Australia’s ‘stay and defend’ policy poses ethical dilemma for firefighters

Australia’s ‘stay and defend’ policy poses ethical dilemma for firefighters

06 October 2010

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Australia —  Firefighters around the world typically follow their own code of conduct, which outlines behavior while on the job and off duty. These codes also outline strict safety rules for both firefighters and the people they are protecting.

Firefighters in Australia have been battling an ethical dilemma regarding their own code of conduct and bush fires, however.

A naturally occurring event, Australia’s bush fires sometime turn deadly, especially after prolonged hot and dry weather. Until February 2009, the Australian government classified the worst bush fires as “extreme,” and homeowners either had to leave early or else stay and defend their property by themselves.

On Feb. 7, 2009, a day known as “Black Saturday,” the bush fires burned at a level never recorded before in Australia. With an estimated 173 dead, the Australian government created a new “catastrophic” level, meaning the safest option for everyone was to leave the area as quickly as possible.

Fires burning at the catastrophic level are unsafe, even for trained firefighters and emergency responders. In the aftermath of Black Saturday, leaving a homeowner behind with limited resources and training to fight a fire seems negligent, the government said.

In the last decade, Southern California firefighters have faced the same issues as their Australian counterparts. Hot, dry weather contributed to dangerous wildfires in this area, prompting many homeowners to stay and defend their properties with garden hoses.

In a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said that the fire district does not “have enough resources to put an engine at every home in harm’s way.” If homeowners refuse to leave during dangerous fire conditions, fire chiefs such as Roper considered plans where those who stay and defend could be part of the overall solution.

In the wake of Australia’s Black Saturday, reported some serious pushback from fire officials in San Diego County. On the website Chief Howard Windsor of Cal Fire said, “We can’t have people out there in flip-flops and T-shirts with garden hoses.”

Fire researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, do see some situations where “stay and defend” may be a good option for California and other regions, however. The key to an effective stay-and-defend policy is training homeowners in basic firefighting techniques.

Preparation, including clearing away debris before wildfire season, is another effective way to cut the fuel for the fire. The fire researchers do say, however, that in some regions, evacuation may be the only safe option.

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