Today’s question came via email in response to the post Private fire appliances and the CFA (December 2, 2017):
… my question is “is it illegal to put out fire with private firefighting equipment?” Some people are saying that it’s illegal but in the CFA private firefighting equipment handbook it says that its legal. What happens when I come to a fire first; will there be any problem with people saying that it’s illegal?
Also l have done a leadership course and my plan was a private firefighting equipment and follow to the letter from the CFA private firefighting equipment handbook but I am getting different opinions and I have been told that if continue with this I will be reported to the CFA and the police. This person hasn’t seen the private firefighting equipment handbook.
I assume that the reference to the CFA handbook is the Country Fire Authority Guidelines for Operating Private Equipment at Fires (Edition 2 – June 2016). Those guidelines start with the comment:
The responsibility for individuals to fight fire on their own land has always been a part of Victoria’s fire fighting suppression regime. It was recognized in the Royal Commission into the disastrous 1939 Black Friday fires where Commissioner Stretton recommended that when a fire breaks out on private land “it should be made the duty of the landholder…to take immediate steps to check and suppress such fire”. This recommendation is reflected today in Section 34 of the CFA Act, 1958.
It has always been the custom and practice in Victoria that members of the community attend fires with their own equipment to protect their property and that of others. For that matter, CFA developed from such beginnings.
The Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (Vic) s 34 says:
Where a fire … is burning on any land in the country area of Victoria at any time during a fire danger period the owner or the occupier or the person in charge of that land whether or not he has lighted the fire or caused the fire to be lighted shall—
(a) immediately upon becoming aware of the fire, take all reasonable steps to extinguish the fire…
In Stephens v Stephens (1970) 92 WN(NSW) 810 Mason JA found that no legal authority was necessary to extinguish a bushfire.
It is absolutely legal to try to fight a fire with private equipment. The idea that the CFA and only the CFA can fight bushfires would deny both reality (ie that others can indeed fight fires) and the whole idea of resilience to natural disasters. People can help themselves and their neighbours.
Extend that to all fires and can you imagine telling people it’s illegal to use a fire extinguisher to try and put out a fire before the fire brigade arrives? That scenario shows the stupidity of a suggestion that people cannot attempt to put out a fire with whatever equipment they have.
It might be illegal to create a fire brigade, impersonate the CFA, interfere with the operations of the CFA, but those issuers were not the subject of the question.
For further discussion, see:
- Self help firefighting in Victoria (August 30, 2014);
- Neighbours helping neighbours during a Victorian bushfire and the powers of the CFA (November 28, 2014);
- Splitting from the CFA (June 13, 2016); and
- Private fire appliances and the CFA (December 2, 2017).
“It might be illegal to create a fire brigade”. Many heavy industrial sites have their own unregistered non affiliated ‘brigades’ trained specialist firefighters and equipment as a first response measure ( a condition of specific industry, insurance , OH&S etc ). The operation of these ‘private brigades’ does not say… ‘it is an offence to operate an ‘unregistered brigade’. Many of these unregisteded brigades do not imply any connection with registered CFA brigades or others) Similarly these brigade do not enjoy any CFA powers, privileges or immunities… HoweverThe CFA Chief Officer (or its officers )has the overriding authority to recognise and utilize any non registered fire brigade, firefighting volunteers and their equipment who have voluntary offered to support fire suppression operations.
Christopher, not every answer to every question can chase down every issue.
I said “It might be illegal to create a fire brigade, impersonate the CFA, interfere with the operations of the CFA, but those issuers were not the subject of the question” to demonstrate that I know those issues exist but this answer is not talking about them, because the question did not ask about them.
I didn’t want the next person to jump in and say ‘But what about CFA Act s 26 (Prohibition of unregistered brigades) or 107A (Offences relating to impersonation)?’ because they may think those issues were relevant to the question. I did not think answering this question required that discussion but I did refer readers to other posts and if you look at them the issue of s 26 and what it may mean is discussed. You’re right, there may be industry brigades (CFA Act s 23AA) but they operate, in country Victoria, with the permission of the CFA. And yes there are obligations on industry to have emergency arrangements on their site which may include fire fighting brigades and of course they can put out fires with their own equipment.
It all seems rather spurious and symptomatic of an apparent disconnect between the community and those government agencies empowered to protect them. Among volunteer emergency services members often labour under what I would call a ‘dual identity’. That is: We are government agents – while at the same time being members of the community. The struggle for many bushfire brigades (and similar such emergency services) is for people to understand that we are not merely a government service; but rather that we are the community, banded together in a common self interest. We are a community which has been empowered and equipped to protect itself.
In the light of this, most volunteer fire brigades try to make sensible use of those persons and appliances which are able to offer aid. This is a simple matter of basic resourcefulness. That is, when I arrive on scene and see a number of desperate farmers with hoses and hessian sacks desperately trying to stop a grass fire I don’t stand those people down. I pass them a bottle of water, pull out my tools, and work beside them.
I don’t believe that any fire brigade officer is going to rebuke a person for exercising some initiative, and putting out a fire – so long as your not endangering others, or yourself, acting sensibly, in good faith, and operating within your capability.