Fire and Emergency Services (Governance) Amendment Bill

02 Mar 2021

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 3 December 2020.)

The Hon. D.C. VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart—Minister for Energy and Mining) (12:19): It is a pleasure to rise to speak on this bill on behalf of the government. We have an excellent minister covering fire and emergency services in the member for Hartley. This is a very important bill and there has been very good work led by that minister.

Unfortunately, the bill came about because we had some dreadful bushfires at the start of 2020. As we all know—and I will not go into it all—2020 was a tough year in many different ways. We were in drought across most of the state at that stage, and we then had devastating bushfires on Kangaroo Island, in the Adelaide Hills, on Yorke Peninsula, Eyre Peninsula and some at Keilira down in the South-East as well as some other places.

Out of that the minister took the very responsible step of saying, 'Well, what else can we do? What else can we do here in South Australia, as a government and in partnership with a whole range of organisations, not the least of which, of course, are the CFS, SES, SA Ambulance and other organisations that have a huge number of volunteers in them?' What the minister has done is seek an independent review to look into exactly what was done and what could have been done better—a warts and all look at this issue.

The independent review found that the response from our emergency services sector was quite remarkable; however, there are certainly things that could be improved. The independent review recommended that the state government consider amending the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 to enable the Minister for Police, Emergency Services and Correctional Services to appoint an independent chair to the SAFECOM board, and this is one of the key things proposed under the bill.

To be clear, I say again that the independent review found that the response to the bushfires at the beginning of 2020 was actually very good, but we do not back away from the fact that there is always room for improvement. Let me share with the house the improvements that have been made recently.

Building on our $48.5 million package released earlier this year, the Marshall Liberal government has delivered a further $49 million package to ensure that South Australia is as prepared as possible for bushfire emergencies. The conditions that gripped the state in the 2019-20 bushfire season were some of the worst on record, and this government has responded with a $97.5 million package in total—as I just mentioned—to keep South Australia safe.

We are investing nearly $110 million so that our emergency services staff and volunteers have the resources and support they need to protect lives and property. Importantly, we are boosting support for CFS volunteers by employing nine additional regional staff, who will reduce the administrative burden on volunteers. We know that emergency services staff and volunteers experience some of the most extreme and distressing circumstances, so we are increasing mental health support by employing an additional professionally qualified counsellor.

Key elements of our response, more broadly, include $5 million for AVL, which is essentially vehicle tracking technology that has already been used successfully in trials this summer, as well as $7.2 million for new CFS appliances, including 25 new trucks for the 2020-21 season. Let me say very clearly here, on the record, and on behalf of the Wilmington CFS brigade, of which I am a member—and I will briefly come back to that—that I would like to thank the minister very much for the brand-new truck.

It arrived 1½ weeks ago, I would say. I was not able to be there on the Monday night when it was brought around, but I did go to the shed to have a look and make myself familiar with it the following weekend. I know how pleased other CFS brigades around the state would be to receive one of the 25 new trucks that have been ordered.

There has also been $2.7 million to retrofit 49 CFS vehicles with burnover protection, which is incredibly important, and there has been a rollout of thermal imaging cameras to all 55 CFS groups. These cameras are extraordinary. If you have ever had the opportunity to use one, they are absolutely extraordinary with regard to what they can do in terms of identifying hotspots, being able to avoid risks and dangers, and identifying further work that needs to be done. They are very impressive pieces of equipment.

There was $11.5 million for the new MFS heavy appliances. While we typically think of bushfires being addressed by the CFS there are certainly times when the MFS will attend bushfires and everybody is very glad to have them there. They are most often used in regard to protecting houses and other structures, usually in townships that are under threat from fire.

I can tell you as a CFS volunteer that when you see the MFS roll into town for a fire, as has happened in my own home town of Wilmington, it does give you a great sense of comfort to know that you and your colleagues will be away, out and about fighting the fire and the MFS will be back in your town making sure that nothing untoward happens there.

There was $4.7 million for nine additional FTEs, including the first permanent CFS staffing presence on Kangaroo Island, $4 million to upgrade state incident management facilities and continue Project Renew, upgrading CFS stations so that CFS volunteers have modern and functional facilities, and $2.1 million for four extra FTEs to provide more support to the State Bushfire Coordination Committee. There is funding for the additional counsellor to support mental health and wellbeing of volunteers and $37 million for increased hazard reduction, including prescribed burns on public land.

That is an outstanding list and I thank the minister and I thank the agencies that report to the minister and all the people who work in those agencies for their effort in putting together this very large package of new expenditure, new tools, new equipment, new appliances, new or upgraded stations, more mental health support and on and on.

But we are not stopping there. Very importantly, what this bill is about is putting a new head of SAFECOM in place, which was a key recommendation from the independent review and that is exactly what we want to do. We certainly hope that all members in this chamber see fit to support this.

I mentioned that I am a member of the Wilmington CFS brigade and that is true. It is also very important that I put on the record that I used to be a very active member of the Wilmington CFS brigade and these days I am not an active member of the CFS brigade in Wilmington. As much as I would like to be, I am actually very rarely home. That has changed a few things in my life lately and I look forward immensely to a future, hopefully not too soon, when I can return to volunteering with the Wilmington CFS.

One of the reasons I support the bill so ardently is because I have seen that firsthand in our area the impact of bushfires. Our Southern Flinders-Upper Mid North area, which I suppose would be the two ways that people would refer to my home patch, is one of the most bushfire ravaged regions of the state. Thankfully, in the last few years we have been blessed in our area—while other areas have not been so fortunate—not to have been hit too hard in that regard at all.

In my time as a member of parliament, let alone as a CFS member before that, in our broader area we have seen two major fires in the Bundaleer Forest, we have seen two major fires in the Wirrabara Forest and we have seen the Woolundunga fire, which started on the western side of the Flinders Ranges, near Horrocks Pass, and decimated a massive amount of country.

We have seen the Bangor fire, which started near the Port Germein Gorge road, towards the bottom, again on the western side of the Southern Flinders Ranges. That was another incredibly devastating fire—in fact, the most devastating of all of them. We have also seen the Sampson Flat fire and the Pinery fire in the southern part of the electorate of Stuart, which I represent, a fair way away from Wilmington and the area I was talking about before. My electorate, including further north in the Flinders Ranges and other parts, has been incredibly hit by fires in the last several years.

Somebody could say that one fire was worse than another, or bigger, easier or better, but it is nearly impossible to try to come up with those types of descriptions. The Bangor fire was absolutely devastating with regard to the speed at which it damaged property and burned homes at times and also with regard to the length. The fire burned for six weeks because there were parts of that region that just could not be accessed. I think it was six houses that were lost.

If I think about the Pinery fire, it started near Pinery, of course, and headed nearly to the edge of the Kapunda township. It did not last nearly as long. It started, it took off and it was a massively fast-moving fire in unreaped crops, something we do not normally see.

Usually, our bushfires start after reaping. Stubble paddocks are typically considered to be good places to fight a fire because you can get out and about on them. You can drive on them and get all your appliances onto them. Stubble can certainly burn ferociously enough and it is a serious fire, but a stubble paddock is typically considered a place you can stop a fire.

The Pinery fire was in unreaped crops. It was a massive, extraordinary fuel load. I do not want anyone to misunderstand my words here. While that fire, by bushfire standards, started and finished in a relatively short space of time, that is completely irrelevant compared to the enormous numbers of houses and sheds that were lost and, most importantly, the two lives that were lost.

That is how you really measure natural disasters: in loss of life. Even understanding the damage the Bangor fire did and the stress it put on local communities for six weeks, everybody would go through that again rather than have a fire that did not last long but took two lives.

There are many other examples that I could go into more depth on, but the reason I give them is that every member of this house knows, and I know personally—it is nothing to do with me, but I know by experience, participation and observation—how incredibly fortunate we are in South Australia to have approximately 12,000 or 13,000 CFS volunteers, to have SES volunteers and to have ambulance volunteers and a wide range of other volunteers who support us as well, but I am focusing on bushfires at the moment, who just give of themselves extraordinarily.

It is not only about fighting the fire. It is not only about fronting up when there is a job to be done or, in many cases, an emergency to be dealt with. It is about the thousands and thousands of hours of training that are put in across the state every year. People turn up, whether they are just helping with fundraising or whether it is an older member of the community who, for all the right reasons, prefers not to go out on a truck anymore so transitions across to running the radio or being one of the people running the radio back at the station.

People contribute in an enormously wide range of ways, and we can never, ever thank those people enough. Those people work within a system, a broad structure, and SAFECOM is at the very top of that structure. SAFECOM is an organisation overseeing, supporting, directing (depending on the occasion and the activity at the time) all the emergency services across our state, and then, of course, each of the streams—from surf lifesaving, even, to provide another example not bushfire related—through to the CFS, which has the largest number of members by volunteer base.

They all work within this broader SAFECOM structure. There are times when it is important that they work independently and run their own race within their own service, and there are times where they must work collaboratively and cooperatively. I know that there are times where there is a bit of frustration perhaps between two services on the ground, if, for example, there is just not quite enough space—different situations can arise.

There are niggles from time to time just as there are in any family, but on the ground the services want to work together, they want to cooperate, they want to support each other when that is appropriate, lead each other when that is appropriate. There are certain circumstances, such as a bushfire, or perhaps a motor vehicle accident where the CFS would take a leadership role with regard to helping use the jaws of life to extract a person trapped in that vehicle.

People understand that there is a system that works very well, and that is all the way through—brigade captains to group officers, up into the professional ranks—but it culminates at the top with SAFECOM, and SAFECOM has done an outstanding job. I have known a few of the SAFECOM CEOs who chair the SAFECOM board as it has been for quite a long time and as it is at the moment, and so this bill is absolutely no disrespect to those people whatsoever who have really done an outstanding job, as this independent review highlights with regard to the bushfires at the beginning of last year.

However, it does make sense to have an independent chair. It does make sense to have somebody who is going to lead that board which overseas all of the services and whose directions support, works its way through and trickles down to the lowest and currently inactive volunteer (such as myself) on the ground. It does make sense to have an independent person leading that group.

Our government has put $60,000 per year—and very importantly indexed as well with inflation—into the 2021 state budget so that the appointment of this independent chair can be made. On any given day $60,000 a year would not be nearly enough to remunerate properly the leader of that organisation, but we do believe that is an appropriate amount of money to spend. This is not expected to be a volunteer role. This is expected to be a role filled by a person with very high levels of experience and capacity in many ways.

We are funding this position. Make no mistake, we are very serious about making this work. I also know that volunteer members on the ground—and I do not exclude professionals in ambulance or MFS in any way whatsoever, but they are working professionals with a job to do and it puts them in a very different category to volunteers—and volunteers in the various different emergency services are very proud of their services. They do not want to think for a minute that services as were proposed under the previous government are going to being amalgamated and just brought in together.

A former minister for emergency services in the previous government put an enormous amount of work into heading that way. I think it is fair to say that, to his credit, and perhaps also to the credit of his colleagues back then, he realised that it was not the right way to go and so backtracked on that.

Let me be really clear: by having an independent chair of the SAFECOM board we are not intending to go down the path that the previous government contemplated. We want all streams of the emergency services to be able to have their identity, their operational responsibility, their culture and, in many or most ways, their own independence, but we do want them all to be led responsibly and professionally and as best as can be done from the top.