Keelty review says fire services plagued by ‘animosity and mistrust’

A kangaroo on Wildlife Drive in Tathra during the March 18 bushfire. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
A kangaroo on Wildlife Drive in Tathra during the March 18 bushfire. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

Former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has questioned the “bureaucratic” nature of fire response across the state as part of his independent review into the adequacy of the official response to Tathra’s March 18 bushfire.

On a day with the fourth highest fire danger rating on record for the region, Mr Keelty said call and dispatch processes were “flawed and in need of urgent reform”, and the state’s two fire services the Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW were plagued by “animosity and mistrust”.

“It seems that the common enemy of fires is sometimes overlooked through the distraction of finding fault with each other,” he said.

One of the 24 key findings and 12 recommendations surrounding the response to the fire which destroyed 1250 hectares of land, 65 homes and 70 caravans or cabins, is the move to establish a more centralised, fully integrated single call-and-dispatch centre for all state emergency services based on the current ambulance service model.

Recommendations also include abolishing fire districts, and fitting the RFS fleet with Automatic Vehicle Location tracking devices.

The highly-anticipated report was released on Friday, after reviewing 183 submissions from the public, volunteer and full-time firefighters.

Emergency services minister Troy Grant and the RFSA agreed with the review’s finding that, despite criticisms, the blaze was battled as best it could have been given the resources available.

Mr Keelty said RFS and RFS Association executives acknowledged they are “flying blind for a period of time” during fires, and a “thankful” error on the day had seen more FRNSW resources available than the RFS Incident Control Online system was aware of.

The review found the two agencies had provided “two completely different pictures” of the response to the fire, and the Fires Near Me app and social media were inadequate in providing a “a single source of truth”.

The report shows FRNSW staff built a dossier of over 100 incidents where they thought the RFS had not responded appropriately.

Mr Keelty found an RFS district duty officer at Moruya had declined assistance from FRNSW, twice before 1pm, possibly unaware of the extent and speed of the fire, and the then-subsequent FRNSW command centre decision to self-deploy, was “a regular occurrence”.