Australia ACT Fire and Rescue needs to recruit 100 new firefighters over the life of the next Territory parliament if a repeat of the events of 2003 is to be averted serving fire officers have said.
Speaking at the launch of the United Firefighter’s Union’s “Rescue Canberra’s Future Campaign” at Mt Stromlo on Wednesday, veteran firefighter Stephen Gibbs said fatigue management and rising response times, brought about by low staffing levels, were serious risk areas.
ACT UFU Secretary, Greg McConville, said when likely retirements and resignations were taken into account, hiring 100 new bodies would only increase the strength of the service by about 72 personnel.
“We are understaffed, under resourced and under prepared for the next major bushfire emergency,” he said.
The Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Simon Corbell, disagreed.
“This government has invested significantly, delivering new vehicles, three new fire stations and station upgrades for both ACT Fire and Rescue and the ACT Rural Fire Service,” his spokesman said.
“The ESA has over 350 paid firefighters, over 530 Rural Fire Service volunteers and 150 trained firefighters in Parks and Conservation Service.
“We have the second lowest response time in Australia, with 90 per cent of structure fires responded to within 11 minutes and 73.4 per cent of all structure fires contained to room of origin.”
Mr Gibbs, a 34-year Fire and Rescue veteran, and Sam Evans, a station officer at Chisholm who started his career two years before the 2003 disaster, are among the public faces of the “ACT on Fire” campaign which is intended to make bushfire readiness an election issue in the lead up to October’s Territory poll.
Both cite staffing, equipment, the need for all fire stations to be manned all the time, world class organisational structures, strong planning and a preparedness to cope with emerging threats from climate change, terrorism and the ever increasing number of non-fire related rescues as issues voters need to ask political candidates about.
Mr Evans is concerned about the current state of readiness, noting his experiences in 2003 had been dramatic and life changing.
“I was at Duffy on the day,” he said. “We expected things to get rough but how rough we didn’t know. My greatest concern was the lack of preparation and the lack of warning.
“Members of the public were not given the information they needed to make an informed decision to stay and defend or to leave [while it was safe to do so].”
By the time it was over 264,000 hectares of land across the ACT and neighbouring parts of NSW had been burnt, more than 500 homes were destroyed and four people were dead.
“There is a risk this could happen again.”
Mr Evans said Canberrans paid for a competent and professional fire and rescue service through a levy on residential rates; the challenge was to make sure government and bureaucracy used the money well.
Mr McConville said one of the most pressing needs was for more bodies on the ground.
“The ACT is not funding or training enough fire fighters,” he said. “We need up to 100 more firefighters in the next four years to replace those retiring and to maintain effective response times.”
Equipment was also an issue: “The ACT only has one specialised vehicle for fighting fires in tall buildings, and it is often broken down [and out of service],” he said.
Planning was also in disarray: “The intended bushfire abatement zone, created in 2003, has been rolled back leaving the outer suburbs of Canberra exposed and vulnerable,” Mr McConville said.