Last summer's bushfires were on a scale not seen in modern Australian history. In NSW alone, the fires resulted in the deaths of 26 people, damaged more than 5.52 million hectares of land and destroyed 2,400 homes.
On 30 January 2020, the NSW Premier announced an inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfires, seeking recommendations relating to bush fire preparedness and response in advance of the 2020-21 bush fire season.
Authored by former Deputy Police Commissioner Dave Owens and former chief scientist Mary O'Kane, the inquiry's final Report made 76 recommendations that the NSW Government has said will be accepted in principle, which include steps to enhance future cross-border collaboration and resource-sharing. The Report also recommends that the NSW Government allocate additional resources to prioritise the renewal, upgrade and maintenance of its firefighting capability "ecosystem".
Extreme conditions and dangerous fires – the new normal
The Report said that the 2019-20 bushfire season challenged conventional assumptions and that extreme conditions such as those in the summer of 2019-2020 would happen again with destructive bushfires becoming more frequent.
The Report's 76 recommendations include the establishment of a new centre for bushfire research and technology, new training to increase the capacity of fire authorities to deal with disasters of the scale seen in the 2019-20 bushfires, and examination of existing preparedness strategies to determine the best approach to increasingly frequent and extreme fire seasons.
A focus on renewal, upgrade and maintenance of firefighting resources
The Report identifies that the NSW Government has already made significant commitments regarding State firefighting resources ahead of the next bushfire season, including:
- $10.7 million for additional mitigation crews to fast-track hazard reduction burning;
- $34.4 million to upgrade the NSW RFS firefighting fleet, which will deliver 120 new vehicles and 70 refurbished trucks by the end of the 2020-21 financial year; and
- $22.9 million to the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) to increase hazard reduction activity in and around the highest risk areas and improve aerial rapid-response firefighting capability with the addition of 80 firefighters and a helicopter.
These commitments align with priorities identified by the Inquiry, which further recommends that the NSW government allocate additional resources to prioritise the renewal, upgrade and maintenance of its firefighting capability "ecosystem" to be able to:
- lead the development of a spatial technology acceleration program that leverages the use of existing remote sensing technology in partnership with other State and Territory governments but also acknowledge the need to centralise the acquisition of new remote sensing systems to improve real-time capabilities to detect and monitor fire intensity and progression;
- implement a whole-of-government acquisition program for imagery tools (LiDAR and the like) and accelerate the State Digital Twin and Digital Workbench projects to consolidate requirements, avoid duplication and drive cost efficiencies to ensure emergency services have reliable access to accurate infrastructure and asset information;
- upgrade the "manual" NSW RFS fire permit system to an online system;
- undertake a bush fire risk assessment of key sections of all State roads and bridges to identify "high-risk" areas in the existing road network to achieve greater bush fire resilience and prioritise the upgrades of those road corridors;
- secure a whole-of-government asset management system for managing a state-wide fire trail network and identify any urgent upgrade requirements in preparation for the upcoming bush fire season;
- assess the long-term health impacts of sustained poor air quality by investing in air quality forecasting and alert systems for identifying various pollutants, including smoke, ozone and dust;
- invest in NSW RFS fleet upgrades for frontline vehicles such as tankers;
- expand the Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) capability to major regional centres and ensure the NSW RFS and other NSW government agencies can access this capability;
- ensure NSW RFS frontline personnel have two sets of personal protective clothing; and
- acquire an automated invoicing system for NSW RFS to ensure timely payment of suppliers.
Enhancing cross-border co-operation and resource-sharing
Recognising that resource-sharing between the States and Territories was a key feature of fighting the 2019-2020 fires, the Report recommended further enhancement of future cross-border collaboration.
A number of recommendations made by the Inquiry relate to the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) and its role in enhancing and coordinating resource sharing arrangements across different jurisdictions, both domestic and international, during periods of peak demand. The AFAC has 31 member organisations including the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA). While it does not deliver emergency services the AFAC played a crucial coordination role in the 2019-2020 season, ensuring that resources could be shared between fire authorities in the impacted States.
The Inquiry was informed of suggestions that the functions of the AFAC be vested in whole or part in Emergency Management Australia. The Inquiry expressed concern that such an arrangement may lead to greater bureaucratisation of AFAC functions saying that this "could have a negative impact on existing flexibility and responsiveness". The Report highlighted that the success of the AFAC lies in its collaboration model and said that "moving away from the current model may be perceived as contrary to the widely accepted principle that combat agencies are best placed to determine operational requirements".
Finally, the Report recommends that governments provide long-term funding certainty to AFAC in order to ensure that cross-jurisdiction resource-sharing arrangements can continue.
MOU between NSW and Victoria
Another priority action identified by the Inquiry is the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between NSW and Victoria. The last MoU was executed between the Victorian Country Fire Authority and the NSW RFS. Although it expired in 2016, both agencies agreed to honour the previous arrangements prior to the start of the last bushfire season. The Report recommends that to ensure updated resource-sharing arrangements are in place, the NSW and Victorian Governments progress and finalise a multi-agency MoU before the 2020-21 fire season commences