Money 'wasted' on fire prevention

Australia spends too much trying to prevent fires and, if it outlaid less, could save more lives, according to a controversial study by an insurance researcher.

Conceding the findings for such an emotive matter might upset some and anger others, Brian Ashe said a rational analysis of the $12 billion in annual funding for fire prevention backed his case.

Dr Ashe works with the insurance industry-funded Risk Frontiers research centre at Macquarie University. He gained his doctorate studying the cost of fire.

The fatality rate is ''low by international standards'' at 0.6 deaths per 100,000 of population and has proved ''resistant to increasing expenditure on fire management and protection''.

Dr Ashe surveyed 26 fire professionals and found none believed higher spending would bring a net economic gain. All but four believed Australia would be better off if it spent less trying to prevent fires.

''This is a very sensitive matter and really what we're looking to get is the best out of our investment,'' Dr Ashe told Fairfax Media. ''We just have to be careful that we don't put too many resources into one hazard.''

He said that if $4.5 billion of the money spent on fire safety was instead returned to businesses and consumers as tax cuts, health and nutrition would improve. 

His modelling suggests such a tax cut would save between 90 and 225 lives a year. About 114 lives are lost each year from fire - 14 of them from bushfires.

But Nicholas Gruen, a former commissioner at the Productivity Commission, said he was uneasy applying cost-benefit techniques to fire prevention. ''Safety is value based and takes as its object not just the minimisation of harm, but its elimination,'' he said.

The deputy commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, Rob Rogers, said anyone who had lost their home in a bushfire would not agree with the study. 

'You can't discuss fire safety spending as a simple equation,'' he said. ''It's not just above saving lives but properties and what's in them - the things that can't be replaced.''

Photo Anna Tenne

Photo Anna Tenne