A senior Department of Environment and Conservation worker has told a parliamentary inquiry of “reluctance” and “apprehension” by staff to do any more prescribed burning in the wake of the death last month of firefighter Wendy Bearfoot.
It comes as the unions representing professional firefighters and DEC staff involved in fire management painted bleak picture of WA’s preparedness for the upcoming fire season, detailing problems with a new radio communications staff shortages and “questionable” equipment.
The United Firefighters Union also refuted comments by Emergency Services Minister Troy Buswell that frontline services would not be affected as a result of public sector-wide budget cuts.
Ms Bearfoot, a DEC conservation worker, was trapped in the fire’s path after strong winds changed direction as she, a 24-year-old colleague and several other firefighters fought a blaze on a private property near Albany on October 12.
Nature Conservation Coordinator Blackwood District, John Carter, appearing as a Community and Public Sector Union delegate, told the community development and justice committee today that Ms Bearfoot’s death had taken a toll.
Responding to Liberal MP and former Emergency Services Minister Rob Johnson’s comment that only 6500ha of prescribed burns had been carried out, Mr Carter said despite an expected “bad fire season” there was “reluctance to do burning”.
“From a morale point of view, people are very concerned and wary about being involved in the program,” he said.
However, despite resourcing concerns he did not expect 26 extra staff promised by the Government to be employed until late this year, early next year and feared management positions might be sourced internally, “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
Australian Workers Union WA branch secretary Stephen Price said the DEC took a “very minimal approach” to its legislative requirements. While it could tackle “one to two fires” concurrently any more meant resources were “extremely stretched”.
He said the suitability of some DEC vehicles for fire conditions was “questionable” and a lack of emergency training was also a concern.
Mr Price said staying inside a vehicle was seen in the past as being the safest place.
“But as we found out in Albany that’s not always the case,” he said.
Also appearing before the committee, United Firefighters Union secretary Kevin Jolly said the Westerns Australian Emergency Radio Network was too complex, would not cut it in a multi-agency response and needed to be scrapped.
“It’s a dog’s breakfast” he said.
Outside the hearing, Mr Jolly contradicted claims by Mr Buswell that front-line services would not be affected by public sector-wide budget cuts.
Mr Buswell made the assurances after WA’s first Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner, Wayne Gregson, refused to rule out any hit.
“I can’t see how it won’t,” Mr Jolly said.
“If you have sick leave or you need people to be trained, there’s a reluctance to take those people off shift and to backfill, so that will create overtime. Any funding cuts would stop overtime, it has to have an effect on frontline.”
Mr Jolly said WA needed an extra 300 firefighters to ensure a better fire service but a hiring freeze meant this was not possible.