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Journalist suggests defence forces could be trained to assist in major catastrophes, including firefighting.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Getting a look at the bushfires from a cool vantage point in Tasmania, Brian Toohey. Brian, welcome to Daybreak.

BRIAN TOOHEY: Morning, Sandy.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: So the questions that need to be asked; you've got the sort of mind that gets inquiring into these things. What crosses your mind?

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, I think one angle that hasn't really been mentioned much is why we can't see a bigger input from the defence forces. I think they started out with a couple of helicopters and eventually 200 troops. We spend $10 billion a year on our defence forces, and there's something like 31,000 people in the army at the moment; it's being reduced to 26,000 but all up there's over 60,000 people in the defence forces.

Now, understandably, they don't want to be diverted from their major task which is actually preparing to fight a war if need be, but nonetheless you would wonder why they couldn't, in peace time, given we face no obvious threat at the moment, put more of an effort into things like these major catastrophes when we are hit with massive bushfires and the actual volunteer firefighters appear to be extremely exhausted at the moment. And it really doesn't clash with the sort of activities that they're trained for. It would give them plenty of chances to face the unpredictable - there's no question about that; plenty of chance to deal with fatigue, respond under pressure, all the sort of things that they'd have to do in wartime, exercise a little bit of leadership. At the moment, one in five in the Australian Army is actually an officer, which is quite extraordinary.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Brian, the thing is that if there was ever a fire on the mainland of Australia, a war on the mainland of Australia during the summer season, then fire would be something they'd have to fight.

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, that's certainly true. I think, it's one of the things they're not really keen on because they fear that they'd get diverted from their main role. But it really is, with that sort of money being spent on the defence area, you would hope they could come up with more than a couple of hundred people, which was their initial contribution. And they were fairly slow getting a decent number of helicopters and so forth into play.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Do you know if they have any basic training in fire fighting?

BRIAN TOOHEY: I think that some might, but no. And I think that's something, if you're going to do this on a regular basis you'd have to give them some more training. But I don't think that's a problem. One, the military forces are very good at providing training - I don't think there's any question about that. And you can't spend forever training to be, say, an infantry soldier, so that there is some spare capacity there in terms of training. So I don't see that as a big problem.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Brian, what about the problem of civilian control of army personnel, because you might actually see sort of volunteer firefighters having to control army personnel; or would you see a hand-over of control?

BRIAN TOOHEY: No, I don't think it would be acceptable, nor would the military. Although they like going into positions where a lot of planning has been done, I think the only way to make it acceptable would be of course the civilian fire authorities would still stay in control. You'd have a situation pretty much, I guess, the same as at the moment when the Victorian fire units or Tasmanian fire units come up and plug a hole in the front somewhere. They'd still be operating within, in this case the New South Wales firefighting authority's command structure. I don't think that would be a great problem.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: They could actually do training, the training that you've sort of envisaged, in co-operation with volunteer fire forces anyway.

BRIAN TOOHEY: You'd have to be careful. I mean, their main job is not to fight fires; they're main job is to fight a war. But nonetheless, I think with that sort of money being spent you could argue - and over 60,000 personnel available - you could argue that something better than the initial 200 should have been quickly available and quickly in place.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Brian, watching it from Tasmania, have you been aware of that feeling of community co-operation, that Australian spirit that's much vaunted, the coming together of communities?

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well that's certainly, watching the media rather than having any first-hand knowledge of it, something that everyone seems to be commenting upon. It's something that hits you very, very strongly, that people are volunteering to the point of absolute exhaustion for no reward whatsoever to keep trying to save someone else's house. It's, I think one of those areas, probably after a decade or more, in which we're told the market is supposed to solve everything. I think it's one of those areas where people would probably see the community co-operation as the better way of going about these things. I don't think anyone's suggesting at the moment that the best and most efficient way is if your house is under threat you start bargaining with someone as to how much you'll pay them to save it. So I think it's an interesting example of where a community role has come to the fore.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Yes, it's a good opportunity to look at the broader implications, though, of this dependence on volunteers to save New South Wales. I mean, I guess the question needs to be asked: What business company would have taken the risks, sustained the effort and ignored the personal cost?

BRIAN TOOHEY: Well, I don't think it's feasible to operate on the sort of scale they're talking about, having full-time people doing it. That's why you do need volunteers. And I think that's probably why you could argue that a greater role for the armed forces personnel would help a great deal.

SANDY McCUTCHEON: Brian, thanks very much for that. Brian Toohey, and it's a good point he makes. Armed services costing the taxpayer some $10 billion annually, and what about their role in emergencies?