Australia — Embattled Country Fire Authority (CFA) chief Russell Rees had neglected his duty to protect the lives of Victorians in the Black Saturday fires and failed in other crucial areas of his job, the bushfires royal commission has heard.
The man with ultimate control of the state’s bushfire defences had also not acquainted himself with expert predictions relating to fires which potentially threatened human life.
In a scathing assessment of Mr Rees’ handling of the response to the February 7 fires in which 173 people died, counsel assisting the royal commission recommended his job description be rewritten.
Mr Rees had earlier given evidence to the royal commission that his role on Black Saturday had not been an operational one.
But commission lawyer Jack Rush said it should have been.
“The coordination role adopted by Mr Rees on 7 February, 2009, was divorced from fundamental aspects of the responsibilities of the chief officer,” Mr Rush said in his interim submission to the commission delivered on Thursday.
Those responsibilities included overseeing fire prediction, the provision of warning information to communities and the protection of life.
The findings concerning Mr Rees are among a raft of observations and recommendations following the first two months of commission hearings.
The commission also recommended amendments to the CFA’s controversial “stay or go” policy, a review of fire warning systems, including sirens and messages to mobile phones, and the construction of a network of fire refuges, which had been phased out by the state government.
The “stay or go” policy should have provision for senior CFA officers to advise communities in imminent danger to leave before it became too late.
The policy came under question after it was revealed that 113 of the 173 Black Saturday victims had died in their homes.
According to the commission lawyers, the fires produced one example after another of poor co-operation, poor communication and poor management.
Counsel assisting pointed the finger at a variety of agencies and institutions including the Victorian and federal governments, local councils and individuals.
The strongest criticism, however, was reserved for Mr Rees, who has received the backing of premier John Brumby and the CFA which announced he would again be in charge during the coming fire season.
Mr Rees gave evidence that his role on Black Saturday was non-operational and did not involve direct control of fire fighting.
But in his submission, Mr Rush said it should be a reasonable expectation that the chief officer should be responsible for a wider range of direct functions including issuing “accurate and timely” warnings to the community.
“It is a core responsibility (of the chief officer) to warn communities of the risk of fire,” Mr Rush told the commission.
Mr Rush said warning sirens, which have been stopped by the CFA because they can disturb communities, were “effective warning systems” as had been proven by CFA officers who had gone against the regulation on Black Saturday.
Commission lawyer Rachel Doyle said there was no evidence to support the government’s proposition that refuges lead to complacency and encourage people to evacuate later than they should.
Local and state government submissions questioned the value and the prohibitive cost of refuges but commission head Bernard Teague demanded the issue be addressed.
“There is a need for refuges,” Mr Teague said.
“The state should accept it and get it done.”
Ms Doyle pointed to state and commonwealth co-operation as an area in need of attention.
She said it was “extraordinary” Emergency Management Australia (EMA), the commonwealth agency responsible for co-ordinating the operational response to all hazards, was not involved because it wasn’t asked by the Victoria government.
Ms Doyle also questioned the federal government’s failure to disclose a high-level report commissioned in 2005 which identified gaps in Australia’s ability to respond to almost any disaster or hazard, including bushfires.
The government had kept the report secret, until it was subpoenaed by the royal commission, on the grounds that it might cause public alarm.