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Bushfires: How politics is compromising safety

As fire seasons become longer, more complex and damaging, an industrial dispute is the last thing fire-prone communities need

Public inquiries have played an important part in shaping the way emergency management in Australia has evolved. But recently, those same public inquiries have also been a place where many emergency management leaders have been scapegoated, vilified and blamed.

These characteristics have re-emerged in our emergency management culture and they only serve to lock the government and emergency service organisations into a cycle of self-harm which threatens to undermine community safety.

The resignation of Jane Garrett, Victoria’s Minister for Emergency Services, the Government’s dismissal of the Country Fire Authority’s board of directors, followed by the resignations of the CFA’s chief executive officer and chief officer, show that one of Victoria’s most important emergency management organisations – at least at a strategic level – is characterised by disharmony, disunity and fragmentation.

Even though the newly-appointed CFA board of directors recently signed the controversial enterprise bargaining agreement, it is clear volunteers remained dissatisfied.

A CFA firefighter attacks a blaze started by lightning at Trafalgar, Victoria, in 2014. Picture: Alex Coppel/Herald Sun
A CFA firefighter attacks a blaze started by lightning at Trafalgar, Victoria, in 2014. Picture: Alex Coppel/Herald Sun

In an emergency management context this spate of dismissals, resignations and political posturing is unprecedented and irregular. In the current climatic conditions it is also worrying, despite unions dismissing management concerns about the terms of the enterprise bargaining agreement as “alarmist”.

Fire behaviour experts tell us bushfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer. These bushfires are also more frequent, complex and damaging. Yet the CFA has been locked in an industrial dispute between volunteer and career firefighters which can only detract from their focus on community safety and preparations for the fire season.

Research recently commissioned and released by the United Firefighting Union has found “284 local government areas around the country, with a total population of almost 2 million people and $500 billion in assets, had few or no paid firefighters”.

Many of these areas are in fire-prone south-east Australia. Such research shows that communities rely on volunteers to make up a severe shortfall in emergency management capacity and capability. It also shows the communities need volunteers and career firefighters working together – in an integrated manner – to manage the threat of bushfire. And it shows that governments and unions must respect the views of volunteers when negotiating enterprise bargaining agreements.

A recent University of Melbourne and Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC study, which analyses the findings of public inquiries generally and Royal Commissions specifically, consistently found emergency service organisations must operate in an integrated manner to manage emergencies effectively.

need to act decisively

While intuitively this makes sense, in practice it has proved more difficult to achieve. Few would disagree with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ view that it is important to end the industrial dispute before summer, but ending it in a manner which prevents senior emergency management leaders from fulfilling their statutory obligations can only compromise firefighter wellbeing and community safety.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission found emergency management leaders must act decisively on days of high fire danger to ameliorate threats to community safety. If emergency management leaders are denied the power to act decisively during fire operations, then we run the risk of condemning the community to risk in favour of a convenient industrial agreement.

We also run the risk of a shortfall in future emergency management leadership roles as suitable incumbents may opt to eschew roles where they are given management authority, but without the power to make optimum decisions in operational scenarios.

Longer and more complex fire seasons mean we cannot afford to lose potential volunteers to rigid working arrangements. Nor can we afford leaders with expertise opting to resign because the government and union movement conspire to hinder their statutory authority.

Much of the current dispute has centered around resource allocation and decision making during operations. The Black Saturday Royal Commission reminded us emergency management is much more than fire operations. This industrial dispute has overlooked the important role that emergency management organisations need to play in building capacity and capability in our communities, so that households have a written fire plan and know what they will do on days of high fire danger.

If we continue to push community education to the margins of emergency management, then many of our most vulnerable communities will struggle to get the support they need to develop meaningful fire plans. As fire expert Dr David Bowman has said: ‘‘Further down the track, we’re going to have to start getting really serious about getting our towns and cities more resilient to fire because we’re carrying too much risk.’’

Black Saturday is a stark reminder that bushfires will never heed or respect the terms of even the most carefully thought out working arrangements.

Throughout this dispute the Government, the unions and all emergency services organisations should not lose sight of the fact that bushfire is an intrinsic part of Victoria’s landscape. The report of the Black Saturday Royal Commission reminds us that “if time dims our memory we run the risk of repeating mistakes of the past”.

Graham Dwyer’s doctoral research is understanding and learning how organisations make sense of and learn from bushfires in Victoria since 1939. He is also affiliated to the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, Australia.

Banner image: A charred landscape near Healesville, Victoria, after the Black Saturday bushfires. Picture: Luis Ascui/Getty Images

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