Why We Need a Rural Fire Service
Why is the Government running scared of providing us the type of Fire Service that those living outside the Perth area and major country towns deserve?
Western Australia used to have an effective rural fire service. It was called the Bush Fires Board. It was a small organisation, with a staff of about 30, that effectively supported the implementation of the Bush Fires Act on private land through local government, as well organising fuel reduction and firebreaks on vacant crown land on behalf of the then Department of lands and Surveys. It also provided a fire advisory service to developers of Rural Zone Subdivisions.
The BFB comprised a Board of Directors as well as a small number of professional staff. The members of the Board were representatives of Local Government, major government agencies and the Insurance Industry. It was primarily a policy body, but it played a critical role in planning, coordinating the fire mitigation activities of Government agencies, local government and volunteer Bush Firefighters. BFB staff were engaged in training volunteer bush fire brigades and providing a resource to rural Shires to ensure that they carried out their obligations to rural fire safety. Staff also played a critical role in setting up and overseeing fuel reduction operations in high fire risk areas. This cheap and effective system worked well for over 30 years.
All this changed when the State Government, in an ill-advised decision ( ignoring the adage, “ If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”!) , disbanded the BFB and handed responsibility for rural fire management to a new organisation called the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA). FESA was dominated by uniformed firemen who came from the urban fire fighting background and mindset, and had little experience in dealing with rural bushfire management, or coordinating operations with volunteers.
This had three main effects:
* an increased focus on suppressing fires after they started, rather than investing in prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation;
* giving priority to evacuation, rather to bushfire defence; and
* making massive investment in very expensive firefighting technology and equipment, for example, water bombing aircraft that are practically useless in the suppression of intense bushfires.
FESA was a highly centralised, independent agency that had limited oversight from government. Moreover, its structure and philosophies became heavily influenced by the United Firefighters Union. FESA was later modified to make it more like a government agency following poor showings in the Roleystone and Toodyay bushfires and was renamed the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES). It remained a highly centralised, urban-centric organisation, focussed on suppression, rather than prevention.
The relations between FESA/DFES and volunteer bush fire brigades have been mixed. On the one hand, by virtue of access to large amounts of funding through the ESL, DFES has greatly improved vollies’ equipment and communications. At the same time, their approach has often been elitist, with the characterisation of their own staff as “professionals” and the volunteers as “amateurs”.
Worst of all, over most of its life, DFES has failed to foster or encourage fuel reduction burning, and has even, in some cases, obstructed volunteers from carrying out fuel reduction burns. As the then-Commissioner of DFES put it: “We are an emergency response agency, not a bushfire management agency”.
The deficiencies of the DFES approach became evident during the 2015 Esperance, Boddington and Northcliffe bushfires and the disaster at Yarloop. The lack of senior staff with rural fire management experience, and the inappropriateness to trying to control a bushfire 500 km away from a central control room in Jandakot meant a very poor showing by the agency.
It is vital that management of a bushfire situation is locally based, where those involved have good knowledge of local conditions and weather patterns. A good example of how this should be done was the experience of the former Forests Department during the fires generated by the passage of Cyclone Alby in 1978. On the day that Alby struck the south west region, the agency was faced with 65 separate bushfires. All were successfully managed by regionally based teams and no major damage resulted. It was a classic demonstration of the effectiveness of decentralised organisation and of the value of large scale fuel reduction burning.
In the wake of the 2016 Yarloop disaster, the Government finally realised that the current system was failing and appointed an experienced bushfire expert, Euan Ferguson from Victoria, to carry out a review of the situation. Ferguson’s report of April 2016 was a watershed in WA’s bushfire history. The review is comprehensive, practical and intelligent. Numerous recommendations were made for improvement to the fire management system in WA.
One of Ferguson’s main recommendations was the need for a rural fire service that would take responsibility for the sector away from DFES. Since April 2016 some progress has been made with the implementation of some of Ferguson’s recommendations, but the creation of a Rural Fire Service has stalled. There are rumours that the proposal is opposed by DFES and the United Firefighter’s Union.
The government has said it would be too expensive but there is a model, based on past experience with the BFB, which would dictate otherwise.
What would a Rural Fire Service look like? We believe it need only be a small, (around a staff of 30) professionally based organisation, focused on the following functions:
* Working with Local Government to develop Bushfire Risk Management Plans and supporting their implementation.
* Coordinating fire management agencies in rural areas.
* Promoting bushfire prevention, preparedness and damage mitigation
* Providing, or facilitating training in fuel reduction burning and fire Suppression by vollies.
* Advising local government with respect of implementation of the Bush Fires Act.
The staff should be located in country areas and know and be known and trusted by the people they serve.
We also believe that an RFS should be funded by the allocation of part of the funds from the ESL, since the ESL comes partly from rural areas. With more prudent use of expensive water bombing equipment, it may well be a money saver.
Perhaps Governments reaction to adopting the change recommended by Ferguson lies as much with the name as with the politics of the matter. “Rural Fire Service” raises the possibility of the creation of another organisation on a similar scale to DFES. In our opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. We envisage a change in direction, along the lines suggested above, which would ensure scarce funds would best be employed to obtain the optimum effective outcome for rural fire management.
One question still being debated is whether a Rural Fire Service should be a new and independent agency, or whether it should be a separate branch within DFES. The former BFB functioned effectively for many years as a branch of the Department of Lands and Surveys who provided administrative services. There could be some merit in such an arrangement with DFES but not at the risk of such an arrangement enabling DFES to override the RFS on policy matters. We do not see the RFS as a firefighting organisation, although it could provide support to local volunteer groups during a large fire event. Firefighting should remain decentralised in local government through effective, well-trained, local bush fire officers.