The session was delivered to Gippsland volunteers and staff last week to explain how the inquiry will work, the terms of reference, CFA’s role and how the Gippsland region is providing support.
Regional Directors Mark Potter and Peter Schmidt also used the briefing as an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of all members and congratulate them on a job well done.
“Our people stood up to the challenge in very tough circumstances, often with a lot of support from family and friends in the background. This was an extremely complex incident and I’m proud of what we achieved,” said Gippsland Regional Director Mark Potter.
“As always, I encourage people to make the most of CFA’s range of welfare services if they feel they need to talk to someone – these are also available to their family members.”
A common question that came out of the session was the potential for CFA members to be called up which, according to Regional Director and Joint Director of the Inquiry Peter Schmidt, is unlikely to occur below the Incident Controller level.
“Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley will be presenting as a key witness throughout the inquiry.. We’re working to keep number of witnesses called to a minimum and our goal is to lessen the impact of the inquiry on our people wherever possible,” said Peter.
“If our people are called to provide information then CFA has a support system in place, and the inquiry team will assist them with any welfare and logistics support. Interviews have already been conducted with a number of Incident Controllers in preparation for possible further involvement.”
Further debriefing opportunities are being organised for CFA members and more details will be available in the coming weeks.
We are now entering the second week of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry public hearings, which will focus on the environmental effects and health issues brought about by the mine fire.
The Inquiry spent last week gathering information on the origin, circumstances and responses to the fire from Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley, GDF SUEZ representatives, Incident Controllers, WorkCover and community witnesses. This included a volunteer from Cowwarr, as well as Willow Grove brigade, who were called due to their individual community ranked submissions.
We’d like to thank everyone who has participated so far by submitting witness statements, and in some instances taken the stand. Our members have done an outstanding job in providing some true context around the challenges faced throughout one of the most complex and difficult incidents in our history.
Regional Director Bob Barry, who worked as Incident Controller for the majority of the incident, provided a thorough understanding of the strategies used to fight the fire, which included building new water reticulation systems and experimenting with innovative firefighting foam techniques to find the most effective for the job.
Bob praised firefighters and incident management team staff for their commitment throughout the fire and described his use of proactive media to deal with the challenge of keeping morale high throughout the tough and dirty job – now widely likened to ‘eating an elephant one bite at a time’.
Deputy Chief Officer John Haynes, Incident Controller for a significant period of the fire, described innovations such as ‘hot changeovers’ to reduce downtime while swapping firefighting crews every two hours, as well as community engagement tactics such as the information buses and sending community liaison officers to speak with train commuters.
This engagement effort was supported by community witness Tracey Lund, who works for the Morwell Neighbourhood House and was highly complimentary of CFA’s level of activity in the community, and appreciative of the support and information provided throughout the incident.
We would like to thank the remaining Incident Controllers – Stephen Walls, Simon Bloink, Ross Sullivan and Barry Foss – who were originally called and supported CFA to make statements but were later stood down as not required by the Board of Inquiry, which was satisfied with the level of evidence provided by CFA.
The week finished with a focus on firefighter safety and Commissioner Lapsley described the introduction of what is considered to be the largest health monitoring program of its kind, which saw a total of almost 61,000 tests conducted – including mine staff who followed CFA’s lead and joined in on the initiative.
Once again, the evidence provided last week truly illustrates the great work done by everyone who attended and suppressed what is considered the largest mine fire in Australia’s history. However, there will no doubt be areas for improvement and procedural review. These will form part of the Board of Inquiry’s recommendations which will be handed down as part of the final report, due by the end of August.
There is the potential for more CFA people to be called to address the Inquiry, and the Inquiry team will assist them with any welfare and logistics support required. More information about CFA’s welfare services can be found on Brigades Online, by contacting your Regional Office or CFA’s Organisational Wellbeing team on (03) 9262 8836.
Peter Schmidt and Karen Alexander Joint Directors Hazelwood Mine Inquiry
The second week of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry was led by Inquiry Board Member Prof John Catford.
Prof Catford focused on the environmental effects and health issues brought about by the fire.
CFA members did not appear in an official capacity in terms of providing evidence last week. Furthermore, there were no CFA members included within the chosen community witnesses to give their evidence. The majority of those appearing were Government department heads and expert witnesses.
Air quality and the possible health issues were a major focus with John Merritt, who was the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Chief Executive Officer at the time of the fire, giving evidence on Monday (2 June).It was the role of the EPA to measure and analyse the smoke and its effect on air quality at the site as it affected the neighbouring town of Morwell.
Chief Health Officer Dr Rosemary Lester gave evidence on several issues including the potential health effects of small particulate matter which is measured as PM2.5, the interpretation of data and resulting actions.
Dr Lester described the fire as complex and unique, and that the known research was incomplete on the issue of exposure to small particulate matter over durations such as that of the Hazelwood Mine fire
Expert witness, Professor Dr Donald Campbell from Monash University recommended a longer term health study, potentially for as long as 20 years, be conducted as there was no precedent for the Hazelwood Fire. Dr Lester agreed that there should be a long term health study and that her Department was committed to one.
Communications experts Prof Jim MacNamara, University of Technology Sydney and Lachlan Drummond, Strategic Director, Redhanded Communications also appeared and gave evidence associated with their report findings into the communications practices and challenges identified as part of the incident.
Community witnesses focused on their health fears and how they were being communicated with. Many were concerned that the flow of information was insufficient or did not appear to be complete.
The Hazelwood fire is considered to have been the largest mine fire in Australia. The CFA and fellow emergency agencies did incredibly well to manage it under the circumstances and this Inquiry will help us learn how to further improve our practices and procedures.
Our thanks again for the assistance we have received from staff and members who have been called to provide evidence and for the general and sometimes time critical support to the Inquiry Team.
Week three of the hearings is to be led by Inquiry Board Member Ms Sonia Petering and will address mitigation and fire prevention. An important priority for the team this week will also be the completion of the second Government Submission. This will concentrate on the key findings of the Inquiry to date to in turn support future improvement initiatives. More information including transcripts of evidence provided to the Inquiry Board is available at http://hazelwoodinquiry.vic.gov.au/
Peter Schmidt and Karen Alexander Joint Directors, Hazelwood Mine Inquiry
The final week of public hearings provided the opportunity for closing submissions to be heard and submitted on Tuesday and Wednesday 17 and 18 June 2014. Counsel Assisting the Board of Inquiry provided their final submission which centred on the key matters of:
Origin and response to the fire Health and environment Firefighter safety Mitigation and prevention Counsel Assisting provided a number of commendations, criticisms and recommendations to the Board relating to these matters, which the Board will consider during its deliberations.
Whilst these were stated publicly, it is not considered appropriate to detail these matters given it is still up to the Board to make its formal and final recommendations in its report due to be handed down by the end of August 2014.
Environment Victoria presented its submission and stated it considered the extent of the fire was avoidable, by the adoption of mitigation measures, and made consideration regarding the rehabilitation of the worked-out areas of the mine.
The United Firefighters (UFU) stated its concerns for firefighter safety in relation to such incidents and emphasised the inherent risks to firefighter health due to their line of work. Matters were also raised concerning welfare.
Mine owner GDF Suez put forward a number of themes including the use to be made of evidence, distinction between rehabilitation and fire risk management and lessons learned.
The State made many general observations relating to the conditions on the day and difficulties facing fire services and it referred strongly to the content of its second submission to the Board made during that week. Much of the detail provided centred on the Emergency Services White Paper and the introduction of Emergency Management Victoria and the reform associated therewith.
In his closing address, the Hon Bernard Teague stated that Wednesday 18 June 2014 marked the end of 16 days of listening to the community in community consultations, all of which provided an invaluable insight.
The Hon Bernard Teague thanked witnesses, especially community witnesses, for telling their stories and thanked participants in community consultations and those who wrote submissions. He also thanked lawyers, media, the Inquiry team and staff, Counsel Assisting for their representation, local businesses and contractors and finally the City of Latrobe for sharing their facilities.
The Board will now concentrate on their report and recommendations and the Premier will determine timing for tabling.
He also acknowledged the people of Morwell and the community, hoping that this work will prevent such a disaster happening again.
The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Public Hearings have now concluded.
The Board of Inquiry is currently in the process of preparing its final report and recommendations for presentation to the Premier. As we advised last week, the final report is scheduled to be presented by the end of August 2014.
The Inquiry Team is still completing considerable work to ensure CFA is well positioned to work with Government, Emergency Management Victoria and Agencies to plan for and respond to the formal recommendations handed down by the Board of Inquiry in the timeliest manner.
It is pleasing to note that Government has expressed its gratitude to CFA and clearly acknowledges the exceptional efforts that were made by all our members and other entities involved in the fires over last summer and particularly the Hazelwood Mine Fire.
This is further reinforced by Counsel Assisting in commending CFA for its overall efforts particularly in relation to the conditions and the number of fires experienced and combatted on 9 February 2014. During closing submissions Counsel Assisting also acknowledged the effective suppression strategy that was developed to extinguish a fire with an endless supply of fuel. They credited the strategy and those who implemented it for ultimately controlling the fire under circumstances where it had the potential to burn for much longer.