Red faces after firies fail to communicate

Bernard Swann's garage was a raging inferno, its roof had collapsed and his Porsche and Honda cars were already doomed by the time a crew of firefighters arrived at his waterfront home in the sleepy village of Bundeena.

The captain of the local unit from Fire and Rescue NSW called for back-up soon after his crew of four arrived on Friday, within seven minutes of Mr Swann's call to 000 at 3.15pm.

"Regrettably that assistance was not called from Bundeena Rural Fire Station," complained the town's volunteer Rural Fire Service on its Facebook page. Instead, Fire and Rescue – the state's brigade of professional firefighters – dispatched back-up from Sutherland, which "under lights and siren would at best take 30 minutes to be on the scene!"

The Facebook entry, laden with angry exclamation marks, was soon taken down, but it said: "Members of RFS Bundeena are at a loss to understand how they could be ignored as a second response agency when a structure fire with potential to endanger other property and lives remained out of control!"

It assured residents that "a full investigation is under way but in the meanwhile Bundeena RFS members are questioning their role as a fire-fighting agency in Bundeena!"

The volunteers were promptly supported with a Facebook entry, also quickly removed, on the local Fire and Rescue page.

"The crew are disappointed," it said, that the nearest back-up, the local RFS, was not sent to help, "as both captains have been working closely to overcome any communication issues as both the crews are happy to and want to work together".

Bundeena, after all, is a town of fewer than 2000 people and it is surrounded by the fire-prone Royal National Park. The local RFS and Fire and Rescue are next-door neighbours. Both have built new stations.

Mr Swann, in any case, was oblivious to the controversy. "I think they did a sterling job," he said on Saturday. The fire crews had responded promptly and acted with cool heads.

But was this episode symptomatic of old tensions between the fire services: the professional service not trusting the volunteers?

No, insisted the hierarchy in both organisations. They operated "mutual aid zones" in which either service could be readily dispatched to assist the other, an RFS spokesman said.

Mr Swann's garage was outside that zone, in a Fire and Rescue area. While the first call for back-up would normally go to Fire and Rescue, there was nothing to stop either organisation calling on the other to help if that were the best response to an emergency.

A Fire and Rescue spokesman said it did, in fact, alert the RFS as a courtesy at 3.26pm, and that the volunteer service could have dispatched a crew if it deemed this necessary.

The Sutherland Fire and Rescue crew did arrive – mainly to provide breathing-apparatus back-up – at 3.43pm, 28 minutes after the original emergency call.

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