This question comes from a member of South Australia’s Country Fire Service:

During the recent Sampson Flat fire, many resources were dispatched to the fire under Priority 1. As a consequence, a number of appliances were detected by traffic cameras exceeding the posted speed limit and others failing to stop at a red traffic signal.

As is CFS usual practice, if the driver is attending a Priority 1 call, CFS seeks a waiver of the fines imposed through invoking Rule 306 of the Australian Road Rules which allow for the exemption from provisions of the Australian Road Rules for drivers of emergency vehicles under caveat.

However, CFS also has its own Doctrine regarding driving of emergency vehicles and under Chief Officer’s Standing Order (COSO) 8, the driver of a CFS vehicle is permitted only to exceed the posted speed limit by a maximum of 20kph and must stop momentarily at all red signals and obey school crossing speed limits.

In the process of dealing with the breaches detected through the traffic cameras, the Regional Commander is advised where there were also matters of speeding in excess of the allowable limit under COSO 8 and detected failure to stop at red lights etc. The Regional Commander then discusses these breaches of COSO 8 with the relevant Group Officer and requires them to bring the breach of COSO 8 to the attention of the individual driver and counsel that driver against further breach, or risk disciplinary action against the individual under Regulation 22 of the Fire and Emergency Services Act.

In the process of undertaking this administrative action, one Group Officer has inferred that the exemption for drivers of emergency vehicles constitutes grounds for exemption from the CFS COSO 8.

From a strictly legal perspective, can you advise if a CFS internal policy or procedure is binding on CFS volunteers and staff, and where specifically focussed on driver instruction for CFS volunteers and staff, is not subservient to the Australian Road Rules?

For a similar question, with a similar answer, see also ‘Wearing seat belts with the NSW Rural Fire Service’ (January 22, 2015).

The exemption in the Road Rules says that the driver of an emergency vehicle is exempt from the other road rules provided that ‘(i) the driver is taking reasonable care; and (ii) it is reasonable that the rule should not apply’ (Australian Road Rules (SA) r 306).  In deciding whether or not a particular rule should be applied to the CFS driver, a magistrate would ask ‘what does the CFS say’?

The CFS says, inter alia, that a driver must ‘Stop at the stop line/stop sign with all warning devices still operating’ (COSO 8, p 25).  Rule 67 of the Australian Road Rules says:

(1) A driver at an intersection with a stop sign or stop line, but without traffic lights, must stop and give way in accordance with this rule.

(2) The driver must stop as near as practicable to, but before reaching—

(a) the stop line; …

(3) The driver must give way to a vehicle in, entering or approaching the intersection …

A magistrate may well find that there is no exemption from rule 67(2), that is the obligation to stop should apply to everyone including the driver of an emergency vehicle, but that rule 67(3) does not apply so the driver of a CFS vehicle commits no offence if he or she does wait for another driver to pass, but may proceed if it is safe to do so.

Equally COSO 8 at p 26 (and clearly it’s not page 26 of COSO 8, the COSO must have come from a book of ‘Standing Orders’ but that is the page number at the bottom of the copy I’ve been provided) says ‘SACFS vehicles must not be driven more than 20kph over the posted speed limit’.   Rule 20 of the Australian Road Rules says ‘A driver must not drive at a speed over the speed limit applying to the driver for the length of road where the driver is driving’.   To drive 1km/h over the limit is to drive contrary to the rule so a magistrate would probably find that it is reasonable that rule 20 does not apply to the driver of a CFS vehicle proceeding ‘Priority 1’ but he or she may well take the view that the COSO is evidence that if one is proceeding by more than 20km/h over the limit, the driver is not taking ‘reasonable care’ so the exemption under rule 306 does not apply.

That is one consequence.  The other is the disciplinary action referred to.  A member of the CFS who

… fails to comply with— …

(ii) a provision of a code of conduct for SACFS published by the Chief Officer; or

(iii) a direction or order given to the person as a member of SACFS by a person with authority to give that direction or order; …

is liable to disciplinary action’ (Fire and Emergency Services Regulation 2005 (SA) reg 22).

Even if a magistrate accepted that driving contrary to COSO 8 was reasonable in the circumstances so the exemption under r 306 could be applied, that would be no defence to action under this regulation.

Conclusion

The Australian Road Rules are just that.  They are

  • Australian so they are written in general terms so that each state, and within each state, each emergency service can make their own rules to give effect to them; and
  • Road Rules – they apply to the road, not internal matters.

As I said in my post on the RFS (‘Wearing seat belts with the NSW Rural Fire Service’ (January 22, 2015)) ‘An SOP that is more restrictive than the regulation is no problem. The passenger [or driver] who … complies with the regulation would still have a defence against a traffic ticket, but could be subject to internal discipline for failing to comply with the RFS SOP.’

Equally in South Australia, a driver who complies with r 306 may have a defence to a traffic ticket but could still be subject to disciplinary action for failing to comply with the Chief Officer’s Standing Order.  As noted above, however, I would imagine that failure to comply with the order in the circumstances described would also be relevant for a magistrate when deciding whether or not a particular rule should be applied to the driver of a CFS appliance or whether the driver was taking ‘reasonable care’.

In short the exemption in rule 306 is not also an exemption from COSO 8.  It is more likely that failure to comply with COSO 8 will also mean there is no exemption under rule 306.