Tathra bushfire response: Minister 'pleased' with interim report's findings

Emergency services minister Troy Grant in Bega on Friday. Picture: Alasdair McDonald
Emergency services minister Troy Grant in Bega on Friday. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

Emergency services minister Troy Grant said he is “pleased” with an interim independent inquiry by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty into emergency response procedures during the March bushfire. 

Mr Grant, who visited Tathra on Friday, said he is unsure whether the full report, expected to be released in mid-July, will be made public.

“It’s a cabinet decision about whether it’s publicly released, but I don’t see any reason why that won’t occur,” Mr Grant said.

There’s nothing to hide here, but there’s questions that need to be answered and the inquest is the best way to achieve that.

Emergency services minister Troy Grant

After reading the interim report Mr Grant agreed improvements must be made surrounding the way the agencies work together “collectively”, reducing duplication, forging a clearer understanding of the systems in place and creating technology to better support firefighters.

“How we execute them [the changes], how we get them done will be done in concert with the commissioners, with both of the agencies, and done as quickly as possible so the community have every confidence they have the very best firefighting agencies in the world. Which I believe we do have,” he said.

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The minister said he has told both Fire and Rescue NSW and the NSW Rural Fire Service they will now be responding to fires across the state together, “as a result of some of the contentions that were around here”.

The contentions referred to by Mr Grant surround claims the RFS declined multiple offers for help from NSW Fire and Rescue until the fire closed in on the town.

The RFS was on the scene within 15 minutes after the first emergency calls were received, and an RFS spokesman said based on the fire's initial location and terrain, the Fire and Rescue NSW vehicle would have been unsuitable.

“There’s nothing to hide here, but there are questions that need to be answered and the inquest is the best way to achieve that,” Mr Grant said.

While he did not state which questions he wanted answered as minister, he did say they were dealt with within the interim report.

“It [the report’s aim] was simply to look at the deployment of resources for the fire, and any consequences that came out of that, but more importantly recommendations on how to make that better in the future, and to prove up the complaints or debunk the myths that are out there, and he [Keelty] has done that,” Mr Grant said.

“Remember this fire started with two [fronts], jumped suddenly to 17, then to 29 all within an hour period, and that’s an extraordinary event to deal with,” Mr Grant said.

“Dealing with just a fire can be difficult, dealing with multiple fires in very different terrain at different speed, at different climactic conditions, it gets very tricky.

“I think the response was brilliant. Can it be better? Yes, of course you always learn ways from any incident about improvements.

“We have to bear in mind there’s a coronial inquest that’s going to follow, and his [Keelty’s] job wasn’t to do the job of the coroner,” he said.

Mr Grant said he hopes RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons-initiated coroner’s inquest into the fire can be completed as soon as possible.

“Any delay in that can hurt with the recovery, and quicker answers help with the recovery I think,” he said.

“The coroners will set the time frames for their inquest given their capacity, their workloads and their capability to have the inquest.

“That will be determined by them, but they’ll have all the support they need, be provided with the ‘Keelty Review’, and any other material that is needed from the agencies will be supplied.”

He also put to bed any talk of the state moving towards one firefighting force.

“We have two firefighting agencies in NSW who do very specific work, and at times need to work together and compliment the work that they each do,” he said.

“At the grassroots level they [the two firefighting agencies] get on famously,” Mr Grant said.

“At the executive level they get on famously, but is there some improvements to be made in the management in the middle? I think so.

“We’ll just get that done and everyone will be a beneficiary.”

Mr Keelty also led independent inquiries into the 2011 Perth Hills bushfire and the 2012 Margaret River bushfire.

“What I’m really pleased about is that it [the report] is written in a way that will be easily digestible by everybody,” Mr Grant said.

“He [Keelty] has presented a very good timeline there.

“Everyone will be able to see what was located where at what time.”

During the fighting of the blaze public access checkpoints appeared on the RFS Fires Near Me mobile phone app as fires, confusing many residents, and rumours quickly spread among volunteer firefighters the app had been “hacked”.

A screenshot of a false fire on the RFS Fires Near Me app in March. Minister Troy Grant said the final report will put forward a number of suggested procedural improvements.

A screenshot of a false fire on the RFS Fires Near Me app in March. Minister Troy Grant said the final report will put forward a number of suggested procedural improvements.

Mr Grant said the rumours were untrue, and details will be revealed in the final draft of Mr Keelty’s report.

“There’s some functionality and capacity within the app, and also a thing they call AVL (automatic vehicle location) systems about how to track where firefighters are, and that sort of stuff,” Mr Grant said. 

“That’s all contained within Keelty’s report, and that’s some of the very helpful material and recommendations that we’ll digest and be made, hopefully, public for people to understand, so we can make improvements.”

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