Australia — An independent inquiry into the Margaret River bushfire last year has found Department of Environment and Conservation staff are so overworked they are “emotionally and physically exhausted”, while many are underpaid and performing duties above their skill level.
The damning report by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty, released yesterday, found DEC made a series of omissions and mistakes during the planning and implementation of a prescribed burn that led to devastating consequences.
More than 40 properties were destroyed or damaged when the burn became out of control and raged across 3400 hectares. Advertisement: Story continues below
DEC had added fuel to the burn on November 21 and 22 despite extreme weather forecast for November 23, the day the fire escaped containment lines.
Rather than pointing the blame on any individual, Mr Keelty said the errors that led to the bushfire were made by people making decisions beyond their expertise and using the available resources.
He revealed DEC staff broke down during at least four hearings held during his inquiry.
“Many officers are required to make decisions affecting the lives and livelihood of the community which, on the face of it, do not match their pay scale,” the report says.
The union representing most DEC employees, the Community and Public Sector Union, claims the poor resources at DEC have forced some employees to work in excessive of 36 hours without a break and many others to regularly work 20 hours.
When they finished their ordinary day job with the department they were then on-call in case of a bushfire outside of hours.
“They’ll go home and be on-call to manage a fire incident, whether it’s small or big,” state secretary Toni Walkington said.
“They’ll spend whatever amount of hours that it takes and then they’ll report back the next day and do their parks and services job. So they don’t get breaks and that’s because DEC isn’t funded to have more people in those fire roles.”
Ms Walkington said their jobs also were made more difficult because of a lack of technology, including no electronic operational processes, meaning staff still had to do paperwork by hand.
They were also reluctant to put themselves on the on-call roster or take responsibility for fires because some employees had been publicly named and identified during the Margaret River inquiry.
“The spotlight is on them and criticisms have been made,” Ms Walkington said.
August-Margaret River Shire Mayor Ray Colyer said DEC employees now feared walking the street in their work uniforms following community outrage over the department’s failure to contain the prescribed burn.
The turnover of staff at DEC is double that of most other government agencies, at 11 per cent, according to CPSU.
Although the number of full-time equivalent positions has increased, there are still fewer staff in DEC than there were in 2010-11 because the roles cannot be filled.
The situation in the fire district covering the Margaret River region, Blackwood, is one of the worst, with almost one-third of the 36 positions vacant (11), while 10 positions are filled will temporary employees, according to the union.
Ms Walkington said members enjoyed working in the department but they were so underpaid and overworked they were jumping ship to the Fire and Emergency Services Authority or the mining and resources sector.
The Keelty report found FESA’s employment terms and conditions were more attractive than those at DEC, which was being drained of knowledge and experience.
It also found the department’s lack of resources had contributed to its failure to fully implement recommendations made after the Ferguson review into DEC’s ability to manage major fires following the Boorabbin fire, which killed three truck drivers in 2007.
Particularly, the department still had not adopted an appreciation and decision making process in regards to assessing the risk of a prescribed burn becoming out of control.
DEC director general Kieran McNamara told the inquiry: “… my sense is that we have implemented what we can of Ferguson within existing capacity…”
Ms Walkington was more forthright.
“[He was saying] we’ve done what we can with what we have but we need more to be able to do more,” she said.
FESA also is going to require additional resources after it was yesterday given automatic lead control over the most serious bushfires and responsibility for a new Office of Bushfire Risk Management.
United Firefighters Union of WA branch secretary Graeme Geer said FESA could not perform the additional responsibilities without more resources.
“To ensure we don’t lose lots more houses, we need to ensure we get lots more resources as quickly as possible,” he said.
Opposition leader Mark McGowan said a lack of resources was at the heart of what caused the Margaret River bushfire.
He called for the government to reveal if and what resources DEC has sought in recent years and what had been provided.
Environment Minister Bill Marmion defended the government’s funding record, instead blaming DEC staff for making mistakes.
“In terms of resources, the first year I was Environment Minister $5 million extra was put into capital equipment for DEC and most has gone into the South West,” he said.
“So we have actually been upfront in funding DEC for its fire operations.
“In the three years we have been in government, we have had a slight increase each year and I have got a nice big amount I’m seeking in this budget as well.
“This is not an issue about resourcing. This is an issue about some misjudgements made by some individuals, which is unfortunate.”