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Council, Mayor get testy with fire chiefs over delayed $8m centre

Dec 6, 2023

Mayor Sarah McMahon held a Fire Control Centre summit yesterday, more than two years after the $8 million facility had been agreed. The meeting came in the wake of criticism from fire chiefs who issued a searing open letter slamming council inaction on the project.

In response to the letter, Hawkesbury City Council (HCC) issued an aggressive media release that, in part, blamed the Hawkesbury Rural Fire Service – along with state and federal governments – for the lack of suitable site for the Centre. Still, the HCC and Cr McMahon have both recommitted to finding a suitable site.

Local fire chiefs today said they welcomed Council’s commitment to this vital community project that was announced in yesterday’s media release. “This topic has generated obvious community interest and the Brigade Captains are keen to see a constructive approach prevail to achieve a desirable outcome. We understand that further discussions with Council are planned and we look forward to learning more details about the pathway forward in the near future.”

Cr McMahon said yesterday’s summit had been planned one month ago but was not held until five days into a summer that forecasters say could be the worst fire season since the Black Summer fires in 2019/2020.

HCC said the project is overseen by a ‘Project Control Group’ comprising staff from NSW Public Works, Council, and RFS personnel, including Fire Control Officer Hawkesbury District, Superintendent Karen Hodges. 

Without a new site an $8 million government grant to build the facility is at risk of being lost. So “shocked” were local fire chiefs that there had been no progress in the building of a replacement facility, they wrote an open letter to council this week demanding action.

But HCC blamed the delays in establishing a new Fire Control Centre on federal planning laws and the Hawkesbury RFS, the largest local volunteer organisation in the LGA which it claims has “vetoed every step of the way.”  HCC did however acknowledge that Council had not yet identified a suitable site that it can offer from its “limited property portfolio.”

“It is therefore regrettable that the Hawkesbury District RFS leadership has seemingly failed to explain to the local brigades the many challenges with identifying suitable land for the Centre. Instead, it appears that the Hawkesbury RFS has sought to deflect and apportion blame to Council rather than choosing to work together to get the necessary work done to build the new Fire Control Centre that the Hawkesbury needs and deserves,” HCC said in its statement.

HCC keen to distance itself from the “sod turning” ceremony.

HCC also said a “sod turning ceremony” in 2022 – which was the subject of a photo opportunity by various politicians – was initiated by the NSW Government and not Council. 

Cr McMahon – who regularly uses her Mayoral Facebook page to make statements about various matters in her interests – also took issue with the concerns of the 32 local fire chiefs. She described their actions as “regrettable” and “disheartening.” She said she held a meeting in her office about the future of Hawkesbury Fire Control Centre yesterday. The project was announced in 2021 and scheduled for completion in 2024. “I can confirm that today’s meeting had already been arranged last month, well before the events of the last 24 hours or so. At this meeting were myself, Council’s General Manager and Director of Infrastructure, Hawkesbury RFS Superintendent Karen Hodges and two representatives from NSW RFS,” she said.

HCC said a Development Application must now be submitted for approval by the Regional Planning Panel, a NSW Government Panel. 

Planning hurdles identified by the Control Group include the explicit exclusion of the RFS from expedited planning approval pathways, unlike other emergency services agencies. It said the solution to this is within the Minister’s control.

The Emergency Services Minister Jihad Dib was approached for comment but did not respond by the time of pubication.

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