Union claims PJs supermarket could have been saved

A report into a large Mildura blaze has found that water supply problems, communications issues, a lack of firefighters, and the unavailability of Mildura’s aerial pumper hampered efforts to control the multi-million dollar fire.

The United Firefighters’ Union has launched a scathing attack on the effectiveness of the Country Fire Authority’s ability to fight a fire that destroyed the Mildura PJ’s Supermarket in January. In a 40-page report given to the CFA this week and seen by Sunraysia Daily, the union claims the supermarket could have been saved if firefighters had access to sufficient personnel and equipment resources.

The report said insufficient staff, communication problems, poor response times and the lack of an aerial appliance to attack the fire from above were all issues that hampered the efforts of firefighters in the early hours of January 22. It said the advantage of fighting the fire at height was lost and the blaze could have been more effectively fought with an aerial pumper and appropriate staffing levels.

United Firefighters Union secretary Peter Marshall said it was clear that Mildura needed its aerial pumper – currently based at Frankston and yet to see action in Mildura – and extra crew to operate it.

“This fire stretched Mildura’s resources and left other as sets unprotected,” Mr Marshall said.

“Support was unavailable from Bendigo, and an off-duty Mildura crew had to be recalled to provide emergency cover for the region,” he said.

“That’s not good enough when you consider the homes and infrastructure in the area, as well as Victoria’s busiest regional airport with 215,000 passengers a year.” Mr Marshall said the CFA must provide training for airport emergencies, and the CFA and NSW fire service must organise and supply radio communication equipment so that vehicles from the CFA and NSW can easily communicate with each other.

“Above all, Mildura needs extra firefighters and its aerial pumper, as purchased by the CFA for this purpose three years ago,” he said.

The union report into the PJ’s fire also found: Firefighters were unable to get access through a roller door because of materials stacked against it; Response times from some crews were inadequate and up to an hour after the alarm was raised; Delays were caused by poor radio reception and congestion, resulting in volunteer crews not parking as directed; A pump failure, burst hoses, low mains water pressure, and two pillar hydrants were not working; A lack of equipment including functional hoses and hose couplings. However, the CFA yesterday said it was unaware of some of the issues raised in the union report.

CFA district 18 operations manager Bill Johnstone said the PJ’s fire presented its own “difficulties and challenges” and came in the midst of an intensive fire safety summer campaign.

“The CFA is reliant on volunteers and after another busy fire danger period they were just exhausted,” Mr Johnstone said.

“Resources were brought in to assist in fighting the fire as normal arrangements, but the fact is that every time we do fight a large fire in Mildura we do exhaust our resources,” he said.

“We have tried to put a new firefighting appliance in to Mildura and we have tried to recruit new staff, but despite widespread advertising no-one has taken up that option.

“We have simply been unable to attract applicants to the region, but the CFA is not unique in that regard.

“Sometimes it’s tough to attract new personnel because of our perceived isolation, but it’s not a case that we haven’t tried … and we’re still trying.” Mr Johnstone said the CFA was in the process of conducting its own analysis of the PJ’s fire, and it was unaware of the union’s report until this week.

Resources were brought in to assist in fighting the fire as normal arrangements, but the fact is that every time we do fight a large fire in Mildura we do exhaust our resources – CFA District 18 operations manager Bill Johnstone

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