Many of our stakeholders simply aren’t aware of all the work Bushfire Volunteers has always done behind the scenes to make things better for everyone. Frankly, that’s mostly our fault for not proactively sharing more of the effort we make to quietly collaborate with others for the benefit of our members. Traditionally we simply haven’t had the resources to share everything that happens behind the scenes, but it is also extremely important to note that we often choose to not share work we undertake if it might be taken as a criticism of the other parties.
So with that in mind, we warily share that the association is disappointed that there has yet to be any report from an Incident Review into the 2019 Yanchep fire.
We know COVID-19 has taken a lot of resources away from the day-to-day work of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services since March and we also know that there are costs involved in doing reviews – not just financial.
However, the association holds the very firm view that inclusive, transparent and timely reviews of major incidents are the key to learning from the past – or “continuous improvement” as some desk jockeys like to call it.
For that reason, we have asked the current Bushfire Royal Commission to think about the value of the Commonwealth Government either creating a Federal agency or funding independent consultants to undertake reviews of major incidents on behalf of all States and Territories. In short, we believe doing this would mean more opportunities for sharing valuable learnings faster and wider than currently possible, reducing the burden of State Departments that might be stretched dealing with other issues (eg. other fires or COVID-19) and perhaps most valuably, the removal of any perception of the inevitable conflict of interest that comes from any entity reviewing itself.
Below is the relevant section of our written submission to the Royal Commission about this issue:
OPPORTUNITY: IMPROVE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING AND KNOWLEDGE SHARING
The AVBFB holds the strong view is that there is enormous potential value in thoroughly reviewing significant operational events as soon as possible after the prevailing threat is completely mitigated.
While most State and Territory governments undertake some form of review of most major incidents, the association sees the opportunity for significantly improved outcomes from these types of reviews if they were mandatorily paid for, conducted by, and accountable to, an agency of the Commonwealth rather than each State.
Irrespective of the effort taken to ensure independence and transparency, it is unlikely that any government department undertaking a review of itself with the primary goal of identifying systemic failures for improvement will ever be perceived as being thorough and open. Take, for example this exchange between the Hon Rick Mazza MLC and Western Australia’s last Fire and Emergency Commissioner Wayne Gregson where Mr Gregson was asked to reassure a Parliamentary estimates hearing that a forthcoming major incident review would not be compromised by the Department reviewing itself:
Hon RICK MAZZA: Just on that issue of review, in The Sunday Times last weekend there was an article headed “National expert for probe”, stating that “Commissioner Wayne Gregson will ask a member of the Australasian Fire Authorities Council” to do a peer review. Is that right?
Mr Gregson: It is not quite right. I was asked what my intention was with respect to reviewing Esperance. I said that I would be commissioning an internal review—a major incident review—which is the usual and ordinary course of business, and that I would refer that document to be peer reviewed by a member of AFAC. My intention was to then provide that to the police so that can form an integral part of the coronial inquest file.
Hon RICK MAZZA: Are you a member of AFAC?
Mr Gregson: Yes, I am. Just so you know who the members are, it is a company, a separate entity, but the members are commissioners or chief executive officers of land management agencies or emergency service agencies, so they are my peer commissioners and the chief foresters and members of the state emergency service commissioners.
Hon RICK MAZZA: The article did say that they would conduct an independent peer review.
Mr Gregson: I would not read too much into the article. What I was trying to convey was that once the major incident review was done, I would give it to one of my peer commissioners, perhaps the commissioner for Victoria or another commissioner, and say, “Could you review that major incident review with commissioner’s eyes and tell me if there was anything further that you think has been overlooked or have we inadvertently glossed over issues or is more depth required on certain issues?” because I wanted to present a complete, comprehensive picture to the police for the coroner.
Hon RICK MAZZA: Is any consideration being given to a full inquiry, like a Keelty inquiry, into the Esperance fires?
Mr Gregson: They are externally imposed on me as a department.
Changes to Australia’s legal framework to enable this would likely result in many enhancements in natural disaster risk management, preparedness, resilience and recovery within and between every State and Territory including:
- A consistent methodology in terms of the process of review and reporting standards. This will deliver many valuable benefits including the capacity for comparative research and longitudinal evaluation of improvement across and between States.
- Unprecedented opportunity for learnings from a major incident in one State or Territory to be quickly and easily shared with, and utilised by, all others.
- Significant cost-savings to State and Territory governments. Whether real or merely perceived, there exists a problematic view that the available budget is a factor in the decision to undertake a review of any given incident and if so, the level of independence and thoroughness with which is occurs.
- Eliminate the opportunity for conflicts of interest that arise when a State Government Department undertakes a review of itself.
- A much higher likelihood of transparency and subsequent stakeholder confidence in the published report.
- Increased awareness of contemporary issues in emergency management by the Commonwealth will increase the opportunity for States to advocate for Federal Government funding and regulatory support when issues common to all States are identified.
The association urges the Royal Commission to consider the merits of a recommendation that the Commonwealth, in consultation with COAG and representatives of immediate stakeholders, takes all action necessary to urgently fund the development of a standardised incident review process, create the resources necessary to undertake reviews of major incidents in every State and Territory and publish reports of every review undertaken using a consistent reporting framework.