I’ve received an email with a number of questions from an NSW RFS volunteer. I’ll answer each one in a separate post so people can read the one’s they’re interested in, but it does mean that the next few posts will have a NSW focus.

The first question is:

We are often paged to incidents that are more of a “compliance” nature, e.g. the pager message is “Illegal burnoff”, or “backyard fire”.  These may/may not be “emergencies” (which you have identified has been poorly defined, but for simplicity say “threat to life and/or property”).  The burn may present no “emergency”, but are breaches of the Rural Fires Act (fail to have a permit) or environmental legislation.  For calls of this nature, should we actually be responding under lights and sirens, or, since is not an “emergency” and therefore outside the exemptions for emergency vehicles in the Road Rules drive to normal road conditions?

The exemption for emergency vehicles applies when they are being driven by an emergency worker, which includes an RFS volunteer, provided they are ‘providing transport in the course of an emergency’ (Road Rules 2014 (NSW) rule 306, Dictionary, definitions of ‘emergency vehicle’ and ‘emergency worker’).  What is an emergency is not defined but as noted elsewhere it cannot be the definition that applies in the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW) which is an event ‘which requires a significant and co-ordinated response’ (s 4). On that definition an event that requires the response of a single unit, or even some units is not an emergency but we expect the drivers to proceed with lights and sirens.

In the absence of a definition in the Road Rules, it is really up to the service to define, within reason, what is ‘an emergency’.  Rural Fire Service ‘Safe Driving Standard Operating Procedures October 2008’ (which is the only version I can find on the web so I hope it is current) says

1.1 Normally RFS vehicles “respond” for the initial response to an emergency incident, under the instruction of the Incident Controller (IC), District Manager or other person with delegated authority.

1.2 Driving under Emergency Conditions commences from receipt of the instruction to “respond” in an RFS vehicle and ceases upon notification of the cessation of the risk at an incident.

The criteria here for ‘response’ driving is a direction from a relevant authority. A local brigade cannot know, until they get there, whether the event is an ‘emergency’ or not. I am reminded of my days in NSW Ambulance when responding to a call of a ‘person fallen’ that my training officer said ‘but we don’t know if it means fallen from the 4th floor!’ Equally an ‘”Illegal burnoff”, or “backyard fire’” may be threatening homes or lives.   Someone has to decide the point and for the RFS it’s the relevant ‘Incident Controller (IC), District Manager or other person with delegated authority’.

With respect to the Road Rules it cannot be the case that the exemption depends upon there being an actual emergency because the service, the coordinator and the driver are responding to a call for assistance. The exemption applies when ‘it is reasonable that the rule should not apply’ (rule 306(a)(ii)) and that must be when the driver is driving in accordance with the relevant service policy.

To that statement there is must be an exception and that is where the policy is clearly self serving and silly (and I assume there is no such policy). A policy that says ‘you may respond to your station if it is after the scheduled time for shift change and you are on overtime’. I don’t think anyone would accept that was a reasonable or genuine policy. The point of that extreme example is to say that the service in question, whether it’s a fire service, ambulance service or SES have to think about what constitutes an emergency and give it genuine consideration. Having done that their determination that, say, any turn out in response to a triple zero call is considered an ‘emergency’ would be sufficient.

Conclusion

The driver of an RFS appliance should respond under lights and sirens:

  1. If he or she feels it is safe and reasonable to do so; and
  2. They are acting on the ‘instruction of the Incident Controller (IC), District Manager or other person with delegated authority’ whether that is communicated via the pager or local SOPs;

The local unit cannot determine from ‘the incident (as described)’ whether or not it is an ‘emergency’, however that is defined by the service.