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Fire and local government role

Council watch

with (former Palerang councillor) Peter Marshall

On Friday 17 February, like many other volunteer firefighters, residents and their neighbours, I was involved in defending properties against a fast-moving grassfire in Carwoola, which quickly became a bushfire. Many houses were saved, but sadly many others were lost, as were other structures, pets and other domestic animals, wildlife, fencing and stock feed.

It exercised my mind on where local government fits in fire prevention. On 1 July 2017 ratepayers will notice a substantial hike in their rates bill with the funding of Rural Fire Service, Fire and Rescue and State Emergency Service being shifted from a tax on insurance (so you should see a reduction in your insurance premium) to a property levy collected by councils. While it’s not directly relevant, and won’t change the amount of funds available to the RFS, it is likely to make people start asking more questions of councils.

Councils and the NSW Government set rules that apply to new developments in rural areas. Asset Protection Zones (APZ) are supposed to protect houses from fire reaching vegetation near the house. Water tanks are required to have a reserve for firefighting, accessible to the firefighters via a 65mm Storz fitting, so that the water available to protect the house is more than the 3000 litres the largest fire trucks carry.

Building-report-coverThere are rules and guidelines about construction materials, and positioning of gas bottles. See report.

Rural residents will be familiar with frequent inspections of the On-site Sewage Management System, and council officers checking for weeds, and Notices being issued to require improvement.

But when was the last time a council officer checked that your APZ was being maintained, or that your Storz fitting and firefighting water reserve were being maintained and were accessible? That you haven’t built a deck or replaced cladding with prohibited or not-recommended materials? Almost certainly the answer is never.

Development consent conditions routinely include rules about when and how construction can be carried out. Conditions require a toilet on site and control of waste and water runoff. Knowing that in the early stages of construction there is likely to be little firefighting capability on site, perhaps consent conditions could ban all outdoor construction activity on Total Fire Ban days. This would probably have prevented the Carwoola fire.

Retrofitting ad hoc

Many older houses do not have the firefighting water reserve and Storz fitting, as they are a requirement on new developments. Retrofitting is entirely voluntary, and seems to be uncommon. Council could easily play a role in this, providing advice or even subsidies to householders to retrofit. A proactive council would do so. Councils have for years had subsidies for water-saving measures in places with reticulated water supplies, so the model is well-established.

First of series of job spills at QPRC, more rewards

Council is currently advertising for four General Managers, presumably in addition to the existing General Manager, unless there will be no overall boss? [newsflash: overall boss has a new title ‘CEO’]  Salaries of $230,000 to $260,000 are on offer (up from some $190,000 for the same department head jobs before).  Senior management positions in local government also routinely come with perks such as private use of a luxury car, travel, training and/or conference expenses.

These posts look like they will be filled by people selected by the Administrator, and the newly elected Council in September will inherit them, and the cost of moving them on if they are not considered suitable. It is yet another example of the government-appointed Administrator making decisions with long-term financial implications, at ratepayers’ expense.

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