Fire Service in crisis as dispute simmers

Sydney Morning Herald

  • Tim Barlass
Bob Fenwick with the PM Julia Gillard. The Fenwicks lost their home due to the fires last sunday.Coonabarabran fires january 201317th of january 2013Photo: Jacky Ghossein

Put RFS first … fire hero Bob Fenwick with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, at Coonabarabran. Photo: Jacky Ghossein


DAYS before the state’s worst bush fire in a decade destroyed 53 houses and razed 46,000 hectares, the Rural Fire Service in Coonabarabran was in turmoil – torn apart by grievances, disputes and talk of legal action.

The problems were so severe a long-serving senior manager was ”moved sideways” at the height of the crisis.

And in a sign of issues within RFS being more widespread, senior officers in the Gloucester area have spoken out against what they say is over-centralisation of decision-making and too much emphasis on training courses with a ”boy scout” mentality.

The officers also dissented with senior RFS managers when they accused the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service of not conducting enough preventive burning, which they say is resulting in fewer but more devastating fires.

Problems in the Coonabarabran area were so pronounced that fire hero Bob Fenwick, asked in front of TV cameras by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, what she could to help after he lost his house while he was away fighting the inferno, responded that she could bring ”harmony within the RFS”.

He said: ”We have been a bit rough-trod [over] in our RFS in the last year. Get that sorted out. Get our fire control bosses all on the one foot, then it all fits together.”

The Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, confirmed the in-fighting. ”There has been some local issues occurring in the Coonabarabran and Warrumbungles area,” he said.

”There were a number of grievances and disputes lodged by members involving other members so there were issues between members, between volunteers, between fire fighters and senior volunteers but also staff, and we have been working with the local manager to assist him working through some of those disputes.”

Mr Fitzsimmons also confirmed the disputes had resulted in changes of personnel at the height of the fire.

”Only recently we recruited for a new manager in the area and he took up his appointment on the Monday after that significant fire ran through,” he said.

”There was a substantive manager that had been there for a few years and he was moved sideways into a different role. I am confident that there’s a settling going on, there’s some work to be done. I have still got a volunteer continuing to write complaint letters to me and we will continue to address them.”

Six officers in the Gloucester area, which takes in the Barrington Tops National Park, have also given an account of an RFS hamstrung by bureaucracy.

The captain of Rawdon Vale RFS, David Bignell, said: ”Now, if you want to be a captain, you have got to have done this course and that course. It’s like the boy scouts. You have got to get a badge for this and a badge for that and not everyone wants to do that.”

A Gloucester area permits manager, John Hannaford, who has been issuing permits to burn for years, says fire-fighting costs are spiralling out of control with overuse of helicopters fighting fires instead of helping with preventive burns.

”This fighting fires with helicopters – I hate to think what the expense is, and misuse of funds. When you think who is paying, it all comes out of our pocket,” he said.

Mr Fitzsimmons disputed that too much decision-making was being done in Sydney. He also dismissed claims training was like the Scouts.

”It’s not about badges and patches, it’s about development and competency. If you have already got experience you can be assessed on that. Our volunteers are recognised right across this country,” he said.

The acting NPWS head, , Bob Conroy, said he was pleased at the level of preventive burning achieved in the last five years.

”When I compare what we have done in the national parks compared to private owners or land managers, we are boxing well above our weight,” he said.

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