A fire that caused the complete destruction of two houses and damaged two more at Lennox Head last week could have resulted in fatalities if police had not taken on the task of rescuing residents, according to a local firefighter.
But, he added, the result could have been much less serious – and the response time much quicker – if the Ballina Fire Station was permanently staffed.
The firey, who asked that his name be withheld, told Echonetdaily the level of damage the homes sustained ‘is very rare in most house fire incidents these days’ and highlighted ‘the currently inadequate emergency response to fires and rescue operations within the Ballina Shire’.
Following a 000 call made at 01:03:43 on Sunday October 14, two trucks were despatched from Ballina’s Fire and Rescue (FRNSW) station and one from Lennox Head’s Rural Fire Service (RFS) station.
According to the firefighter, Ballina’s first truck left the station some 7 minutes and 54 seconds later, and the second truck at 11 minutes and 45 seconds after the time of call.
‘This time seems reasonable, though when put into perspective it is truly frightening,’ he said.
‘The chances of survivability of human life are already almost zero before the truck has left the station.
Unsurvivable after five minutes
‘According to FRNSW and the CSIRO a modern room can reach flashover point in just 3-5 minutes. When flashover occurs, temperatures can reach over 600 degrees Celsius, which is considered unsurvivable.
‘During the delay, while waiting for fire trucks to arrive, brave police officers risked their lives multiple times and went above and beyond their call of duty to search the homes and evacuate residences.
‘They did this with no protective equipment or training and, if something went horribly wrong, no back up from firefighters. This adds to the lives at risk and the families being let down by the current service,’ he said.
First truck took 18 mins
He added the first truck arriving at the house fire was Lennox Head RFS at 18min 1sec after the call; Ballina’s first truck arrived at 21min 44sec, with the second arriving at 25min 9sec.
‘As you can imagine, 18-20 minutes after a fire starts the chances of human life surviving are zero and the chances of the house not being totally destroyed are also very small.
‘The real tragedy in this instance is that the emergency response was so slow and inadequate that the adjoining property was also destroyed as well as two more properties being damaged.
‘Four families have been dramatically affected due to the refusal of Fire and Rescue NSW senior management at Ballina to adapt with the community’s growth, needs and expectations.
‘It must be mentioned this is not the fault of the firefighters themselves but a failing of the system in which they work,’ he said.
Permanent force needed
The firefighter said that other regional hubs including Lismore and Tweed Heads, have 24/7 permanent firefighters ‘ready to respond to any car accident, house fire, chemical spill within two minutes of the time of call’ but that Ballina FRNSW continues with a ‘retained firefighter’ model, which sees part-time on-call firies paid a retainer and an hourly rate for the fires they fight.
‘If Ballina had permanent staff, the outcome of the house fire at Lennox Head would have been much different: they would have responded and arrived much earlier and, at the very least, saved neighbouring houses from further fire spread.’
‘FRNSW first identified Ballina as a growth hub and earmarked it for permanent staffing in 2010. Since then Ballina has had large growth in population, housing and industry but no introduction of permanent firefighters. If it was needed in 2010 it most certainly is needed now,’ he said.
He added that Ballina council had been campaigning to FRNSW to increase the staffing to include permanent firefighters at Ballina supported by Ballina Labor candidate Asren Pugh.
‘The people of Ballina Shire pay the same amount of money for fire protection through our house insurance policies as the people of Lismore and Tweed Heads and Tamworth but receive much less in return,’ he said.
‘As per the 2017 FRNSW annual report there are 11 permanently manned fire stations around the state with less calls than Ballina, including Broken Hill, Avalon, Menai, Berowra and Toronto.’
A spokesperson for FRNSW said, ‘The house fire in Lennox Head occurred in an RFS fire district and FRNSW responded as the supporting agency’.
‘The property was located approximately 12 minutes drive from Ballina Fire Station.
‘Firefighters faced challenging weather conditions on arrival, with powerful onshore winds fanning the flames and causing the fire to spread quickly.
‘FRNSW and RFS crews worked tirelessly to contain and prevent the fire from spreading further, saving a third home from serious damage.
‘FRNSW continues to review the operational requirements of Ballina Fire Station to ensure the local community’s needs are met as the area grows.
‘Ballina and the surrounding area is currently well-protected 24/7 by retained firefighters at Ballina and Alstonville Fire Stations and the RFS.
‘We consider a number of factors when rating a station’s staffing capacity, including (but not limited to) population growth, socio economics, transient population, property density, infrastructure and the number of hazards in the area.
‘Under the current rating, the retained staffing structure at Ballina Fire Station is sufficient to meet the community’s needs,’ the spokesperson said.