A leaked internal review into Canberra's bushfire season has detailed explosive claims about the Emergency Service Agency's handling of the crisis, the behaviour of its high-profile commissioner and the level of discontent within the paid ranks of the ACT Rural Fire Service.
In one admission to the review, Rural Fire Service staff said risks were taken to fly aircraft at "dangerously low heights" during the emergency because it would make for a "good news story".
Staff told the review that "blame and shame behaviour" was prevalent inside agency headquarters in early January, which led to decision-making paralysis at all but the most senior levels of command.
The "unacceptable behaviour" of the person in charge of the response - Emergency Services Agency commissioner Georgeina Whelan - wasn't challenged because staff feared they would lose their jobs if they stood up to her, they told the review.
The Emergency Services Agency would not comment on the specific allegations, but said it was "extremely proud" of its efforts in keeping Canberrans safe and informed during Australia's horror bushfire season.
The claims made to the review were described as "honest and unedited feedback" provided during workshops held in the wake of the summer's emergency, which would now be analysed alongside other inquiries into the ACT government's response.
Emergency Service Minister Mick Gentleman has backed the agency and commissioner Whelan, who he said had his "continued support".
The ACT experienced its worst fire season since 2003 over summer, with the Beard and Orroral Valley fires threatening Queanbeyan and Canberra's southern suburbs respectively in late January.
The massive Orroral Valley blaze burnt through more than 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park.
No homes or lives were lost in either blaze.
The Emergency Service Agency, in particular commissioner Whelan, was widely praised for the handling of the threats and the communication with the Canberra community. Every member of the agency and ACT Parks and Conservation were named 2020 Canberra citizens of the year in recognition of their actions.
People [were] afraid to speak up for fear of being berated in front of peers, which lead to decision making paralysis at all levels belowACT Rural Fire Service staff
But feedback provided to the agency's "after action review" has revealed serious concerns were held internally about the response, ranging from the conduct of its senior leadership team to the lack of planning for aerial firefighting, the treatment of staff and management of financial resources and equipment.
The Canberra Times earlier this year reported on the tensions between the volunteer brigades and the Emergency Service Agency, which were again expressed in their feedback to the review.
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The most alarming revelations came from the paid staff at the ACT Rural Fire Service.
'Afraid to speak up'
The agency held 38 workshops with volunteers and staff from its various teams as part of its review into the fire season.
The Canberra Times has obtained feedback provided by representatives from the volunteer brigades and Rural Fire Service staff. The documents are marked "draft for discussion" and their "observations" are compiled as dot points.
The review focused primarily on the period from January 2, when Chief Minister Andrew Barr declared a state of alert for the ACT, through to the end of the month, as the Orroral Valley fire was raging in Canberra's far south.
Concerns about the response arose as soon as the agency was "stood up" in response to looming threats from fires burning in the Snowy Mountains region. Commissioner Whelan was appointed Emergency Controller (EC) to lead the response, with Incident Controllers and an Incident Management Team operating under her control.
Rural Fire Service staff said there was "limited consultation" with their team, which was unclear why a state of alert was declared given there were no fires burning in the ACT at that point. The declaration caused panic and confusion in the public, they recalled.
They felt "sidelined/excluded" as parks and conservation staff were elevated to more influential decision-making roles. The knowledge of the Rural Fire Service was "no longer valued", they said.
Inside the control room, it was "unclear" what was driving the decisions made by the Incident Management Team.
Commissioner Whelan, who was overseeing her first fire season in charge of the agency, had set a "new direction" which was different to what the rest of team knew and had agreed to.
Staff recalled "unacceptable comments and behaviour from the EC", which, "for fear of losing their jobs ... no one stood up to". There was "disrespectful comments and behaviour" from parks and conservation.
Acts of "blame and shame behaviour were prevalent", they said.
"People [were] afraid to speak up for fear of being berated in front of peers which lead to decision making paralysis at all levels below," the review heard.
'A reliance on what people wanted to see'
The review heard disturbing claims about the agency's response to the ACT fires, particularly as it related to aerial firefighting.
People were expected to perform roles despite not having experience in aviation, staff said. Although 90 per cent of firefighting was done aerially, "less than 0.1 per cent planning was undertaken on aviation firefighting tactics".
Staff raised concerns about the motivations behind certain tactics.
"[There was a] Heavy reliance in terms of what public wanted to see," the review was told.
"Flying aircrafts at dangerously low heights should not have been allowed but risks were taken for a good news story."
Commissioner Whelan worked incredibly hard during the bushfire season making difficult decisions that were witnessed by the entire Canberra Community and she has my continued support.Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman
The review heard that there was no policy to manage staff fatigue, with some working 13 days in a row.
There were claims that thousands of dollars worth of equipment went missing and finances were not "appropriately managed". Food delivered to crews was "not nutritious" and cutlery wasn't provided, the review heard.
The staff did make some positive comments, including that preparatory work on the land was "fantastic". The Rural Fire Service took on more responsibility when the ACT fires hit, the review heard.
The ACT Rural Fire Service has just 12 paid staff, including the chief officer, according to annual report figures. The Canberra Times has not established how many staff members provided feedback to the review.
'She has my continued support'
The Canberra Times sought responses to the allegations from the agency and commissioner Whelan.
The agency provided an email statement in response, which did not address the specific allegations.
In the statement, an agency spokeswoman said it "always strives to undertake operations in a way that is safe, legally compliant and financially responsible".
The spokeswoman said it had started a thorough review of the bushfire season, which included the workshops with members of the various branches of the agency. Their "honest and unedited" feedback has been handed to a consultant, who had started assessing it this week, she said.
The spokeswoman said the "after action review" process only worked if volunteers and staff were comfortable to express their views in a safe and supportive environment.
The agency welcomed the opportunity to reflect on its performance, she said. Feedback from the consultants final report, as well as the findings of deputy commissioner Ray Johnson's review of the wider ACT government response, would be assessed and, where appropriate, improvements made.
She said it would be inappropriate to provide further comment until the review had been completed and findings discussed with staff and volunteers.
Mr Gentleman threw his support behind Commissioner Whelan.
"She worked incredibly hard during the bushfire season making difficult decisions that were witnessed by the entire Canberra community and she has my continued support," he said.
Mr Gentleman said it was important that lessons were learnt from the fire season. He said the voice of volunteers and staff were "crucial", adding that it was important that everyone had a chance to express their views in a safe and supportive way.
He said the appointment of Ray Johnson, a former ACT police chief, to the new deputy commissioner role was a "key first step" in responding to the summer's events.
He did not respond to questions on whether he had been previously aware of the concerns raised in the review, and if so, whether he had taken steps to address them.
Concerns bushfire effort not as 'active' as normal: volunteers
"I have been hearing concerns from volunteers which suggest to me the morale is the lowest point I've seen it," he told ABC Radio Canberra on Tuesday.
"There were a couple of particular concerns ... the firefighting effort wasn't as directed and active as normal."
"I was hearing concerns of directions coming from the wrong places and all orders having to go right to the top."
Mr Jeffery, who was on the ACT Bushfire Council for 20 years, said the system worked through delegation and planning.
"(This season) I wasn't closely involved but I was right in the thick of it in Tharwa and I was listening in to the bushfire radio and talking to the volunteer captains a lot," Mr Jeffery said.
Mr Jeffery said he had been vocal throughout the fire season that Canberra suburbs and Tharwa had been evacuated "for no reason".
"There was no danger at any point to the suburbs of the ACT and Tharwa was only under threat from a few spot fires potentially one night."
"We were evacuated twice for no reason, and I made that clear with multiple phone calls to ministers and senior emergency services."
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he wouldn't give "running commentary" as the Royal Commission and post-bushfire season review were underway, but he had full confidence in Commissioner Whelan and her team.
"I think the important thing to stress is that the ACT response, when you consider the context of the fire season, it was very effective and that is measured through the loss of no lives," he said.
"When you consider what has happened around the nation and the conditions that led up to that, I want to take the opportunity to again thank Commissioner Whelan and express my full confidence in her and her team."