Sunday 1 March 2015 8:05AM
It’s claimed a long running turf war over the control of fire fighting in NSW is affecting fire ground operations as the NSW Rural Fire Service faces internal criticism about its accountability and review processes following major fires. Gregg Borschmann reports.
In the 17 years since it was established, the NSW Rural Fire Service has grown into the largest volunteer fire fighting force in the world, it says.
Now the RFS is caught up in what some are calling a turf war with Australia’s other biggest fire fighting agency, Fire and Rescue NSW.
‘Because of the turf war which exists between the two agencies, we have a situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing,’ Jim Casey, secretary of the NSW branch of the Fire Brigade Employees Union, told Background Briefing. ‘Now that cannot be good for fire ground operations and it can’t be good for other fire fighters or the people of New South Wales.’
It’s a claim RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons strongly rejects, but according to Mr Casey, as some of the worst bushfires of the past decade were unfolding in the Blue Mountains in October 2013, the RFS tried to pull rank and prevent Fire and Rescue NSW personnel from attending the fire ground.
‘Now, the RFS and Fire Rescue Management will undoubtedly deny this,’ said Mr Casey, ‘but it’s a matter of fact that RFS did their level best to make sure you didn’t have a Fire and Rescue deployment into Winmalee in particular.
‘That was about the visuals, the colour of the trucks that the media was going to see: were they going to be red or were they going to be orange? That makes sense if you’re running an empire, if you’re trying to build a profile in order to get a greater budget share, [but] it makes no sense at all in terms of fire fighting operations.
‘Thankfully that didn’t happen, thankfully we did see Fire and Rescue deployed up there, not because it was Fire and Rescue, [but] because it was simply fire engines and they needed them. That kind of basic blurring between the operational needs and the political needs is at the heart of this issue.’
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told Background Briefing that all the key agencies engaged in fire fighting in NSW worked to fight the 2013 bushfires in a co-ordinated way, and he rejected the notion of a turf war.
‘I would expect those comments maybe decades ago, but not today,’ said Commissioner Fitzsimmons. ‘The reality is we had local management teams at all our fire-affected areas. We had state-based teams. All the agencies are represented on those teams.
‘We made sure that the resources were complementing each other. If you might remember, it got to the stage where the resourcing demands were such that we brought a lot of interstate colleagues in to assist in bolstering those numbers.’
A written statement supplied to Background Briefing by Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins said that while Fire & Rescue NSW fire fighters from Springwood were first on the scene at the Winmalee fire on October 17, 2013, the two agencies worked together to save many homes there, in the upper Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands and the Central Coast.
‘If any concerns were raised during the planning process, they were resolved by agreement,’ Commissioner Mullins statement ended.
The RFS is also facing criticism from within about its accountability and review processes after major fires.
At Bilpin, apple growing country in the Blue Mountains, Bill Shields, is a 52-year veteran of volunteer fire fighting. He resigned this month as an RFS group captain. One of his biggest complaints is that lessons aren’t learned after big fires.
‘One of the problems that I’ve always witnessed is there is never really any constructively critical debriefs after these events,’ said Mr Shields. ‘Everybody wants to pat themselves on the back and say we did a great job and avoid looking at the process and how it can be improved … the mechanisms aren’t there to critically review.
Commission Fitzsimmons, however, told Background Briefing the service is good at finding out what happened and why.
‘Routinely after every fire, small, medium and large, we run very open review processes involving all fire fighters, all crew leaders from all agencies to make sure we get the input and opinions of everybody,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t surprise me in our organisation that we’ve always got views and opinions that will vary from one another, which is one of the beauties of this organisation, that it takes all types, and everyone’s got a different perspective’.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons flatly rejected claims that the RFS does not have constructive or critical debriefs.
‘That’s not true,’ the commissioner said.
However, Jim Crowther, captain of the Shipley RFS Brigade in the upper Blue Mountains expressed his frustration with the process.
‘This is just the same thing every time they have a large fire and they have a debrief,’ said Mr Crowther, who has been a volunteer fire fighter for 50 years.
‘We all say what went wrong and the hierarchy pat themselves on the back and say, “What a great job everybody did, especially us.” But nothing much changes down at the bottom of the pecking order.
‘This happens all the time. If you speak to any other captain that goes along to a debrief, they say, “What’s the point in coming to this damn thing? Every time we go to it we say what’s wrong and nothing changes.”