AUSTRALIA – The state’s key firefighting agencies have been using a flawed system to respond to triple zero callouts, while the relationship between the two services has been strained by “significant animosity”.
These were among the key findings of the independent review into the Bega Valley fire, which destroyed 65 homes and 70 caravans or cabins on March 18.
Releasing the report’s findings on Friday, the NSW government will now move to establish a fully integrated single call-and-dispatch centre for all state emergency services, after the review identified the need for a centralised system to ensure an “agnostic approach to deploy the quickest most suitable resource to an emergency.”
The “urgent reform” was among 12 recommendations made by former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who led the independent inquiry into the adequacy of the fire services response to the fire. The NSW government has committed to implementing all the recommendations.
The inquiry also examined the state-wide call-taking and dispatch arrangements between the two fire services – Fire and Rescue NSW, and its volunteer-based counterpart, Rural Fire Service.
It found there was “significant animosity” at a middle-management level between the two services, to the extent that the “common enemy of fires is sometimes overlooked through the distraction of finding fault with each other.”
This fractured relationship formed a central focus of the report’s criticisms, but it also identified structural problems in the “feedback loop” between the two agencies on the day of Bega fire.
For example, delays in conveying on-the-ground information to the FRNSW communication centre resulted in update delays to the “Fires Near Me” app, which remained ‘’advice only’’ for the most of the fire’s duration.
The communication breakdown also resulted in the two services “flying blind” on the day of the fire, with the review revealing the agencies had “two completely different pictures … on what resources were available to fight the Bega Valley fires”.
To address this, the report recommended “as a matter of priority” that the RFS install Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology on its fleet to ensure the nearest and quickest vehicle can be dispatched.
It also recommended the immediate scrapping of the existing fire boundary system, which dictates which agency is dispatched to certain districts, so as to reduce competition and jurisdiction disputes between the two fire services.
Despite these criticisms, the report concluded that it was “difficult to suggest that any better outcome could have resulted on the day,” given the extreme weather conditions, and the scaling up of resources allocated to the fire.
“The review has concluded that despite some of the media commentary many more homes
might have been destroyed in the Bega Valley fires and even lives lost had the efforts
of firefighters and residents not been so successful,” the report said.
Signs of a turf war between the two agencies bubbled into the public sphere in the days after the Bega fire, after call logs were leaked to the media revealing RFS had rejected offers of help from FRNSW.
But the Keelty report found that the decision to refuse FRNSW offers of assistance “had no impact on the outcome of the incident due to the severity of conditions and speed of the fire, and the competing demands for resources to fight other nearby fires.”
Releasing the report on Friday, NSW Emergency Services Minister Troy Grant said the Emergency Services Board of Commissioners had been tasked with implementing all of the recommendations.
“The Commissioners of the NSW RFS and FRNSW are working with a single goal of making sure
community safety comes first and they have my full support to ensure all of their staff, all of our
volunteers and all of the agencies’ combined resources work seamlessly together to achieve this.”