The Emergency Services Agency has admitted that rural fire service crews were given permission to operate lights and sirens while responding to blazes near Canberra Airport, after audio emerged of drivers being issued with the instruction.
The agency sparked confusion last week after rejecting claims by volunteer firefighters and the opposition that crews had been given the green light to use sirens en route to the Beard fire in late January.
It would have marked an abrupt shift in policy from the ACT Rural Fire Service, which issued a directive on August 20 last year banning staff and volunteers from operating lights and sirens as they hadn't received training for so-called "urgent duty driving".
Veteran volunteer firefighter Angus McDonald last week described his shock and surprise at being issued new instructions at the height of an unfolding emergency.
"How is it too risky for units to respond under lights and sirens without training previously, but now it's OK midway to a fire?" he said.
In response to those claims, the agency said there was no change in policy, and the only shift had been to grant permission for some vehicles to mount the verge to avoid heavy traffic on Pialligo Avenue.
After the story was published, a number of volunteers supplied The Canberra Times with audio taken from the agency's radio communications service, which was broadcast to crews on January 23.
In the recording, the radio operator can be heard saying: "You can utilise lights and sirens at road speed to manage traffic. Repeat that, utilise lights and sirens to get through traffic."
After being sent the audio by The Canberra Times, the agency confirmed that crews responding to the Beard fire had been given permission to turn on their lights and sirens and use the verge to bypass traffic.
The same exemption was granted to vehicles responding to the Orroral Valley fire via Monaro Highway around 5.30pm on January 28.
However, a spokesman stressed that crews hadn't been given the green light to undertake "full urgent driver duty", which would have allowed them to break road rules while responding to the fires.
The directive issued on August 20 still stands.
All "operational decisions" would be scrutinised as part of a review underway into the handling of the Beard and Orroral Valley fires, the spokesman said.
The spokesman reiterated that "urgent duty driving" was a dangerous undertaking and the Emergency Services Agency needed to consider firefighter and community safety. The agency was working closely with WorkSafe ACT on the policy.
Rural firefighters have voiced their frustration about the directive this fire season, claiming it was forcing them to wait in traffic and therefore slowing response times.
Volunteers have been pushing for the extra training so they can drive with lights and sirens next fire season.
But under questioning from the opposition in the ACT Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman said that wasn't on the cards.
"I have had briefings from the chief of the rural fire service [and] he has provided me with information that, in his view, urgent duty driving is not required by rural fire service at this time," he said.
"If there is a change in the advice from ESA, then I am happy to pursue extra training for the rural service."