12 June 2023

Army bushfire command centre initially unaware of chopper issue, inquiry hears

| Travis Radford
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A water-bombing helicopter at bushfire

A water-bombing helicopter heads into a flank of the Orroral Valley fire in 2020. Photo: Michael Weaver.

An inquiry has heard a nearby army bushfire command centre was unaware a helicopter had diverted from its assigned task until the Orroral Valley fire it accidentally caused had been burning for half an hour.

The former chief of staff of the Bungendore command node was the final witness called on Friday (9 June) in the ACT Coroner’s Court inquiry examining how the fire was communicated to emergency services.

The witness said there were multiple channels for tracking and communicating with aircraft from the command centre, including regular radio calls, a live tracking portal and a tracking device fitted to some aircraft.

But the witness and the command centre remained unaware the responsible helicopter had diverted from its task, of doing reconnaissance of helicopter landing zones within Namadgi National Park, which could be used to deploy rapid response teams should a fire ignite in the area, until about half an hour after the aircraft inadvertently started the blaze when it made an impromptu landing in the Orroral Valley for a toilet break.

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Senior counsel assisting, Kylie Nomchong SC, asked the witness if they were aware the helicopter’s satellite communication and radio were “unreliable”, as claimed by the aircraft’s crew members.

The witness indicated they were not. Ms Nomchong asked if the encrypted messaging application Signal, which the inquiry previously heard was used by the helicopter’s captain to send a PAN-PAN emergency message, had undergone any assessment process to determine whether it was a “viable and appropriate” alternative communication method. The former chief of staff similarly replied: “Not to my knowledge.”

The inquiry heard the person who monitored the status of army aircraft from the command centre for “situational awareness” could see their call signs, speeds, altitudes and positions on a map (but not coordinates) but only when they were not performing other duties and viewed the information live. Ms Nomchong “cut to the chase” and asked whether the person would have seen if one of the aircraft diverted from its task.

“No. I don’t think that’s a fair statement,” the witness replied and explained under further questioning from Ms Nomchong that the tracking system allowed the defence member to determine the location of aircraft which relayed emergencies but it was otherwise used as an overall view of national tasks. “It’s not reasonable for them … to be watching aircraft fly somewhere and deduce [their individual situations],” the witness said.

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By the time the former chief of staff learned about the helicopter’s fire damage and made inquiries about its location, the inquiry heard, they were notified the aircraft had already landed safely at Canberra Airport.

Ms Nomchong pressed the former chief of staff on whether they had asked questions about what had caused the fire damage. The witness said they could not recall specifically asking about the cause of the damage but they had “broadly” inquired about the details of the incident, asked to be kept updated as more information became available and immediately reported the incident to the command centre’s operations officer.

The inquiry heard the former chief of staff had known both co-pilots of the helicopter and one was a long-time friend but they denied knowing they were on board the flight until after the incident took place.

The former chief of staff said when they later learned about the Orroral Valley fire that had caused the damage, they informed the defence member responsible for liaising with emergency services and said, “You need to pass that [location of fire] on”, to which they replied, “Onto it”. But the inquiry heard the defence member the former chief of staff said they notified did not in fact pass on the shared information.

Asked about the helicopter crew’s role in reporting the fire, the witness said they were not aware of any training but admitted there was the “expectation if they can … that they could do that”.

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