Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cut the RFS? Newman is barking mad

...Or so appallingly, bloodlessly, gimlet-eyed cynical that in service of the chimera of ideology, Newman is willing to kill real, living humans.

I don’t know that Campbell Newman, Queensland’s Bastard Premier from Hell*, has ever stood in front of a bushfire up close. I suspect not: because if he had, he wouldn’t hack the head off the Queensland RFS.

Let’s go back a bit. There was a time when the volunteer bushfire brigades only received the barest of bare-bones formal, organized, full-time staff support from governments. Those were the days when crews would argue for the fun of riding on the running-boards next to the water-tanks, holding onto a handrail – on the Great Western Highway, if we pleased.

What ended that era? Burned, dead bodies. The most famous event I can recall was 1980, when the Waterfall brigade lost five members. There were others.

Over time, it became clear to governments around the country that the volunteers needed professionals at the top, most of all to try and stop volunteers dying in fires. At the time, volunteers were offended: but the death-rate did fall – and fire-fighting got better along the way.

Newman needs to understand, but never will, that standing even close to a wall of fire is as close to warfare-terror – and as outright dangerous – as will ever befall most civilians (especially in large numbers).

It certainly was so when I left a haircut in – 1978? 1979? – because the radio carried a general call: all available volunteers were wanted on Tableland Road, Wentworth Falls, with a fire approaching from the west. There were two aged care facilities there at the time – Mount Bodington and Queen Victoria Hospital – and not enough ambulances to evacuate them before the fire was expected to arrive.

So. Arriving volunteers were being farmed out to brigades as they turned up – instead of being with our normal crews. Had there been staff professionals in charge of everything, that might have been a better idea; as it was, it was damn lucky that nobody died on the ground.

I think – but really couldn’t guarantee my memory – that I ended up with a crew from Blaxland. And we, like every other crew, were in a thin yellow line facing westwards at the edge of Mount Bodington Hospital.

I’ve just had to consult a map to try and guess where the fire was when we assembled: we saw it cross Narrowneck into the Jamison Valley; I suppose Mount Solitary was scorched along the way.

Maybe ten minutes later, we went from standing in front of a distant fire to standing in front of one that was right fucking here! If I give it an advance speed of 60 clicks, ten minutes seems reasonable.

And I can’t tell how long we worked how hard to stop the fire getting at the buildings – which we nearly won. One structure burned: the wooden mini-towers holding up large corrugated-iron water tanks. When they collapsed, they fortuitously dumped a Jesus-load of water down the hill at my – and the others from Blaxland – feet. It took care of the ground-level burns on a ten-meter-wide space, at least. The crowns still burned.

When we finally turned around, away from the burning trees that had eased back to mere fire, rather than the unbelievable roar of the fire-front, that we realized there were vehicles on fire. Some damn fool, I pray it wasn’t me, had left the window open on the tanker (an ancient thing from Bedford) and cinders blew in. That was extinguished, and the guys in the cabin got a wet bum for the drive home.

And yes, the old-folk’s home was okay. The fire-front passed; crews were reduced to free people up for the next destination of the fire, Lawson. I was told to go in search of the Wentworth Falls brigade, which I didn’t find. After all: once the crisis was over I – and a couple of hundred others – had to hike back to our cars, parked perforce out near the Great Western Highway, a goodly distance by foot from where we’d been working.

Within the hour, a girl from Katoomba High School was dead. She was caught by the same fire, trying to rescue her horses. It was only the greatest of good fortune that nobody died at Bodington defending the hospital.

Bushfire experiences leave things burned into the memory: from another fire, I can still tell you that the radio operator that saved three crews with an early “get out” warning was on the callsign VL2KL.

But what really gets me about Newman’s “cut off the head” approach to the RFS is this:

Professional coordination would have better managed the resources deployed to that fire. It probably didn’t need “every available” volunteer to get concentrated in one place, without transport back out to speed our availability at the next spot.

Professional coordination would have anticipated the next need – down at Honour Avenue, Lawson, where someone died.

And shortly later, professional coordination might have made a difference when the Waterfall crew died.

You see: the Wentworth Falls Brigade, the Blaxland Brigade, the Waterfall Brigade – and many others – were all very good, but coordination over the top of a huge operation was lacking. That was the whole point of expanding the “bureaucracy”, the professional staff, in charge at the top of the volunteer system.

Someone needs to run an incident centre – somewhere that the entire incoming information can be concentrated. The incoming mapping information, the analysis of the fire, has to come from somewhere. VL2KL saved my life, once, based on experience and a hunch – and while I don’t decry these as good things, if there are hundreds of fire-fighters from dozens of crews deployed around a fire that outstrips experience and hunches, you need to deal with data.

And dealing with bushfire data isn’t trivial: there will be, as we know from the analysis of various disasters over the years, hundreds of reports arriving of various quality, along with predictions and models and so on.

At the very top, that needs resources: and down where the brigades are, it needs to be conveyed by someone with both the trust of the brigades, and the authority to issue orders.

Campbell Newman is completely insane if he thinks that his “reforms” of the RFS won’t result in deaths.

*I am, for those “in the know” recalling the venerable and epic satirical series, the Bastard Operator From Hell (plug: available at The Register, one of my employers). Newman has all of the malice and none of the humour.

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