FIRE chief Russell Rees and the CFA failed to protect Victorians from the Black Saturday bushfires and should be forced to take greater responsibility to avoid a repeat disaster, the Bushfires Royal Commission has said.
In its interim report, the commission said the Victorian Government should revamp its controversial Stay or Go policy, with the CFA required to tell home owners whether or not their house was defendable.
It said the CFA’s chief officer Rees did not become involved in hands-on management on Black Saturday “even when the disastrous consequences of the fires began to emerge”.
The report said Mr Rees did not check warnings about the Kilmore fire that killed 121, did not speak to controllers at the two centres managing that fire, and did not know of fire behaviour experts or their predictions for the Kilmore blaze.
The commission said all this meant it was “difficult to understand” how the CFA lived up to its responsibility to give local communities information to ensure their safety.
The CFA should have accepted that issuing warnings was part of its job on Black Saturday, even though this was not spelled out in legislation, the report said.
It recommended that the law be changed to make it clear that warnings and advice to relocate were the responsibility of the agency managing a fire.
The report stopped short of suggesting the Stay or Go policy be ditched, but said people should be warned that staying to defend carried many risks, including death. Its 51 recommendations include:
– The re-introduction of community refuges.
– Incident controllers to be given more responsibility for issuing warnings, even when they are not managing the fire concerned.
– Emergency call services including triple-zero be boosted on high-risk days.
The report exposed bungles at the highest level, with the State Emergency Response Plan (SERP) not defining who was responsible for warnings and recommending evacuations.
“In addition, the means by which warnings were issued and evacuations were made on 7 February bore little resemblance to the arrangements in the SERP,” the report said.
“Diffuse or unclear responsibility for warnings and relocation is at best unhelpful and at worst life-threatening.”
The report recommended that whichever agency was responsible for an individual fire – the CFA or the Department of Sustainability and Environment – it should also be responsible for warnings and advice to relocate.
It gave a detailed analysis of what went wrong with management of the Kilmore fire. The commission heard evidence that warnings were drafted but not issued, due to CFA protocol, or authorised but not aired, due to internal communications problems.
The commissioners – chairman Bernard Teague, Susan Pascoe and Ron McLeod – made several recommendations that flowed from this.
They called for all incident control centres to be properly staffed and equipped; for the most experienced controller available to be appointed, regardless of which agency was managing the fire; and for senior controllers to be authorised to issue warnings they believed necessary, even if the warnings related to a fire being managed from another centre.
The Stay or Go policy and bushfire brochures had failed to emphasise adequately the risks of staying and defending, the commission said.
“The risks should be spelt out more plainly, including the risk of death,” the report said. “People should also be encouraged to recognise that not all houses are defendable in all situations and contingencies need to be considered in case the plan to stay and defend fails.”
The CFA should have the authority to give specific advice about the defendability of individual properties and whether residents should leave.
“For those who plan to leave, there should be more explicit advice on triggers that should be used to determine when to do so,” the report said.
People also needed more options than stay or go, because the preferred option might not be possible or might fail. “The availability of local areas of refuge is an important and essential complement to the ‘Stay or Go’ policy.”
The commission welcomed the State Government’s announcement of “neighbourhood safer places” to provide informal shelter but also recommended the setting up of community refuges, which should be defended by the CFA during a fire.
It said the lack of refuges failed people who found themselves in danger when their plans failed, were overwhelmed by circumstances, changed their minds or had no plan.
“The lack of refuges in Victoria also fails to assist people in areas threatened by fire who are away from their homes, such as employees, visitors, tourists, travellers and campers.”
The report recommended that Victoria Police review its guidelines on roadblocks, which were inflexible, and upset people who were already under pressure.
The commission recommended that warnings be clearer, that commercial radio and television stations also be allowed to issue them, and that sirens be played before the broadcasting of serious warnings to alert listeners to pay attention. It said community warning sirens should be re-introduced in towns that wanted them, and it recommended increasing the capacity of the triple-zero service and the Victorian Bushfire Information Line – which failed to answer 80 per cent of calls on February 7 – to handle spikes in volume.
It also suggested that a single multi-agency “portal” for bushfires be designed to allow incident control centres to post information and warnings directly. The portal should upload information simultaneously to both CFA and DSE websites.
Premier John Brumby said action was under way on most of the 51 recommendations. The Government would respond to all by August 31.
“The single most important responsibility I have got between now and the rest of the year is to make our state as fire-safe and as fire-ready as possible,” he said. He said the report “is basically endorsing ‘Stay or Go’, but what they are saying is that there needs to be a much stronger focus on leaving early”.
Millions of dollars had already been allocated to new fire-safety initiatives, including an $11.5 million public education campaign on the importance of leaving early, $30 million to upgrade incident control centres, and $167 million to improve emergency services communication systems. On the question of who should take responsibility for system failures on Black Saturday, Mr Brumby said: “There were systems which worked well on the day and systems which didn’t . . . (but) we had more than 600 fires that day.”
Nationals leader Peter Ryan said the report was a damning “catalogue of tragic failures” and showed the GBlame laid with CFA, Brumby overnment had failed to fix problems they knew might lead to a tragedy.
“The unfortunate truth is that much of what has led to [the deaths of 173 people] was known to the Government and the agencies before these events transpired,” he said. “There are across many of [the report’s] pages findings that I think are very compelling in terms of a criticism of the Government, its lack of preparation in relation to the day’s events, the fact that for many years – particularly in relation to warnings – they knew or they should have known there were deficiencies there that needed to be accommodated.”
THE CFA SHOULD …
– ADVISE people in bushfire-prone areas the safest option is always to leave rather than stay and defend. Children, the elderly and infirm should not fight fires.
– GIVE chief officer Russell Rees legislated responsibility for issuing warnings to the public.
– ENSURE warnings focus on maximising potential to save lives, and include a level above extreme.
– ISSUE more explicit information about risks and give specific advice about the defendability of individual properties.
– DIRECT firefighting resources, as a priority, to refuges where people are sheltering.
– RECOMMEND residents ‘relocate’ rather than stay and defend.
– IDENTIFY neighbourhood safe areas such as car parks, sporting grounds, amenities blocks and dam walls that could be used as community refuges.
– INVESTIGATE technical possibility of sending warning messages to mobile phones by the 2009-10 bushfire season
– DEVELOP guidelines for use of fire station sirens to alert communities to bushfire threats.
– END ABC’S exclusive role as emergency broadcaster and enlist commercial networks in disseminating bushfire warnings.