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Article – Some Considerations for a Mass Casualty Situation in a Motorised Infantry Construct 

As an infantry platoon commander from Charlie Company 8th/9th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (8/9 RAR), on Exercise Hamel 2018, I conducted a mass casualty scenario as a motorised force. On reflection, I have identified four points that may help future commanders and decision makers better understand what works and what doesn’t. A caveat to this vignette is that this experience was only a training scenario. I must emphasise that this wasn’t a real operational incident and as such, this experience provides only consideration points.

Preparing for that ‘if all else fails’ moment 

The critical issue surrounding communication in a motorised infantry platoon is the heavy reliance on utilising Bushmaster protected mobility vehicle (PMV) communication equipment. Without a doubt, the communication equipment in a PMV is substantially better than hand held 152 radios in relation to signal clarity and range. But what happens when all your PMVs have been destroyed? That is the exact scenario that I was in. Although, luckily, the majority of my soldiers were dismounted, the vehicles were still rendered destroyed. This raised the first of many issues surrounding how I dealt with the mass casualty scenario. If you can’t communicate with company headquarters (CHQ) how do they even know you need a medical evacuation? After much consideration the issue was not that the PMVs had all been destroyed, but that clear standard operating procedures (SOPs) for this type of scenario had not been created. In hindsight, every platoon must clearly have, and articulate to their superiors and subordinates, an SOP for that ‘if all else fails’ moment. I didn’t, and I would recommend others to clearly identify and articulate what would work for you in this situation. One practical solution that we identified is to use pyrotechnics, like star clusters, to signal to all supporting groups that an emergency situation has emerged and assistance is urgently required. This is something that  all command teams need to consider.

Communicating quickly to CHQ in relation to casualties

When the mass casualty situation was unfolding I certainly was not aware of a quick and effective way to report the issue to CHQ. I found myself ineffective in how I reported information related to the casualties; there was a time delay between when the casualties were identified and when the radio transmission to notify a medical evacuation requirement was sent. The reason for this delay was the time it took to complete a full nine liner and AT MIST¹ for a medical evacuation, which was exacerbated by the fact that all communications between the Platoon Headquarters (PHQ)  and CHQ were lost when the PMVs were destroyed.

After some careful reflection on what I would have done differently I would recommend the following. Prior to step-off I would advise my platoon sergeant (PL SGT) and CHQ of the transmission they could expect from my call sign if casualties were sustained. The transmission would comprise of three initial components that would be sent straight to CHQ once a casualty had been identified: the number of casualties, the category of the casualties and the anticipated extraction point. If nothing else can be communicated after this key transmission then at least CHQ has enough information to commence an extraction, noting battle management system (BMS) sends locations. If I had this clearly articulated procedure I am certain that extraction would have been quicker as I could have released this abbreviated message prior to our communications being lost (this occurred soon after learning of the first group of casualties).

I am sure that some people may squirm at the idea of not sending a nine liner or AT MIST straight away. However, consideration needs to be given to establishing an initial ‘cry for help’ so that if anything happens to the PHQ communications, CHQ and battalion headquarters (BHQ) can at the very least start preparing a battlefield clearance team. In my opinion, the AT MIST and nine liners can always be transmitted, or delivered in person, later – the conditions need to be set to prepare for sending forward battlefield clearance teams to extract the wounded.

Understand and learn BMS

8 Pl clear the area after dismounting from PMVs

There is no doubt in my mind why motorised combat teams, battle groups, brigades and even higher are committed to the Army becoming a digitised force. It makes sense; the efficiencies in battle tracking, enhanced security and other aspects that make it effective are evident. The procedures that 8/9 RAR have in place in relation to BMS focus on platoon levels fighting the fight, and CHQ command post (CP) groups translating voice communication from PHQ to BMS for BHQ. In theory this means the platoon commander can command the fight while CHQ and BHQ can effectively coordinate the reports, returns, battle tracking and command via BMS. This system is effective, however whilst the platoon commander may not be involved in translating the reporting they need to understand how BMS is utilised and how each level reports; I certainly didn’t.

It seems interesting to me when you think about it. The Army is aiming to be a modern and digitised force, but why are infantry platoon commanders lacking in the knowledge of digitisation equipment and how we utilise it? There is definitely a shortfall in training junior officers on how the digitisation process works. Although there is an element of personal responsibility that could be blamed, something like “why don’t you educate yourself” (and this is fair), but after completing three years at the Australian Defence Force Academy, up to 18 months at the Royal Military College Duntroon (RMC-D) and then three months at the School of Infantry, why is it that the first time an infantry officer touches a BMS terminal, let alone learns about BMS, is at a battalion? Officers are consistently taught about radio communications so why not digitisation? – both radio and BMS are two key capabilities in any infantry battalion. We are expecting platoon commanders to learn on the fly, and that we will receive the training once we have joined a regiment. But is that the best way to do it? What happens when they reach captain and BMS procedures become even more critical? It seems simple to me; every infantry officer goes through the school but not everyone is going to have the same level of exposure or training outcomes in a battalion. Therefore I think the School of Infantry needs to take the lead in training infantry officers as part of their regimental officer basic course.

Separate command nets

Consistent issues seem to occur when combat teams conduct scenarios utilising the command net: which call sign has the priority on the net and how much information does the officer commanding want. These issues will always vary depending on the situation and individual commander requirements. However I can never understand why there is only one net available that is required to be used by the officers in a combat team to conduct the operation as well as the PL SGT and company sergeant major (CSM) to provide reports and returns. I firmly believe when dealing with a mass casualty situation that our company needs a second channel for administration. This would free up the command net for myself to communicate with the officer commanding and maintain battle momentum whilst enabling the PL SGT to concurrently coordinate with the CSM to ensure the battlefield clearance team are sent forward.

In my opinion it should be a standard operating procedure that all company level operations have two channels, one for commanders and one for senior NCOs. It makes sense and it’s more efficient. It also works in well with digitisation as it means that whilst the command group is communicating, the CSM can receive administrative requirements without impeding the fight at hand (and can translate the PL SGT’s transmission onto BMS for the RSM and BHQ). It also creates a clear delineation and gives PL SGTs better situational awareness to be able to advise platoon commanders on administration requirements.

About the author: Hayden Murphy is posted to the 8th/9th Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment where he is employed as a Platoon Commander within a Motorised Infantry Company. He has a Bachelor of Business and is in his second year out of RMC-D.

Age of casualty
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5 thoughts on “Article – Some Considerations for a Mass Casualty Situation in a Motorised Infantry Construct 

  1. Hayden,

    Brilliant article. Your level of self reflection and recommendations should be commended and seriously considered. As part of the talkin support of you guys getting the job done, combat health aims to be a force multiplier not a constraint on your freedom of action. As you have highlighted though a large component of the friction of getting soldiers to care is actually not health related at all. The basics of rehearsal, considerations of critical information exchange and in particular comms architecture that enable the continuation of the fight concurrently with medical and sustainment considerations are all critical to building a robust system to give soldiers the best chance of survival on their worst day.
    Well done again.

  2. Terrific contribution Hayden – thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and reflections on this critical area via The Cove. We have a number of bodies of work underway to address some of the issues you’ve raised. For example, we are currently executing a plan to roll out BMS more broadly across our training centers, including RMC, to ensure greater digital literacy across Army. We’re also undertaking a complete review of our TCCC and CASEVAC procedures between now and the end of Talisman Saber next year.
    8/9 RAR has made a terrific contribution to moving Army’s capability forward this year – thanks for adding your shoulder to the wheel with this terrific contribution.

  3. Excellent article Hayden. The lucid self-reflection is refreshing and a strength. Good to see. The desire to learn, in-part through self reflection, is one of if not the most important quality an officer requires to be effective. The Unit should be ensuring that its subordinate C/S are assured communications coverage through whatever appropriate means (retrans), and this includes dismounts. The onus on the subordinate C/S likewise. A subordinate C/S not reporting in on a sched should also be red flag for any well drilled Unit HQ. Great point on the digital training environment. Your astute observation here brings into the question the efficacy of past decisions made to exclude training institutions from the capability acquisition plan (no doubt on the basis of budget, yet the point stands). The SOI – or even better CATC with SOI co-located – should be exposing trainees to all that they will encounter in the unit, in battle, in every phase of war. The point you raise about comms as the critical point of failure is fundamental, and even recent history is replete with C/S that got themselves in deep guano because communications weren’t assured, or redundancies were not sufficiently considered. Fortunately, you have had the opportunity to have that lesson learned in training, just ensure you teach your subordinates the same, and apply it on operations.

  4. Sir,

    I think your self-reflection is good overall, and don’t mean to detract from that by discussing the criticism I have with not sending a 9 liner.

    First, the 9 liner is standard across not only AS forces but a lot of our coalition partners, which makes it preferable if only for interoperability. But the fact of the matter is, the 9 liner is the most efficient way to transmit all the information that is needed for a good CASEVAC, specially in a mascas scenario where it’s not repeating information to list the casualties by different criteria. And once you practice it a few times you can do it extremely quickly – 9 lines equate to about thirty syllables plus whatever extra info you were going to have to send anyway.

  5. Hayden, great article and I echo BRIG James comments on your level of self reflection.

    One element that I’d like to pass comment for commanders and command post personnel is the AT MIST / 9-Liner. The person under the most duress in the passing of this information is the commander of the C/S that has just been hit. In this situation, you’ve had PMV’s taken out, are probably trying to get a clear understanding of the situation, how many casualties, etc and all of the other required information. While we train for the C/S commander/radio operator to pass this information, the stress of the occurrence and the possibiltiy/probability that a contact is still in progress can often mean the perfect ATMIST or 9-Liner is unlikely.

    On the other hand the next higher HQ receiving information, is likely seated in a CP, well lit and not being engaged by OPFOR. It is beneficial to train the operators in this environment to “triage” the incoming infomation. This may be as simple as having a laminated template and capturing information as it flows in or prompting the C/S passing information for any missing element. Where is this done well the higher HQ operator makes this information capture more efficient and can also give the C/S on the ground the feeling of being supported. Two very good outcomes in a highly demanding situation.

    I have seen and supported this practice in the past (in training) and seen the outcome lead to improved response times and lowering the stress on the subordinate C/S. I would encourage CP operators and commanders to consider these points in training their HQ/CP, to support the C/S under duress, as this will not only address the issue at hand, but likely have the effect of improving the next occurrence.

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