Act on fire

6 Key Priorities:

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More firefighters

Since 2006 the population of Canberra has increased by 55,000 but the number of firefighters has only increased by 2 per operational shift. As a result, the existing 330 firefighters undertook an extraordinary 50,000 hours of overtime to May last year. ACT Fire and Rescue needs 100 additional firefighters by 2021 just to maintain adequate fire cover. Additional full-time firefighters will be required to accommodate Canberra’s growing population and the increased emergency incidents due to extreme weather caused by climate change.

  • 16 to meet current staffing shortages;
  • 12 to replace staff who will leave the service in the next couple of years; (The above 28 firefighters could be hired without increasing the ACT Fire and Rescue budget)
  • 24 to crew an additional station at Molonglo;
  • 24 to crew an additional station in the City;
  • 24 to crew an additional specialist appliance (BA / Hazmat).

The above would result in an additional 72 firefighters in total, or 12 firefighters per shift (plus the necessary relief factor to cover leave, illness etc.) This is a conservative estimate of the minimum that we require in the next term of government in the ACT and should enable 2 additional stations and additional equipment to be deployed.

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Proper Equipment

The ACT only has one aerial firefighting vehicle. ACT Fire and Rescue has no back-up vehicles for Hazmat response or breathing apparatus equipment.

A modest and staged program for expansion of specialist capability would see two additional specialist appliances:

  • A combined Hazmat / Breathing Apparatus appliance (at a cost of approximately $800,000); and
  • An Aerial Pumper, which can be deployed as a Pumper and as an Aerial appliance (At a cost of approx. $800,000) OR another Bronto (At a cost of approximately $1.5 Million).

The deployment of these appliances would be as follows:

  • In early September 2016, the existing Aerial appliance, the 44 meter Bronto was transferred from Fyshwick to the replacement Belconnen Station;
  • The Breathing Apparatus Support van (BA) is to be moved from Ainslie to Fyshwick once Fyshwick is upgraded;
  • The Aerial Pumper could be deployed at Phillip, so that both the North and South of Canberra have Aerial capacity;
  • The Phillip Pumper could be transferred to a new City Fire station;
  • The Hazmat / BA combined appliance could be stationed at Ainslie.
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No part time stations

The new and growing suburbs of Canberra deserve full fire coverage with response times under the critical 8 minute mark. This cannot be achieved with the part time fire stations the Government is proposing in Chisholm and Molonglo.

The Government received a report in early 2015 which showed the results of modelling of day-shift only crews for two fire stations (i.e. two fire stations would close at night). At that time the modelling showed that plans to have part time stations were under consideration for West Belconnen, Gungahlin, Chisholm Greenway (now replaced by new South Tuggeranong station), Kambah and Phillip.

The results of the modelling showed that response times could blow out considerably as follows:

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Multi-storey apartments require a second pump for safe firefighting to commence. This means that residents of multi-storey apartments would have to wait up to 28 minutes for firefighting to commence.

The ACT Government again received modelling in early 2016, based on proposed part time stations for Molonglo and Chisholm. Modelling was also conducted in relation to a proposed part time station at Pialligo, although we understand that a City location is now more likely than Pialligo. It is unknown whether this is proposed to be a full time station.

All Canberrans deserve the same standard of fire cover. ACT Government estimates that by 2019, an additional 10,300 people will live in Molonglo, and that the total ACT population will be close to 400,000. Part time fire stations would endanger lives.

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A Strong Organisation

Firefighters should not be taken out of ComCen nor have the training program removed from their direction and control. Our capacity to respond to a major incident has been buried in successive layers of bureaucracy. Consistent with the 2003 Coroner’s Report the Emergency Service Agency should be made independent with a direct reporting line to the Minister.

The Strategic Reform Agenda, an idea of the bureaucracy that has never been put before Canberrans in the context of an election, is seeking to remove important functions from under the direction and control of senior experienced and high ranking firefighters. No savings have been identified for the changes, which would see the following functions removed from the direction and control of ACT Fire and Rescue:

  • Firefighter training anddevelopment;
  • Regulatory compliance;
  • Planning;
  • Fire investigation;
  • Community engagement;
  • Fire and emergency communications;
  • Automatic fire alarm management;
  • Fire station design and upgrades.

After the 2003 bushfires, the McLeod report and the Coroner’s Report raised serious concerns about emergency services being subject to bureaucratic control. The Coroner, Maria Doogan found:

“Placing the agency within a government department puts unnecessary layers of bureaucracy between the agency and the responsible Minister, and the bureaucrats concerned usually have no special knowledge of or experience in emergency management, regardless of their seniority in the bureaucracy”.

Doogan’s recommendation, which was similar to that of the McLeod Inquiry, has never been implemented. Changes now being made will make the organisation worse than that which existed in 2003.

The ACT Government allocated over $15 million to improve operational response in the ESA. There has not been much to show for that, aside from an additional four highly paid executives.

Firefighters in the ESA Comcen provide a holistic communications service. Comcen is the frontline in fire and emergencies. It acts as the incident controller from the moment a call is taken, until appliances arrive on scene. It maintains a 24 hour per day, seven-day a week overview of availability and deployment of firefighters and equipment. It deploys and re-directs resources in changing and complex situations: efficiently and dynamically.

Comcen firefighters have instructed residents in extinguishment of fires themselves: preventing expensive and dangerous outcomes. They have also instructed distressed and lost citizens and guided them to safety. Comcen operates multiple radio channels during incidents to ensure safe firefighting and rescue operations, from the time a call is received until the job is completed.

In jurisdictions where firefighters have been removed from communications, or where their role has been reduced, response times have been increased by lengthy prescriptive call taking scripts. Similarly, other jurisdictions have needed to invest in expensive and complex command vehicles, costing millions of dollars, to replace the role of firefighters in communications centres.

Comcen performs a first class role: there has never been any adverse incident in fire and rescue operations under the watch of Comcen firefighters. Let’s keep it that way.

A strong organisation means:

  • Keeping firefighters in Comcen;
  • ESA reporting directly to the Minister; and
  • Firefighters maintaining direction and control of their training, planning, investigations, community resilience and education, and future fire station location and design.
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A Strong Plan

The lessons of 2003 as they relate to the City Area have been lost. We need clear plans for a major fire incident including restoring the Bushfire Abatement Zone and its original intent.

The Inquiry into the Operational Response to the January 2003 Bushfires in the ACT (“The McLeod Report”) made the following recommendations:

  • A fire-abatement zone should be defined between the north-west and western perimeter of Canberra and the Murrumbidgee River and the foothills of the Brindabella Range.
  • A set of Bushfire Protection Planning Principles in relation to fire mitigation and suppression should be adopted and applied to future developments in the designated abatement zone.
  • The abatement zone should be declared a bushfire-prone area, and the requirements of the Building Code of Australia—in particular, its standards for bushfire-prone areas—should be applied to all future developments in the zone.

The Coroner, found that the firestorm that caused the loss of 500 houses and 4 lives was caused by a range of factors including that:

“As late as 17 January 2003, the Emergency Services Bureau’s lack of plans or strategies for dealing with the fires in the event that they reached the suburbs – other than leaving the problem to the ACT Fire Brigade.”

To prevent similar findings again being made in the event of another tragedy, we strongly advocate that:

  • The Bushfire Abatement Zone be restored to its original intent, so that if a fast moving fire is assessed by ACT Fire and Rescue as having the capacity to impact upon the built up area, ACT Fire and Rescue can assume incident control.
  • The recommendations of the McLeod Inquiry and the Coroner concerning the ESA having a direct line of reporting to the Minister should be implemented.
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Ready for emerging threats

We are not ready for the increasing threats and challenges of terrorism, climate change, population growth and a rapid increase in non-fire rescue incidents such as rescues and car accidents.

It’s not nice to think about, but as the capital of Australia Canberra is a target for terrorism. There are many in emergency services who observe that “it is not a matter of if, but when”.

Like any emergency, a response to a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or Explosive (CBRNE) attack needs to be based on capability, rather than utilisation. This means that in the event that the worst scenario plays out, we are prepared. We cannot base our response capability on assumptions about how often we might use it.

Increasing our HAZMAT response is a direct benefit in dealing with the safety threats from terrorism. One HAZMAT vehicle is not enough.

Both career and volunteer firefighters face increased workloads as a result of climate change. A study commissioned by the UFU, and undertaken by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research in 2013, found that to deal with climate related increased bushfire risks, Australia will need to increase the number of firefighters by between 67% and 83% by 2030. The same study concluded that the A.C.T will need to increase the number of firefighters by between 75% and 96% over the same period: almost double the current number.

Risks associated with extreme weather events include floods and storms. If volunteer resources don’t increase by the same proportion, professional firefighter numbers would have to increase by even more.

A strong Fire and Rescue organisation depends on and supports a strong Rural Fire Service, and vice versa.