RFS and SES face partial merger under flood inquiry recommendation

The state government will consider a partial merger of the State Emergency Service and the NSW Rural Fire Service following recommendations from the independent flood inquiry.

Former police commissioner Mick Fuller and Professor Mary O’Kane’s report to Premier Dominic Perrottet will call for the biggest overhaul to emergency services since they were established.

The SES could partially merge with the NSW RFS under a bold new emergency management plan proposed in the flood inquiry.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The partial merger would see the RFS and SES combine their back-of-house functions, although each agency will retain its core purpose of responding to floods or bushfires. The report will also recommend that any flood operations be managed from RFS headquarters rather than the SES’ Wollongong base.

The RFS is the largest volunteer firefighting organisation in the world, with more than 70,000 volunteers and formed more than 100 years ago. Meanwhile, the NSW SES is made up of about 9000 volunteers and was formed in 1955. Merging the two organisations could be one solution to address how stretched emergency services manage more frequent and intense natural disasters.

The partial merger could have wide-ranging impacts as the two agencies vary greatly in their operations, structure and ways they communicate with the public. For example, the RFS has already implemented a nationally consistent emergency warning system, while the SES is set to introduce the full system by the end of the year. The new system was among one of 80 recommendations made by the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements last year.

The inquiry’s recommendations also will suggest that public information functions be run out of Service NSW rather than from the combat agency tasked with leading the natural disaster, as is the current approach.

Lismore was devastated by floods earlier this year. Credit:Brook Mitchell

The government commissioned the former public servants in March to lead an investigation into the causes of this year’s deadly northern NSW floods, the emergency response and the future of building on floodplains.

The inquiry examined the state’s preparedness to deal with major flooding events, while considering the gaps in the emergency response that left inundated residents in the state’s north to be rescued by private boats.

The independent report will recommend that Resilience NSW boss Shane Fitzsimmons be dumped and the disaster management and response agency dramatically scaled down. It will also suggest a new deputy police commissioner be appointed to emergency and disaster management.

A source familiar with the report said it was damning of the SES’ response. The news is the latest slap in the face for the agency days after a separate NSW parliamentary inquiry criticised the SES and Bureau of Meteorology for its “incorrect and out of date” information during the flood disaster that left 13 people dead and destroyed 4000 homes in February and March this year.

SES Commissioner Carlene York is currently on pre-arranged leave, but a spokesperson for the agency said she had been working with her senior leadership team throughout the week to review the findings and recommendations from the parliamentary inquiry. York will return to official duties on August 13.

A NSW SES spokesperson said the agency would review each recommendation which would form part of the government’s response. An RFS spokesperson gave the same statement.

NSW Police said it could not comment until the report was publicly released.

The SES submission to the parliamentary inquiry notes that restructuring of the organisation, merging and deletion of regions had been a cost-cutting measure by the NSW government and prevented it from delivering “training, support and provide services to the communities across NSW when they are at their most vulnerable”.

Perrottet has yet to publicly release the inquiry’s findings and his response to them, but a NSW government spokesperson said it would be done soon.

“The report includes recommendations that will have impacts for communities, volunteers and first responders,” the spokesperson said.

SES Commander in Woodburn Ashley Slapp told 2GB on Thursday his unit worked around the clock even while their own houses were going under.

“We didn’t knock-off, we didn’t sleep on a bed, we slept on a floor,” he said. “Myself and all the team of the SES, especially in that flood, we were on the phone until three in the morning, we were working 24/7, we used every resource we had available to us. There was nothing we couldn’t do more.”

Last week Deputy Premier Paul Toole said the government wanted to report back to flood-affected communities as soon as possible, committing to releasing the report in August.

“I think there are going to be things the government can do in the short term, the medium term and the longer term and this is about giving some clarity and certainty to the community.”

The report comes as the possibility of a third consecutive La Nina event for this year remains at 50 per cent. In the latest update from BoM released on Thursday, four of seven models showed a La Nina event occurring by mid-spring.

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