RFS not supportive amid calls for emergency oversight

Jack Gramenz |

Residents have spoken after the inquiry into the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires.
Residents have spoken after the inquiry into the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires.

The head of the NSW Rural Fire Service has dismissed calls for additional oversight in emergency management following an inquiry into the Black Summer bushfires.

NSW State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan made 28 recommendations following the inquiry and said it was remarkable more people weren’t killed during the 2019-2020 blazes.

The fires killed 25 people, while more than 800 million animals were estimated to have perished as their habitats were reduced to ashes.

More than 5.5 million hectares burned across NSW as fires destroyed thousands of houses and buildings, leading to estimated losses of $1.88 billion.

The coroner’s recommendations on Wednesday were directed to the commissioners of the Rural Fire Service (RFS) and NSW Police, and the chief executive of state-owned infrastructure company Essential Energy.

However some community members were left disappointed by the inquiry. 

Independent Bushfire Group convenor Geoffrey Luscombe has called for better emergency management.

“NSW needs an ongoing and independent capability for reviewing and improving disaster operations,” he said. 

The group is made up of volunteers promoting better bushfire management as the climate changes.

Ms O’Sullivan noted the need to adapt to climate change to prepare for future disasters when delivering her findings, saying it is a global responsibility that cannot be understated.

There has still been no comprehensive analysis of the Black Summer fires and how they were managed, Mr Luscombe said.

“The agencies won’t do it, the NSW Bushfire Inquiry didn’t, and the coroner can’t do the heavy lifting,” he said.

The 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires killed 25 people and displaced 800 million animals. (Sean Davey/AAP PHOTOS)

RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers was not supportive of an additional emergency body, noting multiple inquiries into the bushfires.

“I can’t understand how we’ve had so many reviews, but it seems that it’s more about people just didn’t get the result they want so they simply want to try and throw another thing in there,” he said on Wednesday.

The RFS has plenty of scrutiny and review of its activities already, he said.

“We’re one of the most inquired into agencies in this state,” Mr Rogers said.

Former Bilpin RFS captain Bill Shields, also a member of the Independent Bushfire Group, said the coroner did a remarkable job on a mammoth task but the inquiry could not address the key issues.

He suggested NSW follow other states in appointing an inspector-general of emergency management.

“We believe that there needs to be an independent body to do it,” he said after the findings were handed down on Wednesday.

Queensland and Victoria both have an inspector-general, whose role is to direct and focus the work of government agencies in disaster and emergency management.

NSW experimented with former Rural Fire Service (RFS) commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who led the response to the Black Summer bushfires, as the head of Resilience NSW.

The since-scrapped agency he was appointed to lead in 2020 was created after the Black Summer fires and intended to focus on disaster management and recovery, but disappeared after a NSW government inquiry into floods that hit the state in 2022.