Four months since bushfires ripped through Tathra on the New South Wales far south coast, an independent review has found “palpable animosity” between the state’s firefighting organisations and called for urgent reform.
The inquiry observed that friction between members of Fire and Rescue (FRNSW) and the Rural Fire Service (RFS) meant “the common enemy of fires is sometimes overlooked”.
Sixty-five homes, 70 caravans and 1,250 hectares were destroyed in the fire that broke out on March 18.
The review found that communication problems between triple zero, Fire and Rescue and RFS were flawed and meant firefighting agencies were “flying blind for a period of time”.
Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who headed the inquiry, said awareness of the location of operational resources “clearly needs to be improved”.
Mr Keelty also found that the RFS declined offers of help from FRNSW twice in the first hour of the fires, probably “without full situational awareness of the intensity and speed of the fire”.
FRNSW ended up overruling this and deployed resources which the report said was very useful for the overall protection of homes but meant that the RFS did not have a full picture of the total firefighting effort.
The Fire and Rescue communications centre was taking a large number of repeat triple-0 calls from people reporting the fire in different locations or seeking advice as to whether or not they should stay or leave their homes, but the report found the centre was not being given updates fast enough partly due to the fast moving nature of the fires.
This led to delays in updating the Fires Near Me app, which remained ‘advice only’ for the bulk of the time that the fire was raging.
The ABC did not switch to broadcasting emergency updates, which are useful when mobile and internet services are not available.
NSW ‘falling behind’ in bushfire emergency response
The inquiry found that disputes between the two firefighting agencies has resulted in New South Wales falling behind other states in its emergency response to bushfires.
There are processes to prevent demarcation disputes between the two fire agencies but the inquiry found they were not working.
It was told of a number of instances of Fire and Rescue or the RFS undermining the arrangements by refusing assistance or self-deploying.
The report said NSW residents do not face the same problems when they call the police, ambulance or the State Emergency Service.
Red tape over jurisdiction decisions ‘must be cut’
The review recommended the Rural Fire Service immediately move to install Automatic Vehicle Location devices in its vehicles, and during that time, the nearest and quickest fire appliance with appropriate capability – whether it be FRNSW or RFS – should attend to any fire.
The report said the emergency management organisations should look towards adopting a common operating picture using technology that is interoperable between them, which would mean that tools such as the Fires Near Me app and social media could become a single source of truth for members of the public.
The inquiry advised that a strategic and long-term solution needed to be found that would see each of the agencies working side by side in a civilianised call and dispatch centre.
It also recommended a designated role be given to a person authorised to dispatch units to an emergency, which transcends individual agency chain of command arrangements.
The report found there was too much red tape involved in deciding which agency took jurisdiction over a fire, and that must be cut.
In all, the review made 12 recommendations, including that the fire agencies should adopt a call and dispatch model similar to that of the New South Wales Ambulance Service.
It said the State Government should establish fully integrated call and dispatch centre, including a redundancy option outside of the Sydney CBD which should be managed by a non-uniformed public servant.
Until that single call centre is established, the review recommended that the Fire and Rescue Communications Centre was “civilianised” and someone from the RFS should be there every day.
The recommendations also include abolishing “fire boundaries” which cause jurisdictional disputes between the Fire and Rescue New South Wales and ensuring both agencies should be represented at major briefings or media conferences.
The review said the Government should consider embedding an ABC Manager, not a journalist, into the RFS headquarters during emergencies to broadcast warnings to the community.
The New South Wales Government has committed to implementing all 12 recommendations and said some had already been enacted.
“There will be no knockback of calls for assistance from either agencies to fires, secondly that there are officers represented in each agency to ensure that the communication flow is better,” said Emergency Services Minister, Troy Grant.
He said he was disappointed in the discord between the RFS and Fire and Rescue highlighted by the inquiry but he believes the issues are contained to middle management.
“My experience is the executive level work very well together and get on very well and as demonstrated down in Tathra and right across the state everywhere I witness is the troops on the ground the front line also get on well,” he said.
By Meredith Griffiths