Australia–– The firefighters’ union has voiced “deep concerns” over the appointment of the new head of the ACT’s emergency services, pointing to scathing criticism of his actions during the inquiry into the disastrous 2003 bushfires.
SES Chief Officer Tony Graham was announced as the acting commissioner of the Emergency Services Agency late last week, replacing outgoing commissioner Mark Crosweller.
He is likely to lead the ACT through the summer bushfire season, which also marks the 10th anniversary of the devastating 2003 Canberra bushfires.
Mr Graham played a key role in the response to the 2003 fires, and his actions were the subject of scathing criticism in the coronial inquest into the disaster. Advertisement
He was strongly criticised by Coroner Maria Doogan for failing to properly control the fires burning around the ACT’s outskirts in their early stages.
The coroner found Mr Graham failed to appreciate the need to deploy resources within the first 24 to 48 hours, thereby ignoring a principle “which is one of the most fundamental of bushfire fighting”.
His superiors were criticised by the coroner for failing to see that Mr Graham was limited in “skills and experience”.
“This error of judgment resulted in an inadequate initial response to the fires and was a factor allowing all the ACT fires to expand and ultimately become uncontrollable, leading to the devastation that occurred on 18 January 2003,” Coroner Doogan wrote.
“Mr Graham displayed a lack of judgment by failing to recognise the limitations of his skills and experience in dealing with major fire events. As a consequence, he failed to call on and deploy all the resources that were available to him and he failed to seek advice,” she wrote.
The government today reiterated its support for Mr Graham, saying he enjoyed its “complete confidence”.
A spokesman for the Justice and Community Safety Directorate said:
“The Directorate has complete confidence in Tony Graham as Acting Emergency Services Commissioner. Mr Graham has the support of all Chief Officers.”
But that support does not appear to be shared by many firefighters, nor by the firefighters’ union.
The Canberra Times has received a leaked email from a veteran of the 2003 fires, which warns firefighters across the ACT hold concerns over the appointment.
The firefighter, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he was offended on a personal and professional level by the change.
“Approaching the ten year anniversary of the worst disaster Canberra has experienced, one of the men responsible for the outcome of the disaster has been handed the reins,” the firefighter wrote.
“At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I was almost killed during the 2003 firestorm, and I wish never again to be involved in incidents under the control or influence of Tony Graham,” he wrote.
Mr Graham will also be able to exercise strong new powers, introduced in August, to make key decisions surrounding whether volunteers or professional firefighters take the lead role in fighting each bushfire as it happens.
The United Firefighters Union says it has been contacted by many firefighters warning they are uneasy with the appointment.
UFU secretary David Livingstone said they have been told “loudly and clearly” by members that they don’t want Mr Graham in the top job.
“The UFU shares the concerns that our members have expressed, and we agree with them that in this case, the history speaks for itself,” Mr Livingstone said.