Australia– Thousands of children’s lives are at risk because the State Government is not giving schools funding to implement its own fire safety requirements.
Firefighters and the teachers’ union have voiced their fears, after an investigation by the Sunday Mail found schools in the Mt Lofty Ranges had failed the State Government’s Bushfire Safety Checklist & Audit.
School principals and parents have also expressed grave doubts about the effectiveness of the new warning system to alert parents when a school will be closed on days of catastrophic fire danger.
Such warnings would not be issued until 4pm the previous day – after students have gone home.
SA Primary Principals Association president Steve Portlock said schools needed warning by noon “because if it’s any later than that, you can’t assume the school will have a mechanism to ensure every student is informed”.
“You don’t want parents and their children or education staff travelling to school the next day when there is such a danger of bushfire,” he said.
“We need to work out a better way to get the message out.”
Meanwhile, as the 10,000 students enrolled in the 35 schools in the Mt Lofty Ranges sweated under dangerous heatwave conditions, a snapshot of those campuses in vulnerable locations were found to have:
TREE branches and twigs laying over building roofs
PILES of dried wood left lying near buildings
NO fire breaks between schools and surrounding bushland
NEIGHBOURING properties with high fuel loads; and
ROOF gutters carrying flammable leaf litter
Among the 11 schools investigated by the Sunday Mail and found to be in breach of the regulations were:
Littlehampton – overhanging trees and leaf litter
Aldgate Primary – dried cut wood placed next to a building with overhanging trees
Upper Sturt Primary – located next to bushland with no boundary firebreak
Hawthorndene Primary – with a stockpile of dried tree branches.
The Government’s safety checklist says such fire danger issues “should be monitored and addressed on a continuing basis throughout the year as part of the (school) sites Bushfire Action Plan”.
The Country Fire Service Volunteers Association said it would urge all schools to comply with the safety checklist because it was a real possibility children could be at school when a bushfire breaks out. “We are always urging households to clean up and the same should be the case at schools where heaps of kids are at risk,” association executive director Wendy Shirley said.
“This heatwave is drying off the vegetation and is a wake-up call to schools to get their housekeeping in order.”
Ms Shirley said defending schools during a bushfire was “much more difficult for volunteer firefighters” if basic safety requirements under the checklist were not met.
“The department needs to get serious and make funding available to make sure schools can comply with the safety measures because of the obvious bushfire hazard,” she said.
Fire safety expert and Ash Wednesday bushfire survivor Bruce Trenwith said parents should be informed if their child’s school was carrying out the safety requirements, especially with regard to the readiness of buildings to be used as bushfire shelters.
Mr Trenwith, who runs the Bushfire Protection Solutions SA advisory service, said that “if schools are going to say they are a safe place, then they must be a safe place”.
The former teacher of 25 years’ experience also said it was “absolutely important” the Government’s safety checklist was implemented by all high bushfire-risk schools across the state.
He believed ongoing safety maintenance was the responsibility of the Education Department and, where necessary, local councils.
“Generally, teachers and principals are working their butts off, but the resources are not there,” he said.
The Australian Education Union said there was a lack of funding for ongoing school maintenance.
“If the Government is so concerned about bushfire safety to issue these checklists, then it must provide the resources and staff to clean these schools up,” Union president Correna Haythorpe said.
“Parents would be very concerned about this situation and the Government needs to set up a bushfire action team to deal with the problem.”
An Education Department spokeswoman yesterday said the annual Bushfire Safety Checklist audit had been in place “since about 2004” and was sent to “140 schools and preschools rated as Extreme, Very High or High Risk.”
“It is the department’s expectation that all of these sites, including the 35 located in the Adelaide Hills, have completed the audit by October 30 and that any follow-up work, identified through the audit to ensure bushfire preparedness, is completed as a priority,” the spokeswoman said.