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.