Esperance council debates motion as brigades fear only tragedy will spark change

Councillors and experienced bushfire fighters have issued stark warnings over the vehicles currently available to local firefighters.

At an Esperance Shire briefing on October 22, council discussed a motion from the Bushfire Advisory Committee. The motion described the current fire fighting fleet as "not adequate" and called on the council to "strongly advocate for fit for purpose vehicles".

Committee chairman and chief bushfire control officer Ashley Stewart said frustration had been building for years and local brigades didn't know what vehicles they would be getting.

Mr Stewart said if they received more inadequate vehicles, it could be 10 to 15 years before they were replaced.

The shire's fleet of firefighting vehicles has been replaced over the last 10 years with funds from the Emergency Services Levy. However, brigades have raised concerns that the vehicles aren't suitable for offroad and all terrain fire fighting.

The committee recommended council lobby for all terrain cab chassis vehicles, based on the 6x6 and 8x8 design and not to automatically accept vehicles provided through the levy, unless they were deemed fit for purpose by the brigade.

We don't want to go in and upset the apple cart at this early stage if we're going to get a suitable outcome anyways.

Shire director Terry Sargent.

Shire director of external services Terry Sargent said the shire was aware DFES was in the middle of a process to address concerns and advised against council 'dictating' to the department what they would accept.

DFES' Operational Fleet Program is understood to be in the tender allocation stage and is designed to create a fit for purpose fire truck.

The officer's comment stated, if a vehicle was refused, Esperance may not get the option for a different vehicle.

"Instead, the vehicle would likely be reallocated and Esperance could be placed at the end of the queue for a truck replacement," it read.

Mr Sargent said if the council "fired from the hip" it could have unintentional consequences.

"We don't want to go in and upset the apple cart at this early stage if we're going to get a suitable outcome anyways," he said.

Shire manager of community support Mel Ammon said the majority of vehicles wouldn't be replaced for between six and 10 years and so the council had time to wait for more information from DFES.

The officer recommended council acknowledge the committee's concerns, seek clarification on the expectation of a fit for purpose vehicle and request a presentation from DFES in regards to the fleet program.

Captain worries only death will prompt change

Gibson brigade captain Blake Halford moved the motion at the committee's meeting in September and said the trucks his brigade received in recent years were "the same sort of trucks that deliver bread and milk in Perth".

"They've just put an axle on it and called it a 4WD," Mr Halford said.

"The trucks we've been given are on road trucks with 4WD capability. As a bush firefighter, we need off road trucks with on road capability.

"You just can't go the places we used to, purely with the design of these trucks.

"I'm worried it's going to take someone to die before changes happen. There's constant problems with them."

Mr Halford said one of the brigade's current trucks was less effective than the 1998 vehicle it replaced.

"What is on the back of the trucks is fine. The water capacity, the pump. The equipment to fight fires is more than adequate," he said.

"But as soon as you get to soft sand they just don't go anywhere.

"There's definitely dangerous aspects about the trucks and their capabilities.

"When we have to sit back and watch a fire come to you, it's only going to get bigger and harder to control."

Councillor calls for action

At the October briefing, newly appointed Shire president Ian Mickel called on Cr Ron Chambers to speak, citing his experience as captain of the Quarry Road Bushfire Brigade and a member of the advisory committee.

Just days after Town Ward voters gave him overwhelming support, Cr Chambers delivered a dire warning to his fellow councillors and urged them to lobby for better vehicles.

The councillor said the current vehicles meant firefighters had to stop to deflate and then inflate their trucks each time they entered off road areas or went back onto the road.

He said the process had gone "round in circles" and it was time to act.

"We're losing volunteers hand over fist because they won't get on these trucks," Cr Chambers said.

"The tools that we have are not good enough."

Cr Chambers invoked the tragic 2015 Esperance region fires as a lesson in moving forward.

"If we could have gone into the bush, we could've stopped it in the bush," he said.

"If we continue down the path we're going we will lose more property and we will lose more lives.

"This is a perfect opportunity to stand behind our volunteers and move forward."

Cr Chambers spoke to a drafted motion to request the chief executive officer to write to DFES, the minister and commissioner requesting 6x6 and 8x8 vehicles be included in the existing fleet, to have council recognise the current fleet was not adequate and to lobby for changes.

Local governments should come together

Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigade president Dave Gossage said the issue raised had been an ongoing problem across WA for up to 20 years.

"With the new commissioner and the new minister we're finally making some headway," he said.

"From our point of view it's about having decision makers willing to listen and work with us that are in charge of the big pot of gold and actually listening to the end users for a change and not the bureaucrats that don't hold the hose," he said.

"If the local governments were smart and came together and worked with the bushfire association, we could achieve a lot more for the greater good."

The Shire president and Cr Wes Graham, who are also volunteer firefighters, concurred with Cr Chambers that action was needed and the current fleet was not adequate.

Designing and building fit for purpose trucks does take time however we are progressing this as a priority.

DFES Great Southern superintendent Wayne Green.

DFES Great Southern superintendent Wayne Green said the department was committed to ensuring volunteers had the support and equipment they needed to help keep the community safe.

"The cornerstone of this is the Operational Fleet Project which is a collaborative and innovative project involving consultation with emergency services volunteers and staff to ensure the new fleet suits the terrain and incidents unique to their area," Mr Green said.

"Volunteers from the Esperance region have been involved in the Operational Fleet Project since its inception, with there being approximately 130 emergency service volunteers on Project Advisory Teams.

"Designing and building fit for purpose trucks does take time however we are progressing this as a priority."

Mr Green said DFES was meeting with the Shire of Esperance to discuss the matter further was committed to addressing any concerns.

Council will vote on the committee's recommendation at a meeting on October 29.

More to come.