Rural fire brigade captains reacted furiously to a directive banning crews from using lights and sirens while responding to blazes this summer, arguing it was "impracticable, unworkable and failed to meet community expectations", documents show.
Their concerns, detailed in correspondence with ACT Rural Fire Service chief officer Joe Murphy, prompted the blanket ban to be relaxed, resulting in crews being given one-off exemptions to bypass traffic en route to the Beard and Orroral Valley fires.
The correspondence was among a series of documents released late last year under freedom of information laws, which revealed the serious safety concerns underpinning the ban on so-called "urgent duty driving" ahead of the bushfire season.
Those fears were heightened after a fatal accident in involving an ACT Fire and Rescue truck in Barton in October.
The documents also showed the depth of anger at the order, with senior volunteers warning the government would be "pilloried" for "yet another example of bureaucratic red trumping common sense" if the ban delayed a vehicle's response to a fire.
The Canberra Times reported in early January that ACT Rural Fire Service staff and volunteers had been barred from urgent duty driving, after chief officer Murphy ruled they hadn't received the training needed to do it safely.
Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman has confirmed volunteers would be put through training ahead of the next bushfire season, as he backtracked on comments made during question time last week in the ACT Legislative Assembly.
Mr Gentleman has also staunchly defended the decisions made by his fire and emergency services chiefs.
"Our ESA commissioner and chief officers make difficult decisions that directly affect the lives and safety of front-line responders and the broader Canberra community," Mr Gentleman said.
"I back them in this unenviable duty and am confident they take an inclusive and transparent approach to decision making wherever possible."
Chief officer Murphy last week announced he would step down from his position in April, ending a 33-year involvement with the ACT emergency service. The Canberra Times has no reason to believe this summer's issues in any way influenced the decision.
The documents reveal the ban was prompted by an audit of ACT Rural Fire Service's safety protocols, which exposed a range of deficiencies with its training practices and policies for urgent duty driving.
The justice and community safety directorate presented a brief to chief officer Murphy on July 19, which recommended urgent duty driving be banned until driver training was delivered and proper policies developed.
Emails suggest chief officer Murphy was initially opposed to a ban, before backing it in.
He signed off on the formal direction on August 20. He emailed brigade captains a day later, providing a brief explanation on the underlying reason for the ban.
"As discussed, UDD is an extremely risky activity requiring ongoing training and experience, neither of which the RFS either provides or is exposed to," the email read.
"The most important activity of any driver is to get the crew safely to and from an incident while keeping the community safe at the same time."
A week later, chief officer Murphy advised senior directorate officials that he had "received a fair bit of negative criticism" about the directive, which had been viewed as "too restrictive in a number of circumstances".
He said in the email that while the direction had not been rescinded, he would look at allowing some form of urgent duty driving in limited circumstances.
The extent of the fire captains' concern about the directive was detailed in correspondence with chief officer Murphy over the next two months.
The community would be rightly appalled to learn that RFS appliances could be stopped at empty intersections while houses were burning in circumstances where minutes, if not seconds, count.ACT Rural Fire Service brigade captains
A strongly-worded September 13 email condemned the ban, which the captains claimed was a "knee-jerk reaction", at least in part, to the conviction of a police officer who caused a fatal crash after running a red light while racing to a high priority job in 2018.
The captains claimed the new operating procedure was "demonstrably unreasonable", as it left no room for drivers to make "informed decisions ... based on dynamic situations which are unfolding before them".
The email included a number of hypothetical situations which they said could eventuate as a result of the direction. Under one scenario, an RFS vehicle would be unable to run a red light while responding to a fire emergency, even if it was 1am and the intersection was clearly empty.
"The community would be rightly appalled to learn that RFS appliances could be stopped at empty intersections while houses were burning in circumstances where minutes, if not seconds, count," it stated.
"The government would no doubt be pilloried with this seen as yet another example of bureaucratic red tape trumping common sense."
The captains called for direction to be scrapped and training be delivered to drivers as soon as possible.
Chief officer Murphy thanked the captains for their feedback, saying he would "spend some time digesting what has been provided".
The documents show that the policy was tweaked to allow urgent duty driving in "limited circumstances". Drivers were still prevented from running red lights, and were only allowed to exceed speed limits by up to 20km/h while responding to incidents.
The captains sent another letter to chief officer Murphy on October 17, the documents show.
The captains said they took work health and safety requirements seriously, before posing the question: "What really is the greater risk"?
"Is it the potential to lose lives or property - a risk which has eventuated previously, or is it the potential to cause harm to a member or other person through an accident by RFS responding in accordance with policy, which has not eventuated in the ACT?" it stated.
Four days after that letter was sent, a woman died after her car was struck by an ACT Fire and Rescue truck in Barton.
Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan emailed her colleagues a week later, saying that in light of the crash it would be working with WorkSafe ACT to review the agency's urgent driving duty policy.
In a statement to The Canberra Times, an agency spokeswoman said the tragic incident was a reminder of how dangerous urgent duty driving could be, even for paid ACT Fire and Rescue and ACT Ambulance personnel who are trained and experienced in the practice.
ACT Fire and Rescue firefighters have to carry out a minimum of 20 "response drives" in various conditions before they are allowed to operate lights and sirens.
Mr Gentleman said urban firefighters and ambulance staff drove under lights and sirens on "every shift, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year". They were also required to meet response time targets.
Volunteer firefighters not only aren't trained for urgent duty driving, they also don't drive vehicle frequently enough to maintain "currency" of the skill.
The emergency services agency said the training kit was 90 per cent complete. It was awaiting advice from WorkSafe before it was finalised.
Mr Gentleman said he regularly spoke with volunteers and was happy to raise any of their concerns with the agency.