CFA leader must take responsibility for bushfire errors

  CFA leader must take responsibility for bushfire errors

5 July 2009

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Australia — The job of the Bushfires Royal Commission is to find out what happened on February 7 and to make recommendations to ensure that errors are exposed and new systems are put in place to prevent such a catastrophe happening again. Its primary job is not to point the finger at individuals who, overwhelmingly, were doing their best in extraordinary circumstances. The instinct to blame is strong and, mostly, it should be tempered. All the facts are not yet known; all the voices are not yet heard.

Yet, when 173 people die, it is not enough to say that fires were so ferocious and unpredictable that little could have been done to ameliorate their impact. Responsibility does need to be taken and new systems and even new faces need to be put into place.

The Country Fire Authority, the volunteer organisation responsible for fighting bushfires in suburban and country Victoria, believes that some of the criticism levelled at it has been unfair. Yet its shortcomings have been exposed and they have been significant. Ultimately, it is the organisation’s leadership that is required to take responsibility.

Even by the standards he set for himself, CFA chief officer Russell Rees failed in his duty on Black Saturday. During the royal commission’s hearings in the past eight weeks, Mr Rees said his role was to co-ordinate information, to “ensure that throughout that day I’m kept informed and able to inform in a strategic sense those above me”. Senior counsel assisting, Jack Rush, QC, put it another way last week. He surmised that Mr Rees was “divorced from fundamental aspects of his responsibilities”. It was a devastating critique.

The CFA’s operating procedures say the chief officer should have “all relevant information” available to him “to enable the determination of whether all steps are being taken to ensure public safety”. Mr Rees, chief officer for eight years, did not do this. He did not check what warning messages were going out, nor delegate anyone else to do so and report to him. Under questioning, he rejected the suggestion that he should have.

Mr Rees also said that his job was “to ensure the systems are in place”. By that measure, he also needs to take responsibility. The royal commission exposed that CFA people in the Kilmore incident control centre, who were controlling the response to the state’s most deadly fire, were under-trained, ill-equipped and jealous of their turf.

Those in the Integrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre in Melbourne also knew, or should have known, about the problems with management of the fire. The centre’s information unit leader, Sarah Henshaw, hinted at deep cultural problems in the CFA.

Still, Mr Rees told the royal commission he could not be expected to “drill down” into individual fires lest he lose his perspective of the whole state. There is some merit in this. There is no doubt that Black Saturday, with seven fires of life-threatening potential, and 47 in all, was hellishly difficult to fight.

Mr Rees recognised “some system failures” and “some shortcomings” and agreed that the CFA “didn’t achieve the ideal outcome”. But if his job was, in his words, to “ensure that the systems are in place”, then it is proper to ask that he takes responsibility if they were not in place. Mr Rees is not to blame for the fires, or their outcome, but he should take responsibility for system failures on the day. For these reasons, The Sunday Age believes that he should resign or be removed from his position.

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