Rural agencies catalogue failings in fighting last summer’s fires

IN THEIR first detailed admission of fault, Victoria’s two rural fire agencies yesterday released a joint report cataloguing their failures during last summer’s fires, including the Black Saturday blazes that killed 173.
Problems included poor equipment, equipment shortages, a lack of fully trained leaders, confusion over roles and a refusal by managers to listen to local input. The lack of warnings to the public was criticised, as was the poor flow of information within the agencies.
The CFA’s acting chief officer, Steven Warrington, yesterday denied the report was an admission of failure: “It doesn’t say we failed.”
Asked whether knowing of these problems before February 7 might have saved lives, he replied, “That’s difficult to answer.” He said the circumstances on the day were unprecedented and, while the agencies would try to learn and improve, “the reality is it’s still incumbent upon Victorians to accept some responsibility” for fire safety.
The Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment, which manages fires on Crown land, conducted 176 debriefings of staff and volunteers across the state.
The complaints they made echoed much of the evidence before the bushfires royal commission, which has heard that an overwhelmed system failed to warn communities about to be hit by firestorms.
The Operational Debrief Report: 2008-09 Fire Season said emergency headquarters in Carlton on the day were cramped, noisy and confusing. There was a “lack of consistency in IT and phone systems, procedures and roles, particularly at the state duty officer, state co-ordinator and chief officer level in both CFA and DSE, which made it difficult for staff to work together efficiently in the areas of logistics, resources, situation and planning”.
Out in the field, “There was dissatisfaction with the manoeuvrability and lack of power of Nissan Patrol vehicles, the lack of GPS in DSE vehicles (and) non-emergency vehicles.”
Fire personnel were frustrated when radios were jammed with traffic or useless due to black spots: “They then reverted to whatever worked, be that ‘go to’ conventional channels, trunking, mobile phone or UHF radio.”
Incident control centres were not well-equipped with IT and telephones, and “the mechanism for transfer of fire control to another location when a fire crosses a certain ‘boundary’ proved difficult and needs review. An instance of a necessary change of location of ICC during a fire was a stressful task for those involved.”
The commission has been told that the Kilmore fire, which killed 121, was managed by a control centre whose communications had collapsed and whose manager did not relinquish control of the fire even when it crossed out of his area.
CFA and DSE staff criticised “the inadequate, inaccurate or outdated information to the community about the locations of fires and their potential impacts”. The report said there was a “perceived breakdown” in information flow between headquarters and the Victorian Bushfires Information Line.
“Information that was available or should be known on the fire ground did not get to the Incident Management Team in some cases. This was considered due to (control centres) being too remote, or . . . sectors too large, or (managers) not sharing information. An inability of the fire ground to contact (supervisors) because telephones were engaged or not answered … was also reported.”
– Improve co-operation between DSE and CFA and give their joint headquarters better phones and computers; look at shared IT systems, procedures and website; encourage them to work together more often.
– Develop well-equipped, high-level incident control centres that have enough trained staff and improve co-ordination among them, “including division of control in a fast-moving fire across administrative boundaries”.
– Train more ground observers, fire behaviour analysts and intelligence officers who can go to fires that are so intense that fire-fighting teams don’t have time to report back.
– Improve information flow from control centres to headquarters, and from the Bushfire Information Line to the community.
First published in The Age.