Documents show schools at mercy of deadly Pinery bushfire left without Education Department support

Documents show schools at mercy of deadly Pinery bushfire left without Education Department support

22 June 2016

published by 

Australia–  Schools under threat from the Pinery bushfire were left to fend for themselves without support from the Education Department at the height of the deadly blaze, State Government documents reveal.

Department documents, obtained by the Opposition under freedom of information laws, also showed there was “indisputable acknowledgment of communication difficulties by all services involved in the management of the Pinery bushfire, exacerbated by the loss of critical telecommunications infrastructure in the fire affected region”.

About 20 schools were threatened during the November 2015 blaze, which killed two people, injured 90 others, destroyed at least 87 homes and burnt 82,600ha in the state’s Mid-North.

“During the Pinery fire … timely notification of known (public) schools was sufficiently problematic,” a document read.

“Identifying and notifying private schools was simply not viable at the time.”

The documents also revealed:

-A school union claimed an Education Department emergency hotline for parents and schools was “repeatedly inaccessible or unhelpful”.
-The Departmentonly contacted Mallala Primary School to offer support and advice to staff as the fire approached but Roseworthy, Owen, Tarlee and Hamley Bridge Primary Schools and Hamley Bridge -Kindergarten “did not receive any phone contact prior to the loss of telecommunications in the area”.
-The department had no formal policy in place for the management of emergencies at the time of the fire and schools were operating on a temporary bushfire response procedure from 2014. An official policy was expected to be endorsed in 2016.
-The departmentrelied on information from the Country Fire Service Regional Commander and CFS emergency warning messages to keep schools updated on bushfires but it was “unable to make direct contact with the CFS Commander at any stage” on the day the Pinery fire broke out.

The documents also stated Wasleys Primary School lost track of the whereabouts of students, enabling one child to walk home by themselves as the blaze hurtled towards the town

“It was revealed … that in the confusion around exactly which children had been collected (by parents), that (a) child had left the school grounds unaccompanied and without authorisation,” a report read.

It also stated another student, who was reported in the media at the time as having done the same, had been watched by a staff member as she walked home and upon arrival she indicated that her father was there.

The documents further revealed the department had “no capacity to know” whether school staff were undertaking work-related travel through the fire danger area while another memo showed the department struggled to contact families to advise of school bus cancellations.

Liberal spokesman Stephen Knoll said the documents showed the frontline response from teachers on the ground was “fantastic” but the government needed to provide an explanation for why “(it) failed to ensure that they were prepared for the upcoming fire season.”

“Essentially, the department has failed to ensure that lessons learnt from fires in previous years, including Sampson Flat, were ready and implemented for the coming fire season that we’ve just finished and this has left children vulnerable,” he said.

Department spokesman Ross Treadwell said the organisation was finalising its formal review of the fire, which would make number of recommendation for improvements.

He said initial improvements to emergency procedures and communications had also been implemented in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

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