Farmers warn not to bog them down in bureaucracy in firefighting registration push

© Provided by ABC NEWS Farm fire fighting units played a big role during the 2020 bushfires on Kangaroo Island. (Supplied: Sabrina Davis)

A trial to register private fire units in advance of bushfire season is at risk of being rejected by fiercely independent farmers, the mayor of Kangaroo Island says, despite the operators remaining willing to help during an emergency.

Last week, the Country Fire Service invited SA farm fire unit (FFU) owners to register their units, which typically include a petrol pump, hose, and up 1,000-litres of water storage on the back of a ute in a trial it said would better “coordinate” fireground resources.

Farmers are often the first responders to a bushfire and benefit from a uniquely local understanding of the terrain — as recognised by a review into South Australia’s devastating 2019-2020 bushfire season, which also recommended a higher level of coordination with authorities.

Kangaroo Island Council Mayor Michael Pengilly said most farmers on the island, which lost two lives to the 2019-2020 bushfires and nearly half the island, had FFUs, but a lot of them did not “want to be bogged down in bureaucracy”.

“They just want to go to a fire and leave when they can, or when they can see the way is clear,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Mr Pengilly himself has been a CFS member for 52 years and said two or three of his neighbours were as well.

“But I could probably count another nine or 10 in the district who are not,” he said.

“They don’t want the bureaucracy, and they don’t want to be told what to do, although they’re quite happy to go a fire, assist people and go home.”

Firefighters accounted for

The independent review conducted by former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty AO found that while FFUs were a valuable resource, “those actively engaged in firefighting needed to be accounted for and appropriately directed”.

“A policy is needed around standards of equipment and PPE [personal protective equipment] carried by these units,” he wrote.

“There does not seem to be any clear policy regarding the level or standard of the firefighting equipment they carry or the PPE they wear, giving rise to health and safety and risk management.”

He recommended that FFUs be incorporated into the Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System so that Incident Management Teams were “aware of their presence on the fireground and their welfare and risks were understood”.

Assisting has become ‘complicated’

Mark Walker owns a farm near Woodside in the Adelaide Hills, where 85 homes were destroyed by the Cudlee Creek bushfires of late 2019.

He said that while he respected and appreciated the CFS and its members, the “bureaucracy further upstairs hobbled the organisation with this type of scenario”.

By way of example, Mr Walker said he was not allowed to help a CFS crew remove a tree that had fallen across a road after the fires, noting it was a tree that “the average chainsaw operator could handle”.

Mr Walker said the CFS chainsaw had broken down, and they were waiting for a new one to arrive, so he offered to help with his own chainsaw.

“They said, ‘No, you can’t help because it’s a CFS designated work zone’,” Mr Walker recalled.

“I said, ‘That’s fair enough, here, use my chainsaw’, and they said, ‘Oh no, we can’t because it’s not inducted into our system’.

“It’s this sort of restriction that occurs with bureaucracy — everything has just been made so complicated and the average person just can’t be bothered putting up with the nonsense.

“It all boils down to insurance because if the chain flew off my chainsaw and it hadn’t been inducted, and there was an injury, then insurance wouldn’t cover it.”

A simple process

A CFS video about FFUs said the units — which required a reliable vehicle to transport — could be quite simple and also gave standardised advice about what to wear during a bushfire, such as sturdy boots, long-sleeved shirts and trousers made of natural fibres.

The CFS also said that FFU operators who registered at firegrounds would have better access to safety, catering and insurance arrangements.

Mr Pengilly said the insurance aspect of registration could have merit, but the “jury was out” on the registration proposal, pointing out that the overwhelming majority of CFS members were volunteers.

“You’ve got to take people with you on this journey, but at the moment, I’m just not sure,” he said.

Several farmers sent several text messages to the ABC with mixed opinions on the matter.

“I’m a farmer on YP — no way I will be registering our fire units — we put fires out — not stuffing around with bureaucracy!” — Jack

Registration includes a FFU sticker that enables passage through SAPOL managed roadblocks. This is an important part and result of pre-season vehicle checks and basic fire safety awareness training” — John

Log on and log off

CFS acting chief officer Georgie Cornish said the registration system was really about encouraging FFUs to log on and log off from a fireground.

“It’s really important that we’re able to coordinate and we understand who’s on the ground, so when those wind changes happen and we undertake aviation support, we know where the FFUs are and they understand what we’re doing as part of broader tactical operations,” she said.

Ms Cornish said she wanted people to register at the beginning of the fire danger season.

“So that we have a sense about what people have, that people have done some basic awareness training, that they’ve registered their vehicles, that we can communicate, and we all have the same common understandings before the fire danger season starts,” she said.

“The more information we have around the number of FFUs we have across the state, the better we can utilise and coordinate that resource.”

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