CFA ‘ill-prepared for bushfires’

THE CFA failed to prepare adequately for Black Saturday, which left inexperienced officers managing large, deadly fires, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
‘‘We went into the 7th [of February 2009] without people in the right places at the right time,’’ said Rachel Doyle, SC, counsel assisting the commission.
She said many incident control centres did not have enough staff at the beginning of the day and, in particular, lacked level-three incident controllers who were qualified to manage complex fires. Managers had known beforehand that it would not be possible to staff all control centres fully but did not mention it to their supervisors or request more resources, she said.
Senior staff were moved around the state to fill those roles after fires started. But this was undesirable in the case of severe, fast-moving fires in which the first hour was crucial, she said.
The commission had earlier heard that several fires, including the Kilmore East blaze that killed 119 people, were managed for several hours by underqualified staff who lacked leadership experience.
Failures to tell firefighters of wind changes, or to warn the public of an approaching blaze, were ‘‘at least in part due to the challenges facing relatively inexperienced incident controllers’’, according to a written submission by lawyers assisting the commission.
The CFA was also accused of having inadequate training and promotion procedures for level-three controllers, with ‘‘the potential for both a well-performing candidate to be missed, or a poorly performing candidate to be endorsed’’, according to the submission. It said there was no performance review process for level-three controllers.
The submission said an incident controller for the Churchill fire, Peter Lockwood, was only supposed to operate at level three if he was being mentored, but he did not have a mentor on February 7.
Three burnovers — where crews are flashed over by fire — occurred during the Churchill fire, and CFA inquiries concluded that in each case a warning sent to crews contained incorrect information about the timing of a wind change, exposing crews to risk.
Mr Lockwood was not told of those findings and was fully endorsed as a level-three controller after February 7, the submission said.
Counsel assisting Peter Rozen said firefighting volunteers should be considered for positions on incident management teams and offered better training to allow them to participate.
The commission had heard in earlier evidence that volunteers felt sidelined by career officers, despite many having great depth of experience. They were also frustrated at a lack of consultation.
Ms Doyle said the CFA had failed to implement a coroner’s recommendation, made after the Linton disaster in which five volunteer firefighters died in 1998, to set up a mentoring program for new firefighters.
Neil Clelland, SC, for the state of Victoria, said the government agreed with nearly all the recommendations of counsel assisting on these issues, but did not believe a level-three controller should be present in every control centre from early in the morning on an extreme or catastrophic day.
‘‘[It] may simply result in mandatory levels that are currently unachievable,’’ he said.