How we failed bush fireys


Vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers who fought this sea­son’s his­toric bush­fires were sent to fire­fronts with out­dated trucks and per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment, at-times poor ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions and sub­stan­dard tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties, de­spite mul­ti­ple re­views rec­om­mend­ing urgent up­grades.

Around the coun­try — from NSW to Queens­land, Vic­to­ria to South Aus­tralia — vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers con­tended with trucks that lacked the lat­est emergency sprin­kler sys­tems and heatre­sis­tant ma­te­ri­als, or did not have roll bars and pro­tec­tion against fall­ing tree branches.

The Week­end Aus­tralian can re­veal that a fund­ing plea from the NSW Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice to upgrade thou­sands of di­lap­i­dated and out­dated trucks has been sit­ting idle with the NSW gov­ern­ment for months while vol­un­teers have been bat­tling the fires.

Af­ter the fire danger was fi­nally de­clared un­der con­trol this week, at­ten­tion has shifted to a range of in­de­pen­dent au­dits of equip­ment and re­sponses across the coun­try.

Al­ready com­ing to light are a litany of short­falls, with or­gan­i­sa­tions run­ning on a shoe­string at times, of­ten ham­pered by a lack of re­sources al­ready in use by ri­val and paid fire­fight­ing ser­vices.

From tin-shed sta­tions in ru­ral ham­lets to in­land brigades in wealthy council dis­tricts, many vol­un­teers made do with trucks not equipped for the ex­treme con­di­tions. Some in NSW and South Aus­tralia lacked ad­vanced emergency wa­ter­ing sys­tems to keep tyres from melt­ing and bat­ter­ies from fail­ing, ac­cord­ing to nu­mer­ous sources. Some trucks were deployed with­out heat-re­sis­tant ma­te­rial along brake lines, or foil cur­tains for windows, and other ba­sic ap­pa­ra­tus such as self-wind­ing hoses.

A business case sub­mit­ted to NSW Emergency Ser­vices Min­is­ter David El­liott last year out­lined ex­ten­sive de­fi­cien­cies with the NSW RFS fleet of 3820 tankers, The Week­end Aus­tralian can re­veal. Fund­ing for the ex­ist­ing tankers had been due to ex­pire last year; an of­fi­cial said this was the cat­a­lyst for the business case to be con­ducted. The doc­u­ment took is­sue not with the num­ber of trucks in the fleet, but with the qual­ity of the ve­hi­cles, some of which were nearly 30 years old.

The most out­dated were be­ing used in ru­ral lo­ca­tions that bore the brunt of the fires.

Brian McDonough, pres­i­dent of the NSW Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice As­so­ci­a­tion, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive body for 70,000 reg­is­tered vol­un­teers, said: “With cur­rent ex­pen­di­ture we can’t re­place them quick enough. Some of the trucks are over 25 years old and there­fore the pro­tec­tion and tech­nol­ogy is not the same as the trucks that are less than four or five years old.”

Mr El­liott’s of­fice con­firmed a business case had been sub­mit­ted “as part of the bud­get process for the next fi­nan­cial year and will be con­sid­ered”.

Vic­to­rian fire­fight­ing au­thor­i­ties have iden­ti­fied sim­i­lar short­falls with their an­ti­quated tanker fleet, con­sid­ered by vol­un­teers to be the old­est in the coun­try. In South Aus­tralia, heat cur­tains and sprin­kler sys­tems are not stan­dard in fire­fight­ing ve­hi­cles.

In­ad­e­qua­cies with the NSW

RFS truck fleet, while sig­nif­i­cant, are a mere glimpse into the short­falls that con­fronted those who fought the fires this sea­son. Sub­par breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus, an­ti­quated IT sys­tems, an in­abil­ity to lo­cate trucks in the field, and a short­age of Black­hawk he­li­copters for shut­tling fire­fight­ers to bat­tle­grounds have been iden­ti­fied as ar­eas in need of at­ten­tion.

The RFS hands out P2 masks to all vol­un­teers but these have been crit­i­cised for only keep­ing out par­tic­u­late mat­ter, not gas or smoke. Fa­cial hair can also af­fect whether these masks re­main sealed.

At Hors­ley Park RFS brigade, some fire­fight­ers paid for their own breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus due to their con­cerns with the ef­fi­cacy of P2 masks. Oth­ers crowd­sourced the money and were chided by man­age­ment. “We are con­cerned that mem­bers may be es­tab­lish­ing these (crowd­fund­ing pages) with­out the ap­pro­pri­ate au­thor­ity of their Brigade and District Man­ager,” said an RFS note dated De­cem­ber 12, 2019, and signed by deputy com­mis­sioner Rob Rogers.

The NSW RFS re­sponded in a state­ment that an im­mi­nent au­dit of safety equip­ment would ad­dress con­cerns with tankers, masks and other per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment. A par­al­lel in­quiry launched by Premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian last month has be­gun and is ex­pected to look at equip­ment fail­ures and other as­pects of the fires, in­clud­ing the short­age of vol­un­teers.

Sim­i­lar vol­un­teer short­ages were known to have been ex­pe­ri­enced in Vic­to­ria, where the to­tal of 34,380 op­er­a­tional vol­un­teers was said to be among the low­est seen on a per-capita ba­sis. In NSW, trucks were left idle in some in­stances be­cause they could not be staffed by the req­ui­site num­ber of vol­un­teers.

As of last year, the RFS had 71,801 reg­is­tered vol­un­teers, ac­cord­ing to its an­nual report, but fig­ures ob­tained by The Week­end Aus­tralian re­vealed that only 20,199 of its mem­bers at­tended an in­ci­dent that year.

One rea­son for this de­cline is at­trib­uted to coun­try towns los­ing their pop­u­la­tions to the cities, a fact high­lighted in the 2018 review of the NSW Bega Val­ley fires, which de­stroyed 65 homes.

NSW Vol­un­teer Fire Fight­ers As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Mick Holton said: “They need people; they don’t have enough people. We had plenty of cases where there were more trucks than people.”

Such short­ages led to vol­un­teers work­ing with­out rest. Ve­hi­cles crashed, tem­per flared, morale ran low at times. Hugh McDer­mott, a La­bor MP and vol­un­teer fire­fighter at Hors­ley Park RFS brigade, said: “They couldn’t get enough driv­ers be­cause people were con­stantly un­der the pump. Ev­ery­one’s a vol­un­teer but they have work com­mit­ments — people just couldn’t take ev­ery sin­gle day off for months.”

The RFS said in a state­ment it was not aware of such in­stances.

An­other crit­i­cal short­fall that is likely to be­come a fo­cal point for in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors is the on­go­ing lack of au­to­matic ve­hi­cle lo­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy, which would have al­lowed RFS com­man­ders to pin­point ve­hi­cles on a screen. Cur­rently this is not pos­si­ble, even though it was rec­om­mended by the Bega Val­ley fires review.


Shane Leahy with his dog Ash in front of the re­mains of his home lost in the Kan­ga­roo Is­land bush­fires in Jan­uary

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