OPINION is divided over the cost and structure of a Rural Fire Service, one of 17 recommendations from the inquiry into the fatal Yarloop bushfire.
Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades State President David Gossage called for immediate steps to form an independent service, not controlled by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).
“The first step is appointing a chief officer to be involved in the development of the new organisation,” he said.
“They would be expected to have senior bushfire and organisational experience and be looked upon as a key contributor to working on the details for the new fire service.”
Mr Gossage said if the current system continued, there would be more loss of life and larger scale disasters.
“It is no coincidence worrying changes have occurred since the abolition of the Bush Fires Board, the centralisation of emergency services and the overemphasis on response at the expense of risk prevention and mitigation,” he said.
“Commonsense decision making at a local level is pivotal to fire management, if further fatalities are to be avoided in WA.”
Bushfire Front chair Roger Underwood said he strongly supported a Rural Fire Service.
“The current system is failing,” he said.
“However, the reality is any new organisation will only be as good as the people who work in it and if it adopts a new mission and the right culture it will be very beneficial.
“The NSW Rural Fire Service is not a good example because it is hated by the vollies, mainly because it has set itself up in Sydney and takes the wrong attitudes to the vollies and bushfire management.
“The Country Fire Authority in Victoria and South Australia are better, not perfect, but much better than being run by metropolitan fire brigades like DFES.”
WA Premier Colin Barnett said the Inquiry emphasised the importance of local knowledge and experience in fighting bushfires.
“Volunteer firefighters do a magnificent job and their expertise needs to be better utilised,” he said.
“The State Government will establish a Rural Fire Service as either a separate agency or sub-department of DFES.
“Consultation will take place with relevant agencies such as the DPaW, DFES, local government, volunteer firefighters and the United Firefighters Unions of WA to investigate the best model.”
But Mr Underwood said it would be a disaster if DFES were to run the Rural Fire Service.
“The two cultures are already at each other’s throats and would mix more easily than oil and water,” he said.
“If DFES is the army, the vollies are the partisans, they might be fighting the same enemy, but the whole approach is different.”
Mr Gossage said an independent service did not need to be an expensive new bureaucracy.
“Wild figures of up to $100 million in extra costs have been thrown into the mix,” he said.
“We have never advocated for a massive new bureaucracy akin to another DFES.”
Shire of Mundaring Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Throssell said the shire was keen to be a key stakeholder in the State Government’s consultation to investigate the best model for a Rural Fire Service.
“The shire has nine volunteer brigades which are a vital tool to help protect our region against bush fires and respond to incidents,” he said.
“The welfare of these brigade members is of utmost importance to the shire and we support measures which increase the resilience of our community as a whole.”
Darlington Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade Captain Eric Baldock said while the brigade had formed no formal position regarding the formation of a Rural Fire Service, it had in principle support.
“As with the wider community, individual brigade members have a wide variety of opinions,” he said.
BY SARAH BROOKES