This question came to me for a paramedic who, given his profession, was clearly asking just a matter of intellectual interest rather than practical application. My correspondent wanted to know who is the combat agency for responding to a fire on a boat moored in Sydney Harbour; is it Fire and Rescue New South Wales or the Port Authority of New South Wales?

New South Wales Fire and rescue is responsible for providing firefighting services within a fire district. A fire district has to be proclaimed and generally follows local government boundaries. A map showing the boundaries for Sydney City Council ( shows that the Council boundaries do not extend into the harbour with perhaps some exception at the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo Bay. The Fire Brigades Act 1989 (NSW) does not however say that the fire service is to be the combat agency for fires in those areas (compare that to the State Emergency Service Act 1989 (NSW) s 8).

The Maritime Services Act 1935 (NSW) s 13S says:

“The Board may provide and maintain such plant, apparatus and things as it deems necessary for the rescue and resuscitation of drowning or apparently drowned persons and for the recovery of drowned persons and for the extinguishing of any fire on vessels or on any property vested in it or under its control or management and may employ such persons as it deems necessary for the proper operation and use thereof.”

That says the board may have the equipment and certainly doesn’t use language like combat agency to identify that the Maritime Services Board (as it was) is to take control of firefighting on a vessel.

As with most emergencies it is not the legislation that identifies who is the combat agency but the relevant plans made under the State Emergency and Rescue Management Act 1989 (NSW).  There are two relevant sub plans to the State Emergency Management Plan. They are:

The Sydney Harbour Marine Emergency Sub Plan; and

The NSW State Waters Marine Oil and Chemical Spill Contingency Plan.

The Sydney Harbour Marine Emergency Sub Plan says, at page 20, that the Sydney Ports Corporation is to act as combat agency for ‘Fires aboard vessels within port limits, in conjunction with FRNSW’.   Fire and Rescue NSW is ‘Upon receiving a call to a fire, respond with SPC and take charge of the firefighting operations where FRNSW personnel and equipment are committed’ (p 16).

One might think that the NSW State Waters Marine Oil and Chemical Spill Contingency Plan is not relevant to firefighting, but appendix 17 to that plan provides ‘Guidelines for Responding to a Fire on a Vessel’.  Those ‘guidelines’ say, at p 85

Fire on a vessel in port will normally be responded to according to the port’s local incident response contingency plan. A vessel when in a port including moored at a wharf is in State waters and under the NSW emergency management arrangements the port owner (a Port Corporation or Roads and Maritime Services) is the combat agency for the response unless control is handed to Fire & Rescue NSW. It is preferable that the port is in control of the response and work closely with Fire & Rescue NSW using an MAICT approach.

The relevant agency for Sydney Harbour is identified as the Sydney Ports Corporation.

The Port Authority of New South Wales is the successor to the Maritime Services Board and Sydney Ports Corporation ( so regardless of the titles used in the plans and the Maritime Services Act 1935, it is now the relevant authority.


Typically fire and emergency service legislation does not determine which agency is the combat agency for a particular event (the State Emergency Service Act 1989 (NSW) is the exception).  Rather the legislation establishes the relevant agency and empowers them but given they multitude of hazards and the need to reflect local conditions, determining how the response is managed is a matter for the agencies working through the State, Region and Local Emergency Management Committees.

In this case the SEMC has established relevant plans that identify for a fire on a vessel, including a vessel in port in Sydney Harbour, it is the Port Authority of New South Wales that is the combat agency.  They should appoint the Incident Controller who will set the controller’s intent for the response. Fire and Rescue may well take charge of firefighting operations but that doesn’t deny that the Ports Corporation is the combat agency, in the same way that in other emergencies particular agencies have specialised roles but it is the role of the IC to take overall control of the response.