Country firefighters blast CFA

COUNTRY Fire Authority brigades have accused the agency of poor leadership, of ignoring years of warnings about communication problems and of supplying inadequate equipment.
In submissions to the Bushfires Royal Commission, CFA volunteers also criticised Victoria Police for inflexible roadblocks that could have led to deaths and VicRoads for failing to reduce roadside fuel loads.
In a personal submission, Kinglake West volunteer Karen Barrow said her CFA station had no internet access. On Black Saturday a member had to go home to fetch his laptop with wireless internet so the team could monitor the CFA website.
Miss Barrow wrote that multiple calls for an ambulance failed to result in one being sent to a man with 70 per cent burns. Miss Barrow’s crew laid him on a fire ladder, with blankets as a mattress, and put him into the back of the fire truck, she wrote.
They drove him slowly to the CFA station where an ambulance eventually picked him up. The man later died.
Miss Barrow said the CFA’s pager system appeared to have failed to send requests for back-up for Kinglake West’s tankers, and that one tanker was off the air for three hours with its fate unknown.
She said Kinglake brigades had repeatedly raised the issue of the many radio black spots in the area, but a CFA operations officer told her “that the CFA were not prepared to spend any further money on the existing communications infrastructure. This was because the CFA were intending to move across to a digital network – the estimated time frame provided was greater than five years”.
The Lower Yarra Group of Fire Brigades said it had been raising for 10 years “serious communication problems” in Kinglake, Kinglake West and St Andrews, where 54 people were killed on Black Saturday.
“Despite these efforts, nothing has been done,” the group’s submission said.
It claimed the problems led to dangerous breakdowns in communication and control on the day. “One tanker suffered a serious burn-over but did not know where they were. Help was nearby but the other tanker did not know they were required for assistance due to the use of different radio channels.”
Panton Hill Rural Fire Brigade deplored the fact that public warnings were blocked from release by the officer in charge of the Kangaroo Ground Incident Control Centre. “We are certain that the release of this information would have saved lives,” it said.
The royal commission has been told the warnings were not released because Kangaroo Ground was not the centre managing the fire.
Panton Hill wrote: “Many paid firefighters are relatively inexperienced in fighting bushfires and lack local knowledge. We wonder whether this inexperience led to an over-interpretation or a misinterpretation of the procedures for issuing vital information. We are aware of many ways in which the information could have been released, but these were not used by the officer in charge . . .
“We are concerned that some paid firefighters, who are put in positions of command, lack the ability to make independent decisions and do not have high-level leadership skills.
“This inability to decentralise command structures has been identified as one of the key issues in the poor response to disasters, such as hurricane Katrina.”
The Grampians Group of Fire Brigades, based near Horsham, said its firefight on Black Saturday was “severely impeded” by 16 police roadblocks. This is an area where the CFA relies heavily on the help of farmers with private firefighting tankers, but they were blocked from entering the firegrounds.
“At each road block, upon request, the police radio D24 Ballarat, who radio their base in Horsham, who radio police on the incident management team, who ask the incident controller for approval to proceed on to the fire ground.
“Authorisation travels back down the chain of command to the police on the road block who allow entry – a lengthy process, while the fire proceeds to spread rapidly.”
It said many CFA personnel were denied entry and bulk water tankers, to fill CFA tankers, were delayed for up to 45 minutes.
The Grampians Group said the arrangement for managing roadblocks “suits Vic Police, because it indemnifies them and puts the onus on to the incident controller . . . (but it is) disastrous for CFA in fast-running grass fires”.
The protocols could have led to loss of life: “There were several cases where husbands and sons (CFA members) were denied access to help save assets and homes, where their wives and mothers were home alone. These incidents occurred both before a fire front and well after it.”
Yackandandah Fire Brigade said radios were essential during fires, but “as a brigade we are often amazed at how poorly this essential tool operates. The area under the brigade’s jurisdiction is not particularly large, but still good radio communication cannot be established between our sub-base and portable radios, often when they are as close as five kilometres away”.
“This was a significant issue in February . . . Officers in the field were forced to regularly visit houses to use landlines (there was no mobile coverage).”
The brigade said there was also a shortage of radios: “Strike team leaders and sector commanders regularly need to operate on two channels – typically one for the units they command (the ‘fire ground’ channel) and a second to communicate with incident controllers. None of the four sector commanders in our brigade had access to two radios, or to radios which can monitor two channels.” Yackandandah said it had one large fire-tanker, which was often called away at the height of the fire season. It said the CFA should have more tankers available during large fires and suggested using decommissioned ones as a stand-by force. It also said volunteers were using – and damaging – their own cars because the CFA did not provide enough 4WD command vehicles.
The Coastal Group of Fire Brigades covers towns including Lorne, Anglesea and Torquay.
Its submission warned that the Great Ocean Road, which is easily blocked by traffic at the height of the holiday season, was dangerously overloaded with fuels: “The current fuel that exists along much of the Great Ocean Road would provide direct flame contact to vehicles.”
First published in The Age.

A son’s last words to his mother

IT WAS only later that she realised she had spoken to her son for the last time. Carol Matthews knew it was bad; over the phone, she could hear the roar of the bushfire at Sam’s end. She heard the windows in the family house shattering. She heard the panic in his voice.
Sam, 22, had rung to say that his parents should return to their St Andrews home because there might be trouble. He said: “Oh my God, a tree has just exploded.” And then: “Oh my God, there are flames everywhere!”
His mother told the Bushfires Royal Commission yesterday that she told him to head for the bathroom: “I just knew I had to get him inside the house because the radiant heat would kill him . . . I told Sam he would be OK and that the fire front would pass over him. I told him I would call triple zero and then call him back.”
She couldn’t get through on triple zero. She couldn’t get through to him again. It would be days before her fears were confirmed and weeks before they were officially recognised: on Black Saturday, Carol and Dave Matthews had lost their boy.
Yesterday her voice trembled as she told of that last phone call but it was when she talked about the treatment she received from the coroner’s office that she became most emotional.
She told of the anguish of the wait for identification and her frustration at having to push for scraps of information from the coroner’s office until her son’s body was finally released.
She said families had not been told it was possible to get interim death certificates; that she had never heard from a case worker she was told had been assigned to her; that it took the coroner’s office seven weeks to organise information sessions for families; and that efforts to bring bereaved relatives together to talk were only initiated recently after Mrs Matthews spoke to the head of the Bushfire Recovery and Reconstruction Authority, Christine Nixon.
“Losing a child is something that, as a parent, nobody wants to contemplate. But if you lose your child, the thing you want to do most is to do the very best thing you can for them in the next stage,” Mrs Matthews said. “In most circumstances, you would be able to have a last goodbye.
“We were in a situation where not only have we lost our child, but we lost our home, we lost most of our memories of him and we lost (all) sense of control over what was going to happen in our lives . . . and to have to be the one proactively contacting the coroner’s office was really quite difficult.”
State Coroner Jennifer Coate had no comment yesterday.
The Matthews family emigrated from Britain in 2000 with Sam and daughter Ellie, now 19. Mrs Matthews said she had always been cynical about the idea that fire would not burn a house, information brought home by her husband and son after they did CFA training. “I took a lot of convincing . . . ‘So I am in the house while this firestorm is coming over the top of my head and I don’t die, why?’ ”
On February 7, Mr and Mrs Matthews were in Inverloch. Ellie took the only car left on the property to go to work. Sam had planned to leave to be with friends but changed his mind. Mrs Matthews said: “I was relieved that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to use the car because everything I had read said, that people died in cars.”
But that day, the neighbours who leapt into cars and drove through flames survived, she said.
It was when she got a call from her daughter telling her of a house that had been razed in St Andrews – after her last call with Sam – that, “I think I realised that I had spoken to Sam for the last time”.
Mrs Matthews said she was first told that her son’s body was not very damaged and that dental records would serve to identify him. Then she was told DNA testing would be required.
On February 18, coroner’s staff told her that no one had been identified. She couldn’t get her head around this, she said, because she knew some people who died had not been badly burnt and that others had died in hospital. She said staff were unable to tell her even when her son might be identified.
Three weeks after his death, she was told no one was close to being identified because all the deaths were being treated as being part of a single incident, which also confused her: “This wasn’t a plane crash.”
She asked: “Can you even tell me where you are with the person who you think is my son?”
She said she was told: “No. We have no way of knowing.”
Mrs Matthews said she would have accepted the delays if her son had been found with others but he had been home alone and she had heard the windows exploding as the fire arrived. “Surely common sense had to come into play about what other (circumstantial) evidence should be used?” she asked.
Mrs Matthews said the first four bodies were released only after she had turned to talkback radio to air her plight. She was finally given her son’s body on March 13.
She said: “The coroner’s office was focusing on victims but behind every victim was a family. He was a victim but he was also my son and he had a grieving family and grieving friends.”
SAM: “Oh my God, a tree has just exploded. Oh my God, there are flames everywhere.”
CAROL: “I just knew I had to get him inside the house because the radiant heat would kill him… I told Sam he would be OK and that the fire front would pass over him. I told him I would call triple zero and then call him back.”
Carol’s daughter called telling her of a house razed in St Andrews.
CAROL: “I think I realised that I had spoken to Sam for the last time.”
CAROL: “We were in a situation where not only have we lost lost our child, but we lost our home, we lost most of our memories of him and we lost (all) sense of control over what was going to happen in our lives.”
First published in The Age.

Fire’s fury forced man to quit home

DAVID O’Halloran changed his mind about staying to defend his Flowerdale home on Black Saturday when he realised the effect the fire was having on trees, which were “just about turning around, just about being screwed out of the ground”.
His wife and three children had already fled. As he left soon after 7.30pm he drove up and down local roads with his hand on the horn, stopping to warn anyone he saw, before driving on to the pub.
He said an old man who had been burnt defending his home was brought to the hotel by car about 9pm. Four men used a plastic chair to lift the injured man, Bob Harrop, and carry him inside.
“We laid him on the floor in the bar, put him in the recovery position and put wet towels on his arms and legs,” Mr O’Halloran said. Mr Harrop later died.
The fire arrived at the hotel around midnight and Mr O’Halloran worked to extinguish spotting there and at the local primary school.
The next morning, he chainsawed through fallen trees to get to his home, which he found destroyed.
Walking down a nearby service road, he came across two bodies in a front yard, along with a burnt-out ute. He found this particularly upsetting because, while the two people appeared to have fled a burnt house, the house right next door was intact: “I’ve since found out it was a mother and son . . . They just picked the wrong house.”
Further along the road, a second burnt-out ute was crashed into a tree. He was told later a young girl had died there.
Twelve people died in the Flowerdale-Hazeldene area.
Mr O’Halloran said the idea that “leaving early” meant leaving before a fire started would see families such as his own leaving home each year from November to May.
In other evidence, CFA volunteer mapper John Cowan said he had put a ruler on a wall map at Kangaroo Ground’s incident control centre about 2pm on Black Saturday and realised a wind change could take the fire as far as Kinglake.
He reported this to supervisors at a meeting at 2.20pm: “My prediction looked bad. I basically told anyone who would listen, ‘This is the potential for this fire. This is not your average fire.’ ”
He said he was not involved in any talks about whether to issue warnings. The first official warning about Kinglake was aired at 5.55pm and the fire went through the town between 6 and 6.30pm.
Mr Cowan said he had not seen an aerial “line scan” taken of the fire, or the report of an aircraft that flew over it mid-afternoon, or heard that computer operators at Kangaroo Ground had to be given a tutorial that day in how to use the centre’s mapping software.
Mr Cowan agreed with counsel for the state, Neil Clelland, SC, that the fire spread five or six times faster than he had predicted.
First published in The Age.

Saved by the pool: how a St Andrews family escaped the giant inferno


PETER Brown had feared it would come to this. Three years earlier, as he had watched balls of smoke and flame from fires in the distance, he had a sobering thought.
He knew he had a strong bushfire plan for his St Andrews house. But he wondered what he and his family would do if the plan failed. If they did not manage to save the house, how would they save themselves?
He called a meeting then with his wife Fiona and his three teenage children. They decided they wanted to stay in the bush, but they installed a 128,000-litre concrete swimming pool – and it was there they huddled under a blanket on Black Saturday and watched their home become an inferno.
Mr Brown, chief executive of Moreland Council, yesterday told the Bushfires Royal Commission that he and his wife had built the mudbrick and bluestone house 20 years ago largely with their own hands.
He had believed he was well set up to manage on Black Saturday but said he was lulled into complacency by a lack of local warnings on ABC Radio. “On reflection, I regret relying on the ABC to the extent that I did – it gave me the impression that we had more time before the fire front arrived.”
He told the inquiry: “I believe we could have saved our house, just with a bit more warning.”
He had been seeing smoke since 2pm, and at 4pm burnt pine needles began falling from the sky into the pool. The radio had said the fire was at Clonbinane, so he assumed that the pine needles had travelled from there. When a fire broke out on his neighbour’s property, he did not think it was a potential spot fire from a bigger front.
Coming back from helping the neighbour, with his tractor engine going and earmuffs over his ears, he could still hear a dull roar, like jet engines. He saw his lawn begin to ignite with embers.
The family kitted themselves out in fire gear – balaclavas, leather gloves, goggles, boots – and he went on the roof to turn on its sprinkler system. But the power had failed.
He tried setting up the pumps but failed twice because the connectors cross-threaded. When he succeeded, the water pressure blew the outlet off.
By this time, his wife was shouting that she could see flames. He grabbed a blanket and joined his family in the pool that had been built just for this purpose. From there, he photographed smoke and flames and wind strong enough to blow tall plants over.
At 5.52pm, after the front had passed, he got out of the pool and used buckets to try to quench two small fires on the balcony at the back of the house. He was about to open a door to throw water inside a first-storey room when his wife warned him not to – she could see flames leaping within it.
“I realised that if I opened the door up, probably it would vent out,” he said. “I put my gloved hand up against the door and realised it was too far gone. I said, ‘We’ve lost it.’ ”
He returned to the pool and within 10 minutes the whole back of the house was swirling with flames.
The family left the pool an hour later. He put his wife and children in a trailer and used his tractor to take them to safety at a neighbour’s place.
He told the royal commission that he would rather get no warning at all than inaccurate ones; that in a time of drought, people would be unlikely to use precious water dampening down outside a house until they knew a threat was close; and that fire-ban days should be rated one to five, like the warning system for cyclones.
His other concern was that in March parts of the house he had hoped to use in rebuilding had been demolished and carted away in the effort to search all properties a second time for human remains.
That was when he felt like he had lost control of the situation: “I didn’t want the whole house taken out and put on the back of a truck and disappear,” Mr Brown said.
First published in The Age.

Fire spotter saw that blaze was ‘going to kill people’

IF MARYSVILLE did not get a warning of approaching fire on Black Saturday, it was not for want of trying by fire-tower spotter Andrew Willans.
At 3.30pm, he made several calls trying to warn the town to evacuate in the face of the Murrindindi fire, he told the Bushfires Royal Commission: “This thing was enormous. I felt then that this thing was going to impact not only on myself and my tower and my home but on Marysville itself. I felt it was going places. It was going to kill people.”
The fire razed the town about 6pm and left 34 dead.
Mr Willans told the commission he was a fire observer with the Department of Sustainability and Environment. Over summer he works in the Mount Gordon fire tower, three kilometres from the town.
Just before 3pm he got his first warning of a fire that had started at the Murrindindi Mill. He spotted traces of smoke from over the top of the Black Range to his west.
Mr Willans was stunned by how quickly the plume grew. At 3.30pm he decided it was “paramount” to contact the captain of the Marysville CFA brigade.
“I felt it was necessary to get the message to them so that Marysville could be warned. Marysville was a small town, it was in a hollow, they couldn’t see this, I could. I was quite determined to let them know that this was like nothing else they had ever seen before.”
The CFA phone line was busy. He tried to get through on CFA radio but it was also jammed. He rang CFA member Pauline Harrow at home: “I told her to get to the fire station as quickly as possible to sound the alarm and to evacuate Marysville as quickly as possible.”
Mrs Harrow told him there was a brigade on the way to Murrindindi: “I said this fire is too big and what we should do is sound the alarm and evacuate the town because this is huge. She said she would go straight to the station and let them know.”
Mr Willans said one spot fire began 14 kilometres ahead of the two-kilometre-wide front, “which terrified me, that this thing had dropped something that far ahead of itself”.
As the major fire came over the ridge, its force sucked the spot fires back up the hill and into the mother blaze. The cloud mass doubled in height and width in the half hour from 4pm to 4.30pm. Mr Willans said it was “full of embers, ash, burning materials – this thing was absolutely alive”.
He evacuated at 4.30pm, with instruments showing wind gusts of up to 80 km/h and a temperature of up to 44 degrees. The tower was damaged and his cabin was destroyed, he said. Marysville residents have previously given evidence that they received no warnings.
Mr Willans spent six hours fighting flames and a blizzard of embers but managed to save his Granton home.
A Marysville GP, Lachlan Fraser, yesterday said he wasted three hours trying to obtain fire information when he could have been preparing his home.
He rang the Victorian Bushfire Information Line – where he was kept waiting for 15 minutes by an operator who then had to look up where Marysville was – and was told the Murrindindi fire was about 30 kilometres away. The local radio station told him nearby Narbethong was under ember attack but a 5pm TV news service had no word of local fire, he said.
He drove to a lookout where he saw a spot fire only two kilometres from town. He dropped into the DSE office to alert them: “They didn’t seem to be in a great panic.”
First published in The Age.

Dad’s Army saved Taggerty Heights

THE Taggerty Heights “Dad’s Army” saved themselves and their neighbours’ homes on Black Saturday and during the three weeks of spotting that followed. Yesterday, member Douglas Walter told the royal commission they were pushing for an expansion of their home-grown scheme.
Two years ago, hobby-farmers from 15 households began planning “for exactly this event that happened on the February 7”, said Mr Walter, a retired public servant in his 60s. They prepared their properties, bought hoses, pumps and protective clothing – and set up their own UHF radio network, which Mr Walter credits with having saved his life on Black Saturday.
He said power and telephone failures were common in the area, near Eildon, and they wanted to be able to communicate in an emergency.
The first indication of fire nearby that day was a huge mushroom cloud of smoke about 4.30pm. The electricity and phones went out at almost the same time.
A neighbour who was a former CFA fire captain radioed in and warned Mr Walter “to let it come to me”. That warning saved his life. “It would have been disastrous,” he said. “The blue gums would have gone up and exploded behind me and left me stranded and my wife alone. My neighbour saying, ‘Don’t go down and fight it’, probably did save my life.”
Mr Walter said the flames were up to 100 metres. “In an instant, we were engulfed by an orange fireball. The wind was so great and the fire so big that the flames were actually bending over the top of our home.”
He and his neighbours stayed on fire watch via their radios for three weeks.
“If we received from one of our neighbours that there was a fire on a place … we would all jump in vehicles with all of our fire-fighting equipment and we would descend on the outbreak,” he said.
CFA strike teams in the area monitored the Dad’s Army radio channel. “They would listen to our chatter and if they thought it was too big (for us), they would ring us and make an offer,” Mr Walter explained.
All the group members’ homes were saved.
Mr Walter said the Dad’s Army had proposed to the State Government and the Murrindindi Shire Council that repeater stations be built to allow radio contact across the area’s mountainous black spots. This, and equipping Murrindindi’s 6700 households with radios, would cost about $1.5 million, he told The Age outside the hearing.
Mr Walter told the inquiry that farmers should be given financial help to buy fire equipment and train with the CFA without joining as members, as many did not want to join officially for fear they could be on a call-out when their own homes and families were threatened.
First published in The Age.

CFA chief admits liability concerns

FEAR of legal liability is one reason the CFA refuses to advise homeowners on whether houses are defendable against bushfire, chief officer Russell Rees admitted yesterday.
But he denied that legal concerns affected the way the CFA released bushfire warnings to the public or the use of predictive maps about where bushfires might go.
Questioned by senior counsel assisting the Bushfires Royal Commission, Jack Rush, QC, Mr Rees was asked to comment on a 2006 report by CFA volunteer John Schauble that claimed mapping “appears to suffer from concerns about liability in the event that imprecise maps are given”.
“There had been an argument that if we are giving a map that was incorrect, people would think we are liable,” Mr Rees said.
He believed a disclaimer about responsibility would take care of that problem, he said. But he said anyone giving advice about the defensibility of a home needed to be an expert and “it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t bring on the risk of liability”.
Mr Rees said he was not certain whether the CFA had had formal legal advice about liability over advising householders on whether they should stay or go.
Mr Rush called for any such legal advice to be produced for the inquiry.
Mr Rush asked Mr Rees about the fact that three local brigade captains – from Kinglake, Arthur’s Creek and Marysville – had said they had had no information about the progress of the fires that would devastate their communities.
Mr Rees emphasised that the fires were intense and fast-moving, but even so, “I am disappointed and at a loss to explain why they didn’t have, or couldn’t access, the information that they desired.”
Mr Rush put it to him that warnings about the Kilmore fire continued to describe it as a grass and scrub fire close to Kilmore, hours after it had morphed into a much bigger blaze, and that a Kilmore fire warning after the wind change got the wind direction wrong.
Mr Rees said he would like to have thought that news was flowing to strike team leaders and other responsible people, but “there clearly could be some more information provided there, I would agree”.
The commission has heard of multiple failures to issue public warnings about the spread of fires on the day, but Mr Rees denied there had been a systemic communications breakdown or any need to declare a state of emergency.
First published in The Age.

‘At one stage I literally begged for help’

ARTHURS Creek CFA captain David McGahy had a message that he did not think anyone could ignore. “I’ve got people who are literally dead and dying by the side of the road. It’s a horrendous scene. You’ve got to help me,” he begged a policeman.
It was one of his many pleas for help that would be ignored on the Black Saturday weekend. He had just been through the fires with his crew and then drove into the little town of Strathewen. It was razed and its residents traumatised, homeless or missing.
Yesterday he told the Bushfires Royal Commission of police and CFA chiefs who failed to send help, a council clean-up crew that left because it was too dangerous, and a crime-scene officer who refused to cover the face of a dead man lying exposed in the middle of an oval. “Not my job, mate,” the officer told Mr McGahy.
Mr McGahy told the commission: “No matter who I appealed to for help, no one helped me. I was in desperate trouble and no one would help.”
Twenty-seven people were later found dead in Strathewen.
Mr McGahy said the fire raced towards his tankers in Eagles Nest Road about 4pm, spotting fiercely: “In a couple of minutes, they would be the size of tennis courts. In four to five minutes, it would be the size of a football ground, and then the country in between exploded. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
After the fire passed, he tried to get into Strathewen. “I knew what it was going to be like, worse than my worst dreams, but I knew that people were going to be there.”
He finally got in about 7pm. In the gruff voice of a farmer, but with the occasional catch in his throat, he told of what happened next: “There literally wasn’t anything that wasn’t burnt, that wasn’t destroyed.
“We came over the hill and the young chap that was driving for me, he saw his parents’ house fully enveloped in flames. It was difficult, very difficult.
“I got further up Chads Creek Road and . . . there was a body up there. I went up and there was a chap I had known for 40 years dead in the middle of the oval.
“All the time I was putting out calls to the Kangaroo Ground (incident control centre). I think at one stage I literally begged for help. They had a standard response: ‘We’ll get back to you.’ To the best of my knowledge, they never got back to me. Not at all.”
He said repeated requests for fuel and other supplies were also ignored. He felt “as if Strathewen has dropped into a black hole and doesn’t exist”.
He drove to a police roadblock and begged the officer manning it to return with him. The policeman said he was under orders and could not leave. He directed Mr McGahy to a police commander in St Andrews. Mr McGahy got there about 10.30pm.
“I tried to explain to him what the situation was that was facing us up there. I said: ‘I have got people literally by the side of the road. I have got a member down (and) they are trying to get him out, and I believe I have got 20 people trapped up in Strathewen.’ He said: ‘You take care of fire brigade business and I will take care of mine.’ ”
The officer ordered a bulldozer to help clear the roads so that searching could begin, but it never arrived, Mr McGahy said. The member he was trying to evacuate later died.
Local people got bulldozers and trucks and worked by torchlight, he said: “The people were working feverishly. That’s why I couldn’t understand . . . why the agencies couldn’t help us.”
He said he saw a convoy of trucks carrying men with chainsaws about 8.30pm. “I spoke to the blokes in the command car and said: ‘Beauty!’ I said: ‘Where are you going?’ And he said: ‘We’re off, mate . . . It’s too dangerous for us.’ ”
Mr McGahy said he was incredulous. “I admit I went wild. I couldn’t convince them and I went off . . . they went and we were on our own again.”
With the roads blocked, he and a colleague decided on a two-hour walk through the bush to find the property where they believed up to 20 people could be trapped. They walked slowly, stepping over fallen trees every three or four metres, and listening to other trees crash around them. Other than that it was silent until, about 2am, they heard a sudden “Hello”. A man and woman who had sheltered in the overflow pipe of a dam came out of hiding. They had been there since the fire went through, too frightened to leave.
“They shared the experience with a kangaroo that I believe had hopped in there with them . . . To see those two people come out – I won’t forget it in a while.”
They found the house with 19 people safe inside. “It was so good to see the little kids asleep and the smiling faces.”
He returned to Strathewen at 6am and started work at the fire station again two hours later. “People were gathered there already looking for help, with requests such as: ‘I haven’t seen my wife since the front came through, could you go look for her?’ And that’s what we did.”
About 11am, the body of his friend was still on the oval, visible from the road. He asked a policeman putting up crime-scene tape to cover the body. He said: “No, mate, not our job.”
“So my son and myself, we went up to the middle of the oval and we cut the end off the cricket matting and we dragged it behind the command car and covered his body because it was just the respectful thing to do.”
First published in The Age.

Bushfire help calls stranded in system

OF MORE than 10,000 calls made to the bushfire information line on Black Saturday, 82 per cent went unanswered, the royal commission heard yesterday.
Counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, said the figures were revealed in “materials that have been summonsed”.
“Overflow from the information line is referred to Centrelink phones,” she said.
Ms Doyle asked the manager of another emergency call service that was flooded that day, Owen Kiernan, whether he had yet heard the bushfire line figures. He said he had not. Mr Kiernan had given evidence that emergency operators picking up triple-zero calls told those asking for bushfire information – such as advice on whether to evacuate – to call the bushfire information line.
He acknowledged the operators later reported that many callers said they had tried the bushfire number and had not been able to get through.
Mr Kiernan is operations support manager for the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority. When Telstra receives triple-zero calls, it forwards them to the authority. The Telstra operator holds the line and stays with the caller until an authority operator picks up the call.
If it is not picked up within 75seconds, it is presented to another line. This can happen up to five times.
Mr Kiernan said 28 of his operators were taking fire-related calls on February 7. He said the authority had 126 staff but would have needed the equivalent of 300 full-time permanent staff – as well as larger centres and more equipment – to have managed the 6974 calls that came in for all emergency services. Of those, 3246 were for fire services.
Mr Kiernan said no calls overflowed from the authority to incident control centres or Centrelink. But he accepted a lawyer’s suggestion that the authority became a bottleneck in the call system on Black Saturday.
Michael Garner, for Telstra, said: “ESTA simply did not have the resources in terms of staff or workplaces to handle that unprecedented call activity on February 7. And this caused a bottleneck, did it not, which flowed back to the Telstra answering point?”
“That’s correct,” Mr Kiernan said.
This was because Telstra operators holding on for the authority were delayed from picking up other triple-zero calls.
Mr Kiernan agreed that in 2004, Telstra had tried to change the protocol for major incidents that generated many calls so that Telstra operators did not have to wait for authority operators to answer. The idea was rejected as several emergency services did not have queuing facilities and would have lost calls.
But Mr Kiernan said every caller who stayed on the line on Black Saturday was answered, regardless of which service they wanted. He said 59 callers had disconnected.
Ms Doyle asked whether the operators were briefed about the spread of fires. Mr Kiernan replied: “They wouldn’t have had that type of information to hand.”
He said counselling had been provided to operators who were distressed by the burden placed on them.
“People who had worked that day didn’t know what had happened … until they read the papers the next morning. It was a very difficult time.”
Mr Kiernan said a manual audit of all Black Saturday calls would not start until July and would take up to six months to complete.
Earlier, the chief executive of the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority, Neil Foster, said a State Government review of the authority’s funding had begun and an extra $3million had been provided for 2009-10.
First published in The Age.