‘Sacrificial lambs’: Volunteer firefighters fear for lives in 20-year-old truck

Frontline firefighters from some of the state’s smallest brigades are urging the NSW Rural Fire Service to fast-track upgrades to equipment and communications which were revealed by last season’s bushfires to have potentially deadly failures.

Some crews feel they are being treated like “sacrificial lambs” being sent out in old and dangerous equipment.

Their concerns are being raised ahead of the NSW bushfire inquiry recommendations being made public tomorrow. The State Government tonight decided to implement all 76 recommendations.

RFS volunteer Peter Heward from Rockton, on the NSW-Victoria border, said he was left unable to protect his own neighbourhood because the RFS failed to plan for emergency communications in a known blackspot.

With no radio or phone reception, fire crews were forced to remain on the edge of Rockton as it burned.

Mr Heward, who also serves with Fire and Rescue NSW, said he could only listen to what he described as a “sonic rumble” as his house burnt down.

“It hits you in your bones, knowing that it was my house and there was nothing I could do, because we weren’t sending any firefighters down to protect my area,” he said.

“The RFS is responsible for this area, we’re in their patch. They are aware that this is a communications blackspot, they knew the fire was coming.”

The remains of a burnt out house.
The remains of Peter Heward’s house in Rockton.(Supplied: Peter Heward)

Mr Heward said a portable radio repeater unit, which the RFS deployed to areas with communication problems, could have helped save more homes.

Fifty kilometres to the east of Rockton, at Towamba, RFS Captain Darren Telford said he felt his crew was left without support from RFS management during the peak of the fires.

Two firefighters stand in front of a massive blaze at night.
Members of the Towamba RFS brigade on night patrol.(Supplied: Tony Larkings)

The eight active volunteers were exhausted after being on duty around the clock as fires burned in their patch for 40 days straight.

“It was really hard to keep a vehicle going day in, day out when you’ve only got six or eight members available,” Mr Telford said.

“The radio repeater tower burnt down, we lost mobile communications. I ended up having to borrow a satellite phone from the SES (State Emergency Service).

“I didn’t get any fire spread predictions or any mapping of where the fire was.

“I feel personally that we were just left to our own devices and that we had no support.”

Darren Telford stands with arms crossed in front of two RFS trucks.
RFS Towamba Captain Darren Telford feels like the system failed during the fires.(ABC News: Vanessa Milton)

Seven months later, as fires on the NSW north coast herald the start of a new bushfire season, the RFS has yet to conduct an After Action Review with the Towamba and neighbouring brigades to share operational insights on how the fires were managed and the lessons learnt last season.

“It felt like the whole system just completely failed during that fire,” Mr Telford said.

“A lot of people are questioning whether you really want to be part of an organisation that doesn’t support you in times like that.”

Incinerated pine forest stretches as far as the eye can see.
An incinerated pine forest stretches as far as the eye can see west of Towamba.(ABC News: Vanessa Milton)

Mr Telford has lost some experienced crew members since the fires and is now the only qualified crew leader and truck driver available for callouts.

Some new recruits have joined, but it can take up to two years before they complete their basic firefighting training.

“The training’s really gone by the wayside,” he said.

“We’re relying on volunteers to train other volunteers.”

Some training courses are held up to 200 kilometres away, with volunteers travelling at their own expense.

Peter Heward made a submission in April to the NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry, voicing concerns shared by many small brigades about the lack of local knowledge informing fire control decisions, communications failures, and dangerous, out-of-date equipment

Small brigades are fighting fires in trucks that are more than 20 years old and not fitted with an up-to-date fire suppression system, dedicated sprinklers for the windows and tyres, and a heat curtain to protect the crew in an overrun.

Many fire sheds do not have sprinkler systems which saved lives last fire season.

Volunteers treated like ‘sacrificial lambs’

And the concerns are not just in the state’s south.

At Willawarrin, 35 kilometres north-west of Kempsey in the state’s north, publican Karen Anderson is worried about the safety of her local RFS volunteers.

“I hear the talk … and when I hear them referring to themselves as sacrificial lambs, that’s when it’s starts really driving home and hurting,” she said.

Twenty-two homes were lost in the community in November and a man died.

There are fears the lives of firefighters, operating a truck so old its sprinklers can only be operated from the outside, are at risk.

“Let’s draw straws to say who’s going to go out and stand on the outside of the truck to operate the sprinkler system while the fire’s overhead,” Ms Anderson said.

She is also concerned the brigade’s water tank has been welded up “numerous times” because of leaks.

A NSW RFS spokesman said it was working with the NSW Government to consider recommendations made by the recent inquiries.

“The last bush fire season was an extreme event that saw our NSW RFS volunteers go to extraordinary lengths to protect lives and property,” the spokesperson said.

“With longer and more dangerous fire seasons predicted, we are already working on initiatives to better prepare us and deliver on the things that matter most to our members and community.”