Often reverting to “we” when discussing his former employer, Fitzsimmons frequently took charge of answering questions ahead of Rogers who was making his fourth appearance at the commission. Responses, though, dealt mostly with general processes, with few hints at what Fitzsimmons would have done differently if he had a chance to re-run last summer.
In fact, agencies had something of a primer a year earlier when the spring of 2018 was predicted to be just as extreme as what followed a year later. Inquiries into what extra steps agencies took to prepare could almost start there.
“Even though it turned out to be an unprecedented season in terms of weather, fire behaviour and, of course, the widespread damage, destruction and tragedy … the [2018-19] outlook was almost identical in terms of depiction of where the above-normal activity was expected to be,” Fitzsimmons told the hearing. “If anything, there were slight contractions of area into the ’19-’20 fire season.”
The investigation into the lessons of 2019-20 – and even previous seasons – would likely have generated wider interest if not for the pandemic. Those pressing matters may also eclipse any findings of the royal commission due by the end of August.
The lower profile, but possibly more consequential, NSW Bushfire Inquiry is being run by Mary O’Kane, chair of the Independent Planning Commission, and Dave Owens, an ex-deputy commissioner of NSW Police. The deadline for its findings is July 31.
At stake is identifying whether more could have been done to reduce last season’s death toll of 25 people – some of them perishing as they battled blazes – and the loss of about 2500 homes in NSW alone.
With the official fire season just months away and climate change likely to aggravate risks over time, both inquiries will also advise how communities and the agencies that defend them can be better prepared.
Craig Lapsley, a former emergency management commissioner for Victoria and now a consultant, says the 2019-20 fire season should be “a turning point” for NSW as it was for Victoria in 2009.
“People expect change. Doing more of the same won’t answer the questions,” he says.
However, Rogers’ reappointment before the inquiries have released any of their recommendations suggests the government may not be very interested in change.
Coronial inquests to come may also raise some issues about management decisions by senior officials last season.
Rogers was initially granted the role of RFS chief for “up to 12 months” when Fitzsimmons resigned at the end of April to head the expanded disaster recovery agency, Resilience NSW.
On May 13, the government posted an advertisement for “an exceptional leader … in an amazing organisation where a leader will have a profound impact”.
Applicants had 11 days to apply and those who inquired were told there would be no head-hunting search at home or abroad that might normally be expected with a public servant role worth around $480,000 a year.
A senior government figure says Rogers’ appointment was “waved through cabinet” without discussion. His confirmation in the role also came as a surprise to both the NSW inquiry and the royal commission, and apparently to the man himself who only learned of his posting after his Wednesday appearance at the hearing.
Political queries about the hiring process have been muted so far, with Trish Doyle, Labor’s spokeswoman for Emergency Services, saying that “while the timing of this appointment is surprising, I trust Commissioner Rogers will implement the recommendations and suggested changes for the RFS that come out of the inquiries”.
Greens MP David Shoebridge, though, says a decision on Rogers’ elevation to the top role should have come after “the inquiries have finished”, adding “we need to know how the leadership’s decisions stacked up”.
Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliot defended the haste of the appointment saying the interim role was announced when “NSW was still dealing with more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 each day”.
“Given the easing of restrictions and low case numbers, the Department of Communities and Justice proceeded with the standard recruitment process and opened up applications for the position of RFS Commissioner,” he says. “Rob Rogers was the successful applicant.”
“By conducting the independent recruitment process now rather than in 12 months’ time, we will provide the over 70,000 members of the NSW RFS greater stability and surety ahead of the upcoming bushfire season,” he says.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Communities and Justice says Rogers secured the position “following a rigorous and robust recruitment process”.
Rogers, who had been overlooked for the role when it was given to Fitzsimmons in 2007, had served as a deputy commissioner for the past nine years.
“Senior government jobs are definitely not an easy process [to secure],” he told the Herald, adding it involved “psychometrics … and a full interview”.
“It’s not a sort of walk up, and you’re anointed [outcome],” he says. “You’ve definitely got to earn the job.”
Phil Koperberg, who was the first RFS commissioner when it was founded in 1997, says he had “discovered” both Fitzsimmons and Rogers, and was “delighted” by his appointment and that the volunteer force of more than 72,000 “would be happy”.
Rogers, who had joined the RFS as 15-year-old volunteer in 1979, was “very adaptive” and would take whatever recommendations on board that came from the twin inquiries, Koperberg says. Overhauling fire management, though, won’t necessarily improve results.
“I’m not convinced that change for the sake of change is a good thing,” he added.
For his part, Rogers says he’s got his work cut out preparing for the coming fire season, amid the coronavirus complications that threaten to derail the training of as many as 8000 fresh volunteers and hamper fire suppression and fuel-reduction activities.
Damp weather over much of the eastern seaboard has also hindered prescribed burning in the autumn, falling far short of targets, the RFS says.
Rogers outlined a nine-point priority list, headed by improvements to firefighters’ equipment.
“Firefighters are the ones who put fires out in fire trucks,” he says. “So we’ve got to make sure they’ve got the right trucks, the safest trucks and the right gear, the protective gear.”
That meant not giving excessive heed to deploying water-bombing planes and helicopters that were “great and flashy”. “No matter what an aircraft does, it still needs firefighters on the ground to make sure we actually put that fire out.”
Among the “big lessons” Rogers has taken from the past season was the need to keep improving information technology, such as updating the Fires Near Me app to look “50 kilometres over the border” to help NSW residents prepare for inter-state blazes.
Another issue is addressing the mental toll on “a lot of our people” from the summer fires.
“[W]e won’t get them back to normal because I think there’s a lot of people that have been seriously impacted,” he says.
As for the looming results of the inquiries, Rogers says it’s up to policymakers to decide which findings to enforce.
“There’s been dozens of inquiries that we’ve been involved with, over decades,” Rogers says. “I have no doubt that whatever the royal commission or the state inquiry come out with, it will shape our organisation further.”
In the meantime, the hunt is on for a new deputy commissioner, and an outsider may be in the mix.
“It will be competitive internally but the RFS is also an organisation where we welcome people from outside the organisation,” he says. “It could be people outside the state, there’s some very talented people around the country.”
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Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Laura is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.