Ten years after the 2003 firestorm, the ACT Bushfire Council says the territory is better prepared to deal with bushfires but more work is needed in areas such as community messages, building codes and training of officers.
The council has called for a review of the effectiveness of bushfire awareness campaigns by the ACT Emergency Services Agency.
ACT Bushfire Council chairman Kevin Jeffery and council member Tony Bartlett. The council says more work is needed in building codes and training of officers. Photo: Melissa Adams
It wants some hard evidence that the messages about being prepared and what people should do in the event of a fire are actually getting through to the public.
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Council member Tony Bartlett, a former director of Forests ACT who worked on the 2003 bushfires, said it was critical for people to not only hear and see the messages, but act on them.
''We think they've done a good job in increasing the messages getting out, but there's no evidence to support that people are actually understanding the messages,'' he said.
Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell said on Thursday that a telephone poll of 600 people was conducted last month for the ACT Rural Fire Service on the public's understanding of bushfire messages.
''It looks at people's levels of awareness, what their impressions are and how useful they find messages coming out of ESA on bushfire preparedness,'' Mr Corbell said.
The independent ACT Bushfire Council, chaired by Kevin Jeffery, has completed a review of fire management arrangements in the territory to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the firestorm on January 18.
The report reviewed how the government had responded to various inquiries since the firestorm and acknowledged it had made great strides in many areas.
The document says there have been ''very significant advances'' in bushfire planning, the update of firefighting equipment and facilities, the establishment of community fire units and the provision of bushfire information to the community. Territory and Municipal Services had also done an ''outstanding job'' in its work including managing fuel loads.
Mr Jeffery said he would give the government an ''A'' on the council's report card.
''They're going very well,'' he said.
However, the bushfire council has made 22 recommendations to the government to address areas it believes still need attention, including in land planning, to reduce the bushfire risk.
Currently, new homes in greenfields sites and outside the urban area are subject to Australian Standard 3959 which covers design features to help protect buildings against ember attack and heat.
The bushfire council said it made sense for that standard to be extended to knock-down-and-rebuilds and major renovations in established suburbs regarded as being bushfire-prone because they were on the urban fringe.
However, Mr Corbell said the issue was considered in the wake of the 2003 bushfires and the government decided enforcing the standard would only increase construction and insurance costs for people rebuilding after the firestorm.
The government decided rather than mandate the standard, it would advise people rebuilding or renovating in established suburbs regarded as bushfire-prone.
The report also questions whether buffer zones around urban areas on the fringe should be wider to protect homes and other property during intense bushfires.
Mr Bartlett found in his research last year that during the 2003 bushfires, even with grassed buffers of between 55 and 84 metres, 43 per cent of homes in the first two rows of residences at the urban interface were destroyed as the result of ember attack.
The council has also suggested there is an urgent need for officers who are likely to take leadership roles during big fires to be given the opportunity to work on significant blazes in other jurisdictions, given the relatively benign conditions in the ACT since 2003, save for Tuesday's horrific weather.
Mr Bartlett said a national accreditation program for officers such as incident controllers was still pending and there had been criticism in the past that people without the right experience had been put in the critical roles. The council has called for more training and mentoring of incident controllers for large or ''level three'' bushfires.
''You can have people who have limited training and limited exposure at small fires, but once you get up to the really big ones you need highly skilled and experienced people who have actually done it before,'' Mr Bartlett said.
The report also suggests there is still a need for more co-operation and training between the ACT Rural Fire Service and urban-based ACT Fire and Rescue which continue to show ''significant cultural and management differences''. And there should also be more cross-border training between the NSW and ACT fire authorities and checks that their systems are compatible.
The report says that firefighting services in the ACT are generally unified but some tensions still exist due to the different cultures between the urban, paid firefighters and the rural, volunteer firefighters, who operate under different command and control arrangements, something that was not unique to the territory. The council has called for urgent training of incident management teams comprising officers from the Rural Fire Service, Fire and Rescue Service and TAMS.
''Our view is that if people work together both in training exercises and on fires, then some of those barriers get broken down over time,'' Mr Bartlett said.
Mr Corbell, who is a volunteer firefighter, said there was no doubt the two services were different but he believed they could work well together.
''I'm confident we see a very high level of co-operation on the fire ground,'' he said.
The report also raised concerns about how well the communication system used by the ESA could manage radio traffic for the Rural Fire Service during big fires, with delays experienced in the transmitting of messages from the fire ground.
Mr Corbell said he took advice from the bushfire council before each bushfire season and would continue to do so. He believed the council's report was generally ''a very strong endorsement of the efforts on the ground by our firefighters and our firefighter leaders''.
Mr Corbell said the "capability of the ACT Rural Fire Service radio network is very good and gives strong interoperability with NSW authorities and can handle a large amount of radio traffic''.