking the staff for their work.
 
“The public is so wonderful to us and makes our job that much more enjoyable and important,” she said.
 
Her service within emergency response organisations has spanned 30 years with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and NSW Ambulance.
 
Viki started with the NSW Rural Fire Service initially as a volunteer in 1990 and then as a staff member in 2015. She has extensive operational experience in firefighting including field operations, Incident Management and air attack coordination.
 
She has been to the USA studying the use of aircraft in fighting fires. “Our fire management systems are compatible worldwide,” Viki said. This meant firefighters from the USA, Canada or Australia can be moved quickly to fires overseas and are able to fit straight into their operations, she explained.
 
Viki holds a Bachelor of Health Science (pre‐hospital care), Bachelor of Nursing, and a Graduate Certificate in Emergency Management. Viki has also completed the Strategic Leadership Program at the Australian Institute of Police Management.
 
A strong advocate of volunteering, Viki also volunteers with the caves rescue squad where she holds the position of President.
 
This leads to my next question: hobbies and sports?
 
“When I’m not fighting fires, I relax by going canyoning or bushwalking,” she said with a wry smile.
 
But when she REALLY wants to relax, she enjoys boating on the Hawkesbury with husband John, himself a volunteer fire fighter and her teenage boys Mitchell 15 and Christopher 13 on their family boat.
 
They live at Brooklyn but spend a lot of time on the Coast.
 
Viki grew up in Manly and is a long-time Sea Eagles fan and has her fingers crossed for a great 2020 NRL campaign.
 
The Coast and its businesses and residents owe a huge debt of gratitude to Viki’s team and the men and women who go out to battle the infernos, not knowing if they will ever come home.
 
Thank you from us all.


editor

Michael Walls
Publisher
P: 0407 783 413
E: Michael@accessnews.com.au

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