Select Committee on Fire and Emergency Services Amendment Bill

Mr TRELOAR (Flinders) (12:07): I bring up the report of the select committee on the bill, together with minutes of proceedings and evidence.

Report received.

Mr TRELOAR: I move:

That the report of the committee be noted.

On 5 December 2018, I moved that the Fire and Emergency Services (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill be referred to a select committee for inquiry and report. The terms of reference for the inquiry asked the committee to examine clause 23 of the bill, which proposes to introduce new powers for the Country Fire Service (CFS). The committee received 39 written submissions to the inquiry and held four public hearings across South Australia.

The committee travelled to Port Lincoln, Balaklava and Keith to hear concerns from a range of primary producers, CFS volunteers, local governments and community groups on the proposed powers outlined in the bill. A public hearing was also held in Adelaide. I thank all those who made submissions and participated in the committee’s hearings for their important and considered advice, particularly as the inquiry was conducted over the busy holiday and harvest period.

The Fire and Emergency Services (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill seeks to implement recommendations from the 2013 review of the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005, which was undertaken by the Hon. Paul Holloway. The Holloway review recommended that the South Australian government should consider amending section 82(2) to include the power to order the cessation of harvesting or any other actions that, because of weather conditions, may cause a fire, if ignited, to get out of control. The proposed power is a broad one. It could apply to harvesting or any other activity that has the potential to ignite a fire in high-risk weather conditions. Activities need not be prescribed before the proposed power is exercised.

The committee recognised that the proposed powers are aimed at a wide range of activities but that the main concerns raised through this inquiry were by grain producers about the impact on harvesting operations. The committee heard from grain producers around the state who shared their concerns about how the proposed powers would interact with the voluntary, industry-led Grain Harvesting Code of Practice (the code).

The code guides producers on safely undertaking grain harvesting and minimising fire risk. The code requires that grain harvesting operations be suspended when the local, actual grassland fire danger index (GFDI) exceeds 35. The GFDI is a figure derived by calculating parameters of air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and the curing condition of the vegetative matter being harvested. The committee heard that the code is widely accepted across the state.

At public hearings in Port Lincoln, Balaklava and Keith, grain producers told the committee that, over the past 10 years of the code operating, multiple networks of producers have formed whereby decisions to cease harvests are made by local experts and communicated through established communities. To support decisions to cease harvests, producers have also readily taken advantage of available technologies that provide an evidence base for decision-making. A network of weather stations has developed across the state, accompanied by data that is uploaded to the internet and made available to local farmers. Some farmers have purchased portable weather stations or handheld meters that enable them to calculate localised conditions.

The committee recognises and acknowledges that the majority of grain producers are abiding by the voluntary Grain Harvesting Code of Practice. The committee applauds the efforts of the South Australian grain producers in developing and implementing an effective mechanism to mitigate fire risk during the fire season. Overwhelmingly, evidence presented to the inquiry indicates that the rate of noncompliance with the code is extremely low.

Multiple witnesses to the inquiry explained that one of the important roles of the code is in facilitating behaviours that support community wellbeing and set community values. Where one landholder is perceived as recalcitrant, community members can apply the pressure of community sentiment. However, the committee heard that a small minority of recalcitrant producers continue to harvest in dangerous conditions. In cases where a producer continues to harvest, the CFS, police and other authorities currently have limited power to direct them to cease.

The committee’s report makes 10 recommendations. Recommendations 1 to 4 propose amendments to the bill to clarify how the proposed powers should be exercised. The committee supports the introduction of the proposed powers. The committee recognises that the proposed powers would assist in preventing fires, which furthers the aims of the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 to provide for the prevention, control and suppression of fires.

However, the committee shares the concerns of primary producers and CFS volunteers that the bill as drafted does not adequately explain how the proposed powers would be exercised and by whom. The committee heard concerns about the role of the CFS in exercising the proposed powers. Grain producers were particularly concerned that CFS officers and volunteers would be given the power to direct producers to cease harvesting operations.

The committee heard that there are several specific reasons why CFS volunteers are concerned about the potential exercise of powers under section 82. Firstly, any person exercising the power will carry the burden of directing the actions of a fellow community member. In a small regional community, this burden is difficult and may impinge on future personal and/or business relationships.

Further, many farmers are also CFS volunteers. The committee heard that empowering CFS volunteers to direct their neighbours risks causing tension between neighbours and local communities. Some witnesses also suggested that divisions may arise between the CFS and local communities if the CFS is permitted to direct landholders to cease activities. Other submitters suggested that requiring volunteers to exercise the powers could result in farmers leaving the CFS.

The committee heard support for the South Australia Police (SAPOL) having a lead role in exercising the proposed powers. Submitters and witnesses suggested that police involvement creates a more urgent type of peer pressure and that most community members are likely to respect police authority. One important rationale for providing SAPOL with the power to direct is related to their skills and experience in enforcing legislation. The committee heard that stakeholders do not intend SA Police to take technical measurements of GFDI or to make technical decisions related to the fire risks of prevailing local conditions but should act on the advice of local community networks.

The committee recommends that the proposed powers outlined in clause 23 of the bill be introduced. However, the bill should be amended to clarify that SAPOL, as the chief authority for law enforcement in South Australia, should have the power to issue directions under the proposed powers in consultation with local communities, the CFS and local government fire prevention officers. Given the success of and stakeholder support for the Grain Harvesting Code of Practice, the committee recommends that the exercise of powers in section 82 must take into account any relevant industry-led codes of practice, including the grain harvesting code.

The committee further recommends that the South Australian government develop enforcement criteria and guidelines for the exercise of the proposed powers. The South Australian government should consult with industry bodies and relevant stakeholders in developing these criteria and guidelines.

In relation to recommendations 5 to 10, in support of the introduction of the new powers, the committee makes six further recommendations for the government to consider. The success of the Grain Harvesting Code of Practice highlights the important role that industry-led codes of practice can play in minimising fire risk across the state. The committee strongly supports the development of more codes of practice, based on the grain industry model, for other activities that may cause fires.

The committee recommends that the South Australian government support and encourage all relevant stakeholders, including industry peak bodies, to implement and review relevant codes of practice, including developing codes of practice for prescribed activities that may cause fires. This should include developing a mechanism to recognise codes of practice for the purposes of exercising the proposed powers outlined in clause 23. The committee further recommends that the government provide ongoing education to stakeholders and the broader community about fire prevention and existing codes of practice.

The committee also recognises the range of measures that producers have implemented, often at significant personal cost, to monitor and mitigate fire risk in support of the Grain Harvesting Code of Practice. The committee considers that these measures may make a significant contribution to community safety and warrant further support.

The committee considers there is scope for the South Australian government to review the supports available to producers to develop and improve fire mitigation initiatives. Therefore, the committee recommends that the South Australian government review existing community initiatives aimed at fire prevention, reducing fire risk, and information gathering and sharing, and provide additional funding and support where appropriate, such as developing local weather monitoring networks and SMS alert systems.

The committee recognises the vital role that the CFS plays in protecting South Australian communities and greatly appreciates the significant contribution of officers and volunteers across all levels of the Country Fire Service. However, the committee is concerned by suggestions that the CFS may not have the full support and confidence of communities across South Australia. The committee suggests that any measures to improve relationships between the CFS administration and regional communities, including primary producers and local CFS brigades, should be considered, particularly in relation to the exercise of the proposed powers to direct outlined in the bill.

The committee recommends that the CFS considers measures to improve communication, engagement and consultation with regional communities in decision-making processes, particularly in relation to the exercise of the proposed powers set out in clause 23 of the bill. This inquiry has also highlighted the psychological, emotional and financial impacts of fires on the ongoing wellbeing of regional communities and individuals. The committee appreciates the valuable contribution from communities across the state who shared their experiences of recent bushfire events. The committee recommends that the South Australian government review ongoing and periodic mental health and other wellbeing support services available to communities affected by fires and provide further support where appropriate.

The committee welcomed stakeholders’ active engagement in the inquiry and recognises the wide range of suggestions on further amendments to the bill, which may warrant further consideration. As the committee’s terms of reference were focused on the proposed powers in clause 23, it has not had an opportunity to examine these other issues in detail. The committee therefore recommends that the South Australian government review whether further changes to the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 may be appropriate based on further consultation and drawing on evidence provided to this committee.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the inquiry and given their time and experience to provide important feedback on the bill. I commend committee members for their work on this inquiry: the member for Finniss, the member for Heysen, the member for Mawson and the member for Giles. I also express my thanks to Dr Josh Forkert and Dr Monika Stasiak for assisting the committee throughout. I commend the select committee’s report to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of Mr Pederick.


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