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Mentors offer a helping hand in emergency biosecurity incidents

17 May

National Biosecurity Response Team (NBRT) members are not only extra personnel that can assist in an emergency response— each member carries with them significant previous experience in responding to biosecurity incidents, which can significantly boost the capability of a team to which they are deployed. Within the NBRT, the members of the Mentor cohort are among our most experienced responders and have put their hands up to be deployed to guide other teams and build capability across not just the NBRT itself, but among all biosecurity emergency responders.

One such Mentor, Kirsten Phillips from the Queensland Government Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, was deployed in 2020 to the avian influenza response in Victoria. With the obvious exception of the Operations team undertaking field work and surveillance, this response was conducted almost entirely virtually as a result of the concurrent COVID-19 outbreak in that state which saw Victorians placed under the toughest human health restrictions enacted in Australia in living memory.

For Kirsten, who has previously been deployed in the Public Information function during the Hendra virus, Panama disease, red witch weed and white spot disease responses throughout Queensland, this was an opportunity to tick off three ‘firsts’ in her emergency response career — first deployment as a Mentor, first interstate deployment, and first deployment to a virtual control centre.

“The Victorian team did an exceptional job in very trying circumstances, and the team was really welcoming,” Kirsten said.

“Dealing with a response at the best of times is challenging, but dealing with a major outbreak during a pandemic is extraordinarily difficult.”

As a Mentor, Kirsten’s role was to assist the Public Information manager in the first instance, but also provide support to the rest of the team in the form of feedback and advice on the approach to communicating key information coming out of the decentralised control centre.

Fellow NBRT member Nicole Cairns of Agriculture Victoria, who was herself deployed to the avian influenza response to assist with Public Information, said that it was incredibly valuable to have an NBRT Mentor join the team.

“Kirsten brought a wealth of experience and learnings to share with Victoria, and played an important role in bouncing ideas, checking processes and identifying opportunities for improvement,” Nicole said.

Nicole explained that the Public Information function had to be a lot more creative for outputs, particularly community engagement, in order to work around restrictions and break through the noise of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown.

“Although this was a challenge, it was also really rewarding when we had some great wins in getting the community aware and involved,” she said.

“Engagement of stakeholders out in the field is obviously more difficult in a virtual environment, as there could be no door knocking neighbours, no community information stands in hot spots etc., which means you are much more reliant on the social media space,” Kirsten added.

“With the COVID-19 situation ongoing in Victoria it was also really difficult to get uptake of any other messages in the media and online.”

Despite these challenges, a positive for Kirsten was the ease of engagement and greater access to industry partners using newer tools such a video conferencing, which most people became much more familiar with during the COVID lockdown.

“Stakeholders are more accessible, and meetings, particularly with peak bodies, are more useful online,” she explained.

“You have attendance lists easily viewable on the screen, options to record video and audio, and the chat function and raised hands gives everyone a say, meaning the engagement is easier to manage and more accessible than traditional F2F or teleconference.”

“This response also highlighted for me the importance of how we work with and engage industry in incidents — the Liaison – Livestock Industry role worked exceptionally well and a big part of that has been the investment made by AHA and jurisdictions in training both around incident awareness and scenario-based training.”

Nicole also noted that remote working, while sometimes challenging, allowed the team to draw upon people, Kirsten included, who they might not have had access to otherwise.

A key challenge when working in a virtual environment, however, was combatting what Kirsten calls the ‘response bubble’, referring to the difficulties of working towards a goal with minimal input from those outside the team.

“In any response it is also easy to fall back into a ‘business as usual’ mindset but I think even more so when working virtually, where you aren’t sitting and working together with your team or the other functional areas” Kirsten explained.

“My experience was that the virtual environment created even more of a bubble than in a physical coordination centre, and my Mentor role was even more important in this response to have that touch point outside the response.”

Overall, Kirsten noted her involvement with the response as a really positive experience.

“Mentor appointments aren’t a reflection on the experience or skills of the person or team they are appointed to mentor. Instead, they provide an experienced sounding board and broader support network outside the immediate response to help guide staff to achieve better outcomes,” she said.

“I was able to provide the Victorian team with a range of resources, connections and suggested adjustments to improve their public information delivery.”

“In return, I have learned from their experience and have been able to feed some of those learnings back into our national approaches to make improvements to our public information resources that all jurisdictions can use.”

Nicole agreed, adding that having a Mentor was extremely beneficial.

“It doesn’t matter how seasoned or experienced your team is – there is always more to learn and great value in listening to someone else’s experiences and how you can apply that to your response.”

For more information about the NBRT, click here.