RFS seeks integration with farmers ahead of 2020 fire season

The Rural Fire Service and NSW Farmers are partnering to encourage a closer relationship between rural landholders and volunteer fire fighters during bushfires. RFS Assistant Commissioner Jason Heffernan said there are significant concerns this year about grass fires, especially around the Wagga area, so the RFS is doing what it can to ‘prepare, communicate and integrate’.

“This is about making sure that RFS fire fighters and brigades can prepare, communicate and integrate with those who are not part of the RFS, but obviously have a vested interest to make sure that their own properties and their neighbours properties from the scourge of bushfires,” he said.

The RFS and NSW Farmers are focussing on those three key steps, saying that it’s important that farmers have fire plans and know how to communicate their needs and priorities to fire fighters, especially when out of area volunteers are called in to assist.

“To make sure that attending RFS crews find out from farmers what matters most to them and what’s important to them on their property when it comes to suppressing fires and operations on their land,” explained Mr Heffernan.

“Your priorities might change from property to property and what we want to do is set up a way that allows our RFS volunteers, no matter where they’re from across the state, to arrive on these fires and make contact with local farmers.”

To ensure that communication can take place, Mr Heffernan said the RFS is encouraging landholders to use UHF 5 to communicate with the first arriving fire crews. He said the organisation faced criticism after the 2017 ‘Sir Ivan’ fire for breakdowns in communication between the RFS and landholders. Members of the community complained that management decisions were being made too far away from the fire ground.

At that time, the coroner found that because of the size and topography of the fire ground, “the people on the ground were not necessarily the best informed to make decisions about anything other than the fire immediately in front of them. There needed to be a hub that could collate information coming in from different parts of the fire ground and step back to look at the bigger picture including resources and predicted weather.”

To ensure that local knowledge is still being used in making those bigger picture decisions, Mr Heffernan said the RFS wants to establish a single channel (UHF 5) which can quickly connect the fire fighters with the local community.

“This establishes a safe guard that no matter where you are, if you turn to channel 5, you can get in touch with someone,” he said. 

“There is a need for the RFS members when they’re attending farming communities, particularly those from Sydney, that they have the knowledge of how to contact farmers, gain their local knowledge and find out from them what’s important to them on their property.”

Mr Heffernan said once communication is established on UHF 5, farmers can direct the RFS crews to the correct local fire channels.

With recent rains and healthy growth, particularly in cereal crops, Mr Heffernan said the RFS is dedicated to helping farmers protect their land against bushfires this summer.

“Our farming communities have a real opportunity to make back some of the losses from previous years of drought, and we want to make sure they can do that and not have to worry about the scourges of fire,” he said.

“When it comes to fighting bushfires in the rural setting across farmland there really does need to be an approach of shared responsibility. It’s a two way conversation and a two way engagement between rural landholders and the RFS to make sure that we are all prepared for the season that’s coming ahead that we are all able to communicate with each other and understand each other’s needs.”

He said the RFS and landholders share a common goal: to suppress the fire and keep it as small as possible and see a repeat of the devastating 2019/20 fire season.