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No hard questions for a difficult situation!

October 8, 2009


Russell Rees and Mick Bourke from the CFA speak at the Melbourne Press Club

I am a proud member of the Melbourne Press Club and have been for almost 7 years. Over the years I have had the fortune to attend close to fifty MPC lunches. I have seen Nelson Mandela, the Dali Lama, state and federal politicians, sports legends and a host of other inspirational people. Including today, I have had only three occasions to feel annoyed, disappointed and empty after hearing the speaker(s).

The previous two were Richard Alston, when he was handling Telstra and ICT, I watched an experienced politician spend an hour and say nothing, in fact absolutely nothing of substance, at all. On two separate occasions I saw John Howard, one good, the other full of spin, arrogance and a complete failure to address the issue of the day. Today I have greater disappointment than in the seven preceding years – I was prepared to be completely supportive, a strong advocate for the speakers, instead, they managed in an hour to turn my opinion on its head.

MPC – Bushfire Alert Lunch

Today, the new CEO of the Country Fire Authority, Mick Bourke and the Chief Fire Officer, Russell Rees were going to “discuss the lessons of Black Saturday and preparations for another extreme fire danger season”, so the invitation said. The events of the weeks following 7 February 2009 touched millions and impacted thousands in ways that will last a lifetime. It is also the well publicized subject of a Royal Commission headed by Justice Bernard Teague, and no doubt Rees is tired of the process, the criticism, and the trauma of the events themselves. I feel strongly for him, wondering how he could dust himself off, drive hard lessons through his organization, and get revitalized for future challenges – all too near.

Although only a single lunch, a single insight and a single uninformed opinion (mine), I am left with disappointment that is deep and hard to pin down. Please do not assume I have anything but the utmost respect and admiration for the CFA and other emergency services. The 60,000 or so CFA members, largely volunteers, in some 1,200 towns and communities and their other emergency services comrades are amazing. The few that make the media for ‘bad acts’ are exceptions to the rule, and the vast majority are legends of their communities. They should always be honored and congratulated. To lead such an organization would come as both a profound honor and with a corresponding amount of burden. It would be far from easy, and I do not want to add pressure where it is unwarranted to some of the most difficult and challenging roles within the state of Victoria.

As an attendee and interested Victorian, all I wanted to hear was energy directed to the challenge, attention to the lessons of the past, and a collaborative effort to improve the outcomes of any such future natural catastrophe. Instead, I heard a tired and beaten leader, at subtle but obvious odds with the media and community, who spoke very little on what has, will, or can be done. Others that I spoke with felt as I did, lacking confidence that we, the Victorian community, had achieved progress despite the great cost. That is why I am profoundly disappointed.

My Black Saturday

BushFires2I returned to Melbourne after fifteen months working in Sydney on Black Saturday. I landed at Melbourne Airport that morning, it was a rough flight and when I emerged from Tullamarine Airport in the early morning, it was already outrageously hot and windy. The radio was extolling how severe the fire danger was and that the temperature was likely to reach the mid 40’s (Celsius), with strong NW winds (dry and hot) shifting to SW in the afternoon.

My family and I were moving into a house on the extreme North East edge of the Melbourne metropolitan area. In the afternoon, seeing smoke billowing to the North, we watched from high ground south of the Yan Yean reservoir as fire ripped through the forest north of the reservoir, clearly headed East with alarming speed.

At one point, despite us being at least five kilometers south, we could clearly see huge flames, silhouetted against the billowing smoke, much higher than the trees. The flames must have reached at least 100 meters into the air and they were traveling very quickly, apparent even from such a distance. We decided to head to Richmond (inner Melbourne) for the rest of the day, only to be caught by traffic blocks near a relatively minor grass fire in South Morang. My story is incidental, minor and only relevant for this reason:

My basic regional knowledge, that of my young daughters and the others present at the same park-top hill, armed with a Melway’s street directory, came to the following conclusion: “Towns including Arthurs Creek, Strathewen, Kinglake, St Andrews and Yarra Glen were in the path of the fire, and if the wind turned from the SW, Yea and others would come under threat”. ABC radio were taking calls with the same observations before any formal notice from emergency services. My congratulations go to ABC 774 and Richard Stubbs who came in to work because he felt it was a day for vigilance and provided a great service. It was assumed by all of us present that emergency services would be fully aware of the risk areas related to the major fire fronts, and that warning would be given to threatened areas where time was still available. I made such a comment to one of my 7-year-old twin daughters who suggested we start calling people (she also suggested in no uncertain terms that we should leave).

So when I read in a recent ABC article quoting Justice Teague that: “the most senior CFA officer, made no reference to maps predicting where the fires would go and ignored the fire behaviour expertise in his own building to the point where it was difficult to understand how Mr Rees could properly carry out a strategic statewide coordination responsibility”, it makes me feel physically sick, and wish that I could have done as Amy (age 6) said and start calling anyone in Strathewen and King Lake.

ThankyouCFAHere is Amy’s self inspired card to all the fire fighters (photo). “Tank you for fitig the fick, tank you” translates into adult English as – Thank you for fighting the fires, Thank you! Again, all I wanted to hear today, and maybe it has been said somewhere else, is that more attention will be paid to where fires are headed and how to get the message out. If the quote above, reported by the ABC, is a true account, then there must be some very traumatized forecasters and surely a lesson that has to been learned. Why can’t this be the message of the new CEO and of the most senior Fire Officer in the CFA?

Instead, the luncheon conversation was about how the ‘community must be ready’, how the media ‘may not get different treatment’ and how the ‘job is hard’. Rees half-jokingly deferring to his “new boss” which struck me as inappropriate and concerning, that the Chief Fire Officer would deflect the harder issues and withhold comment over events that occurred on his watch.

Social media has it’s say

Having sent out a tweet that I was at the MPC lunch, I had a number or responses, including people threatening to ‘unfollow’ me, so deep is the passion that remains. When I asked online if anyone had a question, again an indication that people are not feeling heard, or that suitable answers have been given. By way of example, I received the following question (paraphrased):

“Why wasn’t the Marysville water issue addressed? Without water, no fire fighting ability. Even after the fire passed, the interest was in evacuation, nothing else. It was claimed it was a health and hygiene issue and yet two lone people solved the problem in 30 minutes and stopped the evacuation”

I don’t know the details, but underpinning this question is the same desire – let us know that knowledge has been identified and will be used in future. Show the public that although natural disasters will occur again, more life will be lost, some of the things we could have done better will be done. My personal lesson – say something, that is why I felt compelled to post this article. If Emergency Services, through their leadership, publicly demonstrate learning, then I will have increased confidence. Today failed to do so and all things being equal, I would be forced to take action that comes from a lack of faith. Listening to the advice of my children, who expect their parents to take action because they don’t have the adult expectation that the Government, bureaucracies or specialist organizations have issues in hand.

Difficult situations should come with difficult questions!

Fires happen. A dramatic part of the natural cycle that may be compounded by changing climate. Humans live near combustible material and lives will be lost again. There is no possibility of complete safety and those involved, victims, emergency services and a multitude of others will be affected again. The people in command have a hard, hard role and cannot be expected to make perfect decisions, especially under the pressure of the moment. Russell Rees, his team and other similar leaders deserve respect, thanks and a chance to improve the system, after all, they should hold the hard won knowledge brought about by the hardest of lessons.

With such a role, we are talking about “questions of life and death”. So why now, today, are the hard questions being put in the back pocket. Why are they not seeing the light of day and the answers delivered and learning benefits extracted. Rees and Bourke instead chose to focus on side issues and trivialities, motherhood statements about community involvement and media responsibility and jokes about ‘having a new boss’. Some half-way difficult questions were asked, largely brushed aside, and in a tired, somber, generally polite room, the journalists parked the really tough questions, time was called when it looked like the audience may be getting to some issues, and the guests got their gifts and departed. Unscathed, unchallenged and as far as I can see unaltered.

Once again, the only thing I wanted to see, the thing that would have avoided this post, is some authentic, believable and committed acknowledgment that things have or will change. That we are better prepared as a result of the trauma and that although many of the same people remain, they are wiser for the hardship. Instead the term ‘siege mentality’ came to mind. If another quote within the ABC article is true, that a “not-insignificant cog in the firefighting bureaucracy disparagingly referred to the lay witnesses (in the Teague Commission) as the two o’clock tears” then it is ignorance and hardness that has unfortunately been the lesson and not improvement.

Russell, I hope you come through this and lead the great CFA forward, and that your young daughter, the same age as my twins, is no longer concerned for your job. I also hope, that next time Amy asks me if I should start calling people, I can say with confidence that it is not necessary, our world-class emergency services are doing just that or better, and we would be best served to stay out of the way. Right now – I’m backing her advice!


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