It was an interest in trees, not fires that set CFA Deputy Chief Officer Alen Slijepcevic on a path that led him around the world where he is today found leading the bushfire management portfolio of one of the world’s largest volunteer fire services.
Along the way, his work has had an enormous impact on the way bushfire risk and incidents are managed in Victoria – one of the most bushfire prone regions in the world – and improved the safety and resilience of communities and the environment.
Today, those achievements are rewarded with an Australian Fire Service Medal, announced as part of the Queen’s Birthday 2021 Honours List.
“I feel very honoured for being nominated and receiving this award. I would like to thank my colleagues and friends from the global fire community that have shared their knowledge and experience with me so I could continuously learn and improve my knowledge and skills. And none of that could have happened if I didn’t have a supportive family that allow me to do what I love and who has made a lot of sacrifices along the way,” DCO Slijepcevic said.
The journey started when he enrolled for a Master of Science – Forestry at the University of Zagreb in Croatia.
“I wanted to spend my working life being outdoors and forestry was giving me that option,” DCO Slijepcevic says.
While his best friend abandoned the course after the first year and become a professional musician, DCO Slijepcevic had found his passion.
However, when the former Republic of Yugoslavia was plunged into war in the early 1990s, he and his wife decided to migrate to seek a better future for their then three-year-old son.
“We applied and received a permanent residency in New Zealand and made a move. My first job was a Fire Management Officer with Forestry Corporation.”
While in New Zealand, Alen was also working with NZ Forest Research Institute, where he met and worked with Liam Fogarty, who is now Deputy Chief Officer with Forest Fire Management Victoria.
Fogarty saw something special in the young Croat with the strong accent.
“He had a forestry science degree but didn’t have the experience of fire behaviour, especially from an Australian and New Zealand perspective, but he did an advanced fire behaviour course and came out top of the class,” he says.
“Seeing someone who was so incredibly interested in taking on new challenges and who was inquisitive and intelligent – that impressed me no end.”
The uncertain future of the New Zealand forest industry future prompted Alen to accept a permanent position with Forestry Tasmania and the family moved again.
“For seven years, I worked for an organisation full of very capable people and had opportunity to be deployed to US – on the first ever deployment of A/NZ fire managers – and to NSW, gaining different perspectives on fire management and increasing my knowledge and experience,” Alen says of his time with Forestry Tasmania.
The opportunity to work with fire managers across Australia and globally led to another offer to come to Victoria’s then-Department of Sustainability and Environment where Alen rose through the ranks from Coordinator of Statewide Hazard Management and Prescribed Burning to Assistant Chief Officer (Capability).
His knowledge, experience and leadership qualities accumulated to date would be tested when the state was devastated by the 2009 Victorian bushfires, including Black Saturday.
In the days following 7 February 2009, then-ACO Slijepcevic with two other ACOs coordinated suppression activities to ensure that DSE’s response addressed the immediate needs of communities and the natural environment as well as undertook work to ensure that Melbourne’s water catchments were not significantly impacted by bushfires.
In the coming months – and years – DCO Slijepcevic oversaw critical pieces of work that included input to the Department’s response to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (VBRC), preparing the state for the 2009-10 fire season, coordinating immediate changes recommended by the VBRC.
“There were some very tough years while I was at DSE, with several hard fire season including Black Saturday and the subsequent Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, but I was fortunate to work alongside some extremely capable people and to lead a fantastic team of dedicated individuals at a world-leading bushfire management organisation,” DCO Slijepcevic says.
Well and truly established in Victoria, Alen’s next career move was to join CFA, taking up the role as Deputy Chief Officer – Capability & Infrastructure in 2012.
“At that time, these two agencies were working much closer than in the past and I wanted to further bring us together,” he says.
Under his leadership – at both DSE and CFA – a number of resources and technologies were developed and implemented, including the automating Phoenix Rapid Fire bushfire prediction tool, the resource management and tracking systems used in the state today, the online grassland curing application and the award-winning multi-agency system eMap. He was also instrumental in developing a first nationally consistent training for Fire Behaviour Analysts (FBAN’s) and a creation of a predictive services function within the State Control Centre (SCC).
He is very proud of the work he led in developing the multi-agency IMT training packages, accreditation frameworks for level 2 and 3 roles, and Australia’s first staff ride case studies.
CFA’s Manager Incident Management Systems, Luke Heagerty, writes in his nomination of DCO Slijepcevic for the Australian Fire Services Medial that “the systems, frameworks and approaches developed across agencies by Alen and his team are incredible legacies of a challenging time for the emergency management sector”.
“The improvements to prediction of fire behaviour, the monitoring of grassland fuel conditions, the tracking of resources and our people as they respond to fires and emergencies and how all these support our incident management leaders contribute to achieving a safer Victoria,” he adds.
DCO Slijepcevic also prides himself on promoting diversity in his field; as president and chairman of the International Association of Wildland Fire Achievements he not only facilitated valuable exchanges of information and knowledge between international members of the wildfire community, he also coordinated a creation of a Fairness and Inclusion Policy and managed to increase female participation on the Board to over 40 per cent.
“I am fortunate that I have always been extremely supported by my managers and colleagues and have benefitted from people sharing their experience – that’s why I want to give back to others coming into fire management,” he said.
DCO Slijepcevic’s commitment to creating cultural, age and gender diversity has seen him create successful teams, whose members speak highly of him as a leader.
“Alen’s commitment to getting all stakeholders to work more effectively together has facilitated a more strategic and integrated approach to fire management planning. He is a leader who facilitates these difficult but important discussions in an empathetic and inclusive way,” writes Luke Heagerty.
“His leadership has facilitated improved integration and collaboration between agencies for Strategic and Tactical Operational Planning and the delivery of bushfire mitigation programs and services. There is now a cross sector vision and approach to bushfire risk mitigation, to predictive services and to the management of fires that do occur.”
The results speak for themselves; under DCO Slijepcevic’s stewardship, both with the previous DSE and with CFA, Victoria has benefitted from improved bushfire management and better interagency coordination.
As a result of the fire agencies (DELWP, Parks Victoria and CFA) now working closer together when implementing planned burning across land tenures, there has been a marked increase in CFA brigade participation and the sharing of resources, vehicles and other equipment.
While DCO Slijepcevic himself is no stranger to the practical skill of using a drip torch in the field alongside volunteer firefighters, he also still has one foot firmly in academia.
Subscribing to the motto “we need to burn to learn”, he has led his team’s research into fire behaviour, and also promotes CFA’s research into climate change and its effect on Australia’s fire seasons.
CFA Manager Research and Development, Dr Sarah Harris congratulated DCO Slijepcevic on receiving the Australian Fire Service Medial.
“Alen has been a strong advocate for research for decades, advocating the critical role science and innovation plays in ensuring emergency management is continually improving and basing decisions on evidence,” she said.
“He is highly respected internationally for his expertise, experience and contribution to fire science and his leadership in emergency management. Alen has been an amazing mentor to me and many others in the fire science community thanks to his passion and commitment to research,” she said.
Liam Fogarty agrees one of DCO Slijepcevic’s strengths is the “passion he brings to the table”.
“Alen’s passion and drive is not only around the science itself but for making sure that it gets into the hands of the people doing the job and benefit community safety,” he says.
In addition to his contribution to research and development in bushfire management in Australia and New Zealand, he actively represents CFA and participates in several joint and interagency working groups, has taken on senior leadership and governance roles within the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and with the International Association of Wildland Fire, all of which demonstrate his significant and prolonged contribution to the fire service and the interest of community safety.