THE Country Fire Authority expected Black Saturday to be the worst fire day in living memory, with great risk to firefighters, but appointed no safety officers to the teams managing the deadliest blazes, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
The inquiry was also told that managers whose incorrect information had caused a fire-ground crew to suffer a “burnover” had not been given feedback about their error despite an internal inquiry on the incident.
Safety officers, charged with firefighters’ well-being, had been mandatory since 2003 and 200 had been trained, but only two were assigned to level-3 fires that day. The Murrindindi, Kilmore East, Churchill, Bendigo and Beechworth control centres had no safety officer, senior counsel Jack Rush, QC, told the hearing.
Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Anthony Edgar said he could not explain why no safety controllers had been appointed to Murrindindi and Beechworth.
CFA deputy chief officer Gregory Esnouf admitted Black Saturday was expected to be high-risk in terms of firefighter safety but said many safety officers were assigned to roles considered higher priority. He was “disappointed” that the CFA had not delivered what it promised in this regard.
Commissioner Ron McLeod told him that given the predicted severity of fire conditions that day: “You should be more than disappointed, I suggest. You should be deeply concerned.”
Mr McLeod asked if there was a serious cultural issue with the CFA’s failure to prioritise safety, with possible parallels between the failure to appoint safety officers to look after firefighters and previously reported failures to prioritise public safety by issuing community warnings.
Mr Esnouf said the two problems had different causes but the CFA was not consistent about use of safety officers. Resources were stretched on Black Saturday but there had probably been other instances of it not happening, he said.
Mr Esnouf admitted the CFA’s internal reviews had not discovered the failure to appoint safety officers on Black Saturday. This was realised only after the royal commission raised the issue, he said.
It previously has been claimed that 19 burnovers were reported that day, six of them involving crews from the DSE.
Mr Esnouf said a “near-miss” investigation was held into one burnover — being flashed over by fire — involving the Glengarry West Tanker No. 1 at the Churchill fire. The crew had received a Red Flag Warning for a dangerous wind change at 7pm, which arrived at 6pm. South-westerly wind changes turn the flank of a fire into the new head and on to firefighters. Five CFA volunteers were killed by this at Linton in 1998.
Asked whether the staff of the relevant incident management team (IMT) had seen the Glengarry tanker burnover report, Mr Esnouf said near-miss inquiries concentrated on the actions of the crew under threat.
“We were focusing very much at the crew level. We didn’t pick up that this learning needed to be put back to the IMT,” he said.
He agreed with Mr Rush that if inquiries were to improve performance, people involved had to be informed of their findings.