One of the reasons the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades (AVBFB) is so strong on the need for the end user (volunteers) to be involved in planning BEFORE top-down decisions are made is what has become known as the “Cobra Effect”.
While you might not have heard it called that, unfortunately, we are certain the vast majority of our members have experienced the phenomenon first hand.
The effect got its name after the British Government, concerned about the number of venomous snakes in India, decided to offer a bounty for dead Cobras. Initially it worked and thousands of lifeless snakes were exchanged for cash. However, when the natural reptile population thinned out, many people started breeding them so they could continue to get the reward and feed their families. When the Government learner about this, it made yet another top-down, ill-fated decision to simply stop offering the bounty and guess what? Those who were breeding the now worthless Cobras released them into the wild and the end result was pretty much the status quo – bloody scary snakes slithering around the neighbourhood!
It happens all the time – when well-intentioned people rush in to “solve” a problem without local, end-user input, they sometimes unwittingly create another problem of equal or more severe consequence.
And so is the case with crew protection in fire vehicles in Western Australia.
Clearly no one has a problem with the idea of adding deluge systems and fire curtains to trucks to try to protect crews in a burnover situation, but the process of retro-fitting the fleet might have been less problematic if more end users were involved in the design and installation of the various systems.
We’ve had examples of trucks with relatively small water tanks having their fire fighting capacity reduced to barely nothing because most of the water in the tank had been quarantined for the exclusive use of the cabin deluge system – good to have crew protection guaranteed, but if the appliance doesn’t have any water to fight fire, why would the truck be on a fireground in the first place?
And we’ve also helped a few brigades that have had their trucks returned from the workshop with fire curtains installed on the windshield in such a way that the driver could barely see anything other than the road immediately in front of the vehicle.
But this week we saw a local brigade come up with an innovative work around to the Cobra Effect that gave them a fire curtain the permanently covered the back window of their 2.4.
As a non-operational civilian with a HR driver’s licence, my first response to hearing that the fire curtain has blocked rear window visibility was “so what?”. In my experience driving heavy vehicles, many have either no back window or even a sleeper cab that blocks the clear kind of rear view you get in most ordinary cars.
But after listening to the end user for 2 minutes, it became pretty clear that bush fire vehicles aren’t milk trucks and having visibility of the back of a 2.4 is pretty darn important.
It was explained that when you are driving down a bumpy bush track with your only colleague standing on the back of the truck trying to hold on and aim a high pressure hose at the flames licking the side of the vehicle, you need to be able to see that person to ensure they haven’t fallen over or worse, off the truck entirely.
So if an end user had been engaged – and we mean properly consulted – before the decision was taken to permanently cover the back window of the truck in pursuit of crew protection, this new threat to crew safety would have been avoided.
Nevertheless, this article is about the innovative solution the Brigade has developed. While it’s not as foolproof as a window and would probably be one of the first things on the vehicle to melt in a high heat situation, the installation of a small camera on the back of the truck and monitor inside the cab gives the driver functional visibility of any crew on the back without compromising the protection offered by the fire curtains.
We say thank you to the brigade involved for sharing your idea and strongly encourage any other brigades that have similar challenges to make contact with the AVBFB. We would be very keen to hear of any challenges you face as a result of the Cobra Effect and very happily go into bat for you to access ESL funding for the work-around you need to implement to compensate.