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.