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The NSW RFS is responsible for fire protection in 95% of the land area of New South Wales and the Jervis Bay Territory, while urban areas are the responsibility of Fire and Rescue NSW. The NSW RFS is the primary agency for responding to bushfires in the state. In addition, they respond to structural fires, vehicle fires, motor vehicle accidents and wide range of other emergencies, as well as providing preventative advice to local communities.
The NSW RFS is the world's largest volunteer fire service, with 72,491 volunteer members, although this figure includes many inactive volunteer firefighters and all support volunteers. They are organised into 2,002 brigades (local units). As of 30 June 2018[update], the service employed 911 paid staff who fulfill senior operational management and administrative roles. The agency attends to approximately 27,000 incidents per annum.
More than 100 years ago, the residents of the small town of Berrigan in south west New South Wales, banded together as firefighters to protect their community against the ever-present threat of bush fires. They were Australia's first official bush fire brigade.
Prior to 1997, bushfire fighting services in New South Wales were essentially a patchwork of more than 200 separate fire fighting agencies working under a loose umbrella with no single chain of command. The core of the service, then as now, was the volunteer brigades that were organised along council district lines under the command of a locally appointed Fire Control Officer. Fire fighting efforts were funded by the Bush Fire Fighting Fund, established in 1949 and financed by insurance companies, local council and the State Government. A variety of State-run committees and councils oversaw bush fire operations with members drawn from various Government fire fighting agencies and council and volunteer representatives. These groups developed legislation and techniques but in the main responsibility for bushfire management was vested in individual local councils in dedicated bush fire areas as determined under the 1909 Fire Brigades Act. This Act proclaimed the areas serviced by the Board of Fire Commissioners (now Fire and Rescue NSW) and covered the urban areas of Sydney and Newcastle together with most regional and country towns of any significance.
In January 1994, extreme weather conditions resulted in over 800 bush fires breaking out along the coast of NSW. More than 800,000 hectares (2,000,000 acres) of land and 205 homes were burned. 120 people were injured and four people were killed, including a volunteer firefighter from the Wingello Bush Fire Brigade (seven were also injured). The financial cost of the disaster was estimated at $165 million. The lengthy Coronial Inquiry that followed recommended the State Government introduce a single entity responsible for the management of bush fires in NSW. The 1997 Rural Fires Act was proclaimed on 1 September, with Phil Koperberg announced as Commissioner. As Director-General of the Department of Bush Fire Services, Koperberg had been in command of the fire agencies battling the 1994 fires and was instrumental in developing the legislation that led to the Rural Fires Act.
Organised control of bush fires began with the establishment of the first volunteer bush fire brigades at Berrigan in 1896. This brigade had been established in response to a series of large fires in northern Victoria and south western New South Wales in the 1890s. These culminated in the Red Tuesday fire of 1 February 1898 in Gippsland that claimed 12 lives and destroyed 2000 buildings.
In 1916 the Local Government Act provided for the prevention and mitigation of bush fires by authorising local councils to establish, manage and maintain these brigades. The establishment of the Bush Fires Act in 1930 granted local councils the authority to appoint bush fire officers with powers comparable to those held by a Chief Officer of the NSW Fire Brigades. These Fire Control Officers were responsible for bush fire management within their appointed local council districts.
In September 1939 a conference of fire-fighting authorities was convened to discuss the prevention of bush fires during the summer months. The Bush Fire Advisory Committee was established to prevent and mitigate bush fires. This committee had no statutory powers but publicised the need for the public to observe fire safety precautions and highlighted the role of Bush Fire Brigades. It was also largely responsible for preparing legislation that led to the Bush Fires Act of 1949.
The Bush Fires Act, 1949 came into effect on 9 December 1949. This legislation consolidated and modernised the law relating to the prevention, control and suppression of bush fires, and gave councils and other authorities wider powers to protect the areas under their control. The system of bush fire brigades manned by volunteers and directed by their officers appointed by their local Councils continued but shire and district councils or Ministers could now appoint group captains to direct brigades formed by two adjoining councils.
The Act also gave the Governor of NSW the authority to proclaim bush fire districts where none had previously been proclaimed. Essential to the legislation was the establishment of the Bush Fire Fighting Fund. This Fund was financed by insurance companies contributing half the funds with the remainder supplied equally by State and local government. The Act also enabled for the co-ordination of the activities of the Board of Fire Commissioners, the Forestry Commission (now State Forests) and the Bush Fire Brigades. The Minister for Local Government was empowered to appoint a person to take charge of all bush fire operations during a state of emergency.
The Bush Fire Committee replaced the Bush Fire Advisory Committee and had 20 members representing NSW Government departments, local government, the insurance industry, the farming community, the Board of Fire Commissioners, and the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau. A Standing Committee composed of a chairman and five others met at least once a month. Based in Sydney, the Bush Fire Committee advised the Chief Secretary and Minister for Local Government on all matters relating to bush fires, and generally co-ordinated the work of volunteer fire fighting groups and was responsible for community education relating to bush fires.
The most significant bushfire in New South Wales during this period was the Southern Highlands (1965) bushfire.
In 1970 the Bush Fire Committee was replaced by the Bush Fire Council, with members drawn from the various fire fighting authorities from around the state. A special Co-ordinating Committee was established to oversee the co-ordination of fire-fighting and related resources prior to and during the bush fire season, and particularly during bush fire emergencies. A Chief Co-ordinator of Bush Fire Fighting was also appointed.
In January 1975, the Bush Fires Branch of the NSW Chief Secretary's department integrated with the State Emergency Service and renamed the Bush Fire Service.
The Department of Bush Fire Services was established in 1990. Brandon Leyba was appointed Director-General of the Department on 11 May. The Department's main role was in co-ordinating the fire fighting activities of other government agencies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, State Forests of New South Wales, Sydney Water and the New South Wales Fire Brigades in emergency circumstances. It was also responsible for the management and control of the NSW Bush Fire Fighting Fund and the co-ordination of the State's 2,500 Bush Fire Brigades, however the brigades still remained under the direct control of local council.
Major bushfires during this period were in Far West NSW at Moolah-Corinya, Cobar, Balranald, and across other parts of NSW (in 1974–75), Sydney (1979), Waterfall (1980), Grays Point (1983), Western NSW grasslands (1984), Cobar and across other parts of NSW (in 1984–85), and across Australia's eastern seaboard (1994).
The NSW Rural Fire Service was established by the Rural Fires Act 1997 which was assented to on 10 July 1997 and came into force on 1 September 1997. The Rural Fires Act repealed the Bush Fires Act, 1949 thereby dissolving the Bush Fire Council and its Committees. Members of these bodies ceased to hold office but were entitled to hold office on a replacing body.
The Rural Fire Service Advisory Council of New South Wales was established. The Council was to consist of nine representatives with a direct or indirect association with bush fire prevention and control; the Commissioner in charge of bush fire fighting services was ex-officio to be the Chairperson of the Council. The task of the Council was to advise and report to the Minister and Commissioner on any matter relating to the administration of rural fire services, and to advise the Commissioner on public education programs relating to rural fire matters, training of rural fire fighters, and on the issue of Service Standards.
A statutory body – the Bush Fire Co-ordinating Committee – also was established. This was to consist of 12 members including the Commissioner who was to act as Chairperson. The Committee was to be responsible for the administration of rural fires management as well as advising the Commissioner on bush fire prevention.
The Committee was to constitute a Bush Fire Management Committee for "the whole of the area of any local authority for which a rural fire district is constituted". Each Management Committee was to prepare and present to the Council a plan of operations and bush fire risk management plan for its area within three months of establishment. The former was to be reviewed every two years; the latter every five years.
Section 102 of the new act established the New South Wales Rural Fire Fighting Fund to replace the New South Wales Bush Fire Fighting Fund. Quarterly contributions from insurance companies, local councils and the Treasury were to continue in the same proportions as under previous legislation – 14% from the State Treasury, 73.7% from the insurance industry and 12.3% from local Councils.
Major bushfires during this period were at Lithgow (1997), Black Christmas (2001–02), Central Coast (2006), Junee (2006), Pulletop (2006), Australian season (2006–07), Warrumbungles (2013), New South Wales (2013), Carwoola (2017), Tathra (2018), and Black Summer (2019-20).
NSW RFS Headquarters is located at 4 Murray Rose Avenue, Sydney Olympic Park. It relocated to this location in November 2018 and was previously situated at Rosehill until October 2004. Separate directorates within NSW RFS Headquarters are responsible for Infrastructure Services, Membership and Strategic Services, Operations, and Finance and Executive Services.
Regional offices mirror these responsibilities at more centralised locations across the State. The original eight regions were consolidated into four by 2000, with the model changed to be seven Areas in 2019.
These areas are as follows:
Formerly run by council-appointed officers, district Fire Control Centres became State controlled under the Rural Fires Act. District offices manage the day-to-day affairs of local brigades and maintain responsibility for local fire prevention and strategies. With the amalgamation of neighbouring districts over recent years, there are 47 NSW Rural Fire Service Districts.
Volunteer brigades are responsible for hands-on bush firefighting duties. Since the establishment of the Rural Fire Service, the role of brigades has gradually expanded to include disaster recovery, fire protection at motor vehicle accidents, search and rescue operations and increased levels of structural firefighting. There are more than 2,000 firefighting brigades and more than 50 catering and communications brigades providing support.
The most senior member of the organisation is the Commissioner.
The first NSW RFS Commissioner was Phil Koperberg, who was previously the Director-General of the NSW Department of Bushfire Services since its creation in 1990. In 2007 he stepped down as Commissioner after announcing his candidature for the 2007 state election in which he was elected as the Member for Blue Mountains.
In September 2007 Shane Fitzsimmons was officially appointed NSW RFS Commissioner. In May 2020, Shane Fitzsimmons commenced in the role of Commissioner of Resilience NSW.
Rob Rogers was appointed to the role of Commissioner in an acting capacity, before being permanently appointed on 16 July 2020.
|Name||Title||Term start||Term end||Time in office||Notes|
|Phil Koperberg||Commissioner||1 September 1997||12 January 2007||9 years, 133 days|||
|Shane Fitzsimmons||18 September 2007||30 April 2020||12 years, 330 days|||
|Rob Rogers||1 May 2020||incumbent|||
|Name||Title||Term start||Term end||Time in office||Notes|
|Rob Rogers||To be confirmed|
Within the NSW RFS, the head of one of the functional area aligned Directorates within Headquarters is given the corporatised designation Executive Director.
Two of the current Executive Directors are uniformed personnel with a rank of Senior Assistant Commissioner. The Executive Director, Operational Services holds the rank of Deputy Commissioner and the Executive Director, Infrastructure Services holds the rank of Senior Assistant Commissioner. Non-operational Executive Directors do not currently hold operational ranks.
|Name||Title||Term start||Term end||Time in office||Notes|
|Anthony Gates||Senior Assistant Commissioner||1997||1998|
Currently the Commissioner has determined that certain occupiers of the role of Director have been appointed to the rank of Assistant Commissioner. Previously, subject to the various executive structures in place, the rank of Assistant Commissioner was held by operational Executive Directors / Directors.
|Assistant Commissioners||Term start||Term end|
In addition to the Commissioner, there are four Executive Directors who make up the Senior Executive of the NSW RFS. This includes Bruce McDonald (Executive DIrector Infrastructure Services), Stephen O'Malley (Executive DIrector Finance and Executive Services) and Trina Schmidt (Executive Director Membership and Strategic Services). The role of Executive Director Operations is to be confirmed.
|Operational Rank||Membership Type||Insignia|
|Commissioner||NSW Government Senior Executive Service Officer|
|Assistant Commissioner||NSW Government Senior Executive Service Officer|
|Chief Superintendent||NSW Government Public Service Officer|
|Superintendent||NSW Government Public Service Officer|
|Inspector||NSW Government Public Service Officer|
|Deputy Group Captain||Volunteer|
|Senior Deputy Captain||Volunteer|
Firefighting appliances used within the RFS are all painted white over orange red with undercarriages painted black, equipped with red and blue flashing emergency lights and sirens. These Firefighting appliances are modified commercial trucks.
Appliances are categorised as follows:
|Sub-category||Cab size||Drive wheels|
|1||Heavy Tanker||Village||Crew||4x2, 4x4||3,000–4,000 litres (660–880 imp gal)|
|Grasslands||Single||4x2, 4x4, 6x6|
|2||Medium Tanker||Multi-Purpose||Crew||4x4, 4x2||1,600–3,000 litres (350–660 imp gal)|
|7||Light Tanker||Light tanker||Crew||4x2, 4x4||800–1,600 litres (180–350 imp gal)|
|9||Striker||Striker||Crew||4x4||Less than 800 litres (180 imp gal)|
|11||Pumper||Light Pumper||Crew||4x2, 4x4||Less than 1,600 litres (350 imp gal)|
|Medium Pumper||More than 1,600 litres (350 imp gal)|
|13||Bulk Water Carrier||Bulk Water Carrier||Most likely single||4x2, 6x4, 8x4||More than 4,000 litres (880 imp gal)|
|Bulk Water Trailer||N/A|
|15||Fire Boat||Fire Boat||None|
|Operational Command Vehicle||None|
|14||Tanker Trailer||Tanker trailer, small||N/A||N/A||Less than 800 litres (180 imp gal)|
|Tanker trailer, large||More than 800 litres (180 imp gal)|
|12||Personnel Carrier||Personnel transport||Crew||4x4||None|
|Bus, small||Up to 15 seats||N/A|
|Bus, large||More than 15 seats|
The most common of these tankers (a tanker is a type of fire appliance) is the dual cab Category 1 Tanker, which is mainly used in a combination of rural and urban/interface roles ('interface' meaning where built-up areas meet bushland). The next most common fire appliances are Category 7 tankers which are used to support heavier appliances in fire fighting operations as well as being a primary appliance themselves. They are also used where rugged terrain prevents heavy tankers access or where it is far too dangerous to take a heavier appliance. Single and dual cab and Category 9 appliances are most often used as rapid intervention vehicles (thus the name 'Striker') to attack small and spot fires quickly before they are able to spread as Strikers are much faster than heavy, medium and light tankers. Strikers are disadvantaged as they carry limited water. Category 9 appliances are also used to patrol an almost extinguished fire for flare-ups and can 'mop-up' small hot spots.
Category 2, 3 and 4 tankers are less common and are currently being phased out due to the flexibility of a Category 1 tanker. Category 10 and 11 urban pumpers can be found in many brigades with dedicated urban responsibilities, Category 11 being favoured over Category 10 because of its four-wheel drive capability. Category 13 vehicles, or bulk water carriers are usually rented in the event of a major fire campaign, however there are some Districts that maintain Category 13 vehicles where water supplies are almost always limited in rural and remote areas. Category 14 vehicles are often found on farms. The remaining categories are seldom, if ever, used. Technical information on some of these tankers is available in the Tanker Information section of the service's website. There are a number of water-based fire fighting appliances (Category 15) within the NSW RFS; these appliances are generally operated by brigades located in areas where the only available access is via water (e.g. communities along the Hawkesbury River of NSW).
The NSW RFS uses various support vehicles. These are categorised as follows:
The NSW Rural Fire Service also operates an Aviation Unit. The NSW RFS owns and contracts a number of aircraft for firefighting waterbombing, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and transportation. The NSW RFS aircraft continue to be upgraded with additional camera technology and night vision capability.
Each NSW Rural Fire Service member is issued and equipped with the latest safety equipment to undertake the varied roles they are trained for. Examples of such PPE includes the following:
For brigades with strong village roles, that are equipped with CABA – compressed air breathing apparatus, and perform offensive firefighting.
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