Australia — The Victorian Government has jumped the gun on recommendations from the Bushfires Royal Commission and announced what it says are key changes to improve bushfire safety.
The commission’s preliminary findings are not due until next month but the State Government today announced it is tweaking the contentious stay-or-go policy.
It means getting fire services to help residents decide whether to stay and defend their house, and the Government will turn to less conventional, but more popular internet tools like Facebook and Twitter to get more people to pay attention to bushfire information.
This afternoon Premier John Brumby announced what will be done, regardless of what the commissioners recommend.
“There are a whole raft of proposals there, which we’re putting to the commission and saying ‘this is the Government’s view of what we need to do before the next fire season. This is what we intend to do, but we also look to your other recommendations’,” Mr Brumby said.
He says the traditional bushfire advice to prepare, stay and defend or leave early will be revised to put much more emphasis on leaving early.
Community messages will be changed, leaving no doubt on what the safest option is.
“We’ll be endorsing that policy with refinement, providing more information to the community and ensuring that the community understands that where there’s a warning that’s issued, where you need to go, you need to go early,” Mr Brumby said.
Victoria’s fire services will also be asked to help residents decide whether to stay or go by advising them on whether their house can be defended.
As well as putting information about fires on fire agency websites, the Government plans to use less formal channels.
“Like Facebook and Twitter; alternative means of communication to get the information out to the public so that they’ve got better information from a variety of sources, and if they need to make a judgement to go early they will go and they will go early,” Mr Brumby said.
Jumping the gun?
All this comes while the royal commission is still hearing submissions on what it should recommend in its interim report, which is due before the onset of the next fire season.
The national secretary of the Firefighters Union of Australia, Peter Marshall, says the Government should wait for that report before making changes.
“I think the Government should just butt out of this. What should actually happen is the royal commission should be allowed to do its work and make recommendations that are binding on the Government of the day to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Mr Marshall said.
“We say Government’s putting out press releases does not do justice to the deceased.”
Mr Brumby says the Government is mindful that the royal commission will make recommendations, and that there will be more decisions after the interim report from the commission in August.
As the lawyer for the state addressed the commissioners this morning, the chairman of the inquiry, Bernard Teague, made it clear he also feels responsible for preventing a repeat of Black Saturday.
“What happens at this coming fire season is going to be a reflection on the commission as well as on your client,” Mr Teague said.
The Government’s announcement that fire services will support residents in deciding whether to stay or go was still to come when Mr Myers raised questions about the capacity of fire services to do just that.
“The state is not in a position to commit to a CFA, which has all the resources to knock on every door and advise householders of their particular risks,” he said.
Mr Myers says the suggestion that fire refuges be established in fire prone areas is not viable.
“It will not be possible for refuges to be established before the next fire season,” he said.
He is also urging the commissioners not to support the finding of the counsel assisting against the head of the Country Fire Authority, Russell Rees, who has been accused of failing to meet his obligations to protect life on Black Saturday.
“One would only have needed to read the newspapers this morning to realise the mischief that can arise if findings are made on incomplete evidence,” he said.
Mr Myers says findings against fire agencies risk making it hard for the agencies to attract and keep volunteers for the next fire season.