The state coroner has concluded no one factor was to blame for the death of an Albany firefighter in October 2012.
Wendy Bearfoot, 45, died from her burns weeks after a firestorm engulfed her Department of Environment and Conservation fire truck during a blaze at Two People’s Bay, east of Albany.
In her report, coroner Sarah Linton drew attention to, but did not totally blame, a failure by Albany’s then-deputy chief bushfire control officer Kenneth Johnson to communicate a significant wind change to firefighters, as a contributor to the death.
The report found a lack of vehicle protection and proper training for personnel also contributed to Ms Bearfoot’s death.
“It arguably began when Mr Johnson overlooked the important wind change information on the spot forecast,” Ms Linton said.
“But there were many opportunities before [the incident] for others to identify that this information had been missed and take appropriate action.”
The coroner found personnel were allowed to be in an area of unburnt ground without wearing full protective clothing, and comprehensive training had not been carried out.
“It was always acknowledged that wind changes could occur at any time, and result in these personnel being in the dead man zone,” Ms Linton said.
“Training for a burn-over situation was also important, and not done as comprehensively as it could have been.”
Concerns for training and vehicle protection
Ms Linton holds concerns that five years on from the incident, there is still a lack of significant fire vehicle protection compared to other states.
“I urge the Department of Fire and Emergency Services to prioritise the upgrading of all of the DFES fire appliances fleet, not just in Albany, on an urgent basis,” she said.
The report found that while 38 per cent of vehicles had been upgraded to include heat shields and vehicle dousing equipment, the remaining 62 per cent were yet to be complete, five years later.
Ms Linton said it was disturbing that a volunteer firefighter who was involved in the incident still had access to a vehicle that had not yet been upgraded.
“I assume that must be one of the vehicles that is due to be soon replaced,” she said.
David Wettenhall was a crew leader for South Coast Volunteer Bushfire Brigade when the fire hit.
He said while changes had been implemented, there was still some way to go.
“During the inquest it was indicated that the vehicle we had at that fire was to be replaced in February this year, and that still hasn’t occurred,” he said.
“There are other upgrades that could take place, that are done in the other states.
“The technology in our trucks isn’t up to that standard as yet.”
City continuing to upgrade fleet
The City of Albany has made upgrades to its radio equipment in response to the incident.
City of Albany chief executive Andrew Sharpe said lessons had been learnt from the tragedy, and the city was continuing to upgrade its firefighting fleet.
“The city has worked tirelessly to improve safety for its volunteer firefighters, and we will continue to work closely with other agencies to implement best practice procedures and provide state of the art appliances,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Parks and Wildlife said significant changes had been implemented since Ms Bearfoot’s death.
“The loss of colleague Wendy Bearfoot and the injury to four other department firefighters in the line of duty was a tragedy, and Parks and Wildlife continues to take all the necessary precautions it can to ensure staff safety,” the spokesperson said.
“[The department] has worked with WorkSafe to make substantial improvements including the installation of vehicle water deluge systems, shielding of critical wiring and other vehicle components, and installation of radiant heat shields to all vehicle windows across its entire fleet of heavy fire trucks.
“The mandatory pre-bushfire season training program for all staff involved in bushfire suppression has also been overhauled.”
Praise for brave firefighters
The coroner commended the bravery of Ms Bearfoot.
“Such duties were part of her employment, but it still requires bravery and commitment to the service of others to do what she did,” she said.
Mr Sharpe said Ms Bearfoot’s death had an enormous impact on the community.
“This inquest was an incredibly difficult time for Wendy’s family, her fellow firefighters and everyone involved at Black Cat Creek. It affected a lot of people in our community,” he said.
“The actions of those at Black Cat Creek that day to rescue and help their injured colleagues was incredibly heroic.”
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services has been contacted for comment regarding fleet upgrades.
ABC Great Southern | Benjamin Gubana