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Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (2009)

As most volunteers will be aware, the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission finished hearing evidence on the 27th May 2010. The Commission was established on the 16th February 2009, nine days following Black Saturday and commenced hearing formal evidence on the 11th May 2009. Since that time the Commissioners have heard evidence from over 400 witnesses and received nearly 1,700 submissions from individuals and organisations. 1,000 exhibits were tendered and the hearings resulted in over 20,000 pages of written transcript.

The Royal Commission will deliver its final report to the Governor of Victoria by the 31st July 2010.

From the outset, VFBV recognised that the conduct of the Commission and its subsequent findings would have far reaching implications for the CFA and the nature and constitution of community embedded volunteer fire brigades. While to some degree these threats remain real, there is little doubt that without the extensive and comprehensive involvement of volunteers and VFBV in the conduct of the Commission, they may well have had far greater impact.

On behalf of all CFA volunteers, VFBV played a key role in ensuring that the interests of volunteers were maintained at the forefront of the Commission's deliberations. The role of volunteers as the largest and most effective participants in the protection of Victorian's people and assets from the ravages of bushfires continued to be highlighted and regularly acknowledged by various Counsel Assisting the Commission and by the Commissioners.

Those volunteers called before the Commission to give evidence have without exception distinguished themselves as reliable, forthright and competent not only on the fireground and in IMT's but also in the manner in which they gave their evidence, responded to questioning and portrayed themselves and CFA under what can only be described as difficult and intimidating circumstances.

From the beginning, VFBV's Board determined to play a major role in the proceedings of the Commission. A Steering Committee of experienced volunteers was selected and a Project person engaged to conduct the day to day monitoring of events occurring in the Commission, research various issues and draft submissions on behalf of the Board. VFBV also engaged legal representatives to formally represent the organisation at hearings of the Commission, prosecute our submissions and conduct appropriate examination of witnesses.

As the Commission proceeded, VFBV consulted with a wide range of senior volunteers and volunteer forums to ensure that the matters of interest to volunteers and particularly those likely to have a future impact on the CFA, volunteers and volunteerism were canvassed and the team adequately informed so as to confidently act and put forward a comprehensive and representative view to the Commission.

This consultation took a variety of forms including discussions and meetings with VFBV's Board, VFBV's Royal Commission Steering Committee, State Council and individual State Councillor's, regional meetings, workshops on particular issues, teleconferences with focus groups and dialogue with a significant number of individual volunteers spread widely across the State. As with many similar projects and as a consequence of the size of our organisation, it was not possible to consult with everyone. In many instances, the time frames within which we were required to operate limited more extensive consultation. Nevertheless, every effort was made to establish representative positions prior to submissions being filed with the Commission.

A significant effort was also devoted to discussion and consultation with government, politicians, CFA and other key stakeholders to ensure that our submissions were clearly articulated, based on common ground where possible and our objectives understood.

Of concern to VFBV was the Government's early decision that all government Parties would be represented by the one Counsel. This meant that the views of CFA could not be put to the Commission directly but relied on a number of processes of negotiation, filtering and consensus within the government bureaucracy prior to submissions being made or examination of evidence and witnesses conducted. The implications of this approach are yet to be fully realised and will only be judged in the fullness of time.

VFBV made 14 formal submissions to the Royal Commission. With the exception of the major parties i.e. Government, VFBV filed the largest number of submissions on behalf of an individual organisation.

These submissions were either designed to deal with particular issues or to respond to the submissions of other parties, in particular those made by Counsel Assisting the Commission.

In many cases, the submissions now establish a consolidated direction for VFBV and CFA volunteers that are not necessarily dependent on the outcomes and recommendations of the Royal Commission. As the organisation moves forward, they will form the basis for continuing dialogue and consultation amongst volunteers and with government and the CFA to ensure that the future organisational shape and doctrine of CFA, regardless of its management and governance structure, reflects the opinions and professional view of volunteers and their communities.

The following represents a brief précis of the thrust of each of the submissions. A full copy of these submissions follows.

1. Application to be Heard

In order to actively participate in the conduct of the Royal Commission including the right to make written and oral submissions and to have witnesses present evidence to the Commission, VFBV needed to make formal application to be heard.

Our original application sought leave to appear in connection with all of the Terms of reference. Subsequently our approval to appear was limited to three of the key matters being investigated by the Commission.

Despite the fact that we were in theory excluded from receiving evidence and submissions, filing submissions and making appearances in relation to the remaining issues, we were not disadvantaged as the Commission adopted a flexible approach, we assume in recognition of the wide ranging experience possessed by volunteers and associated extensive tacit knowledge.

2. VFBV Interim Submission (July 2009)

This submission dealt with a broad range of issues raised in early hearings of the Commission and prior to the release of the Commission's Interim Report in August of 2009.

Matters dealt within our submission included Information Management and Community Warnings; evacuation and fire refuges and the need for one multi-agency bushfire information website for the distribution of advice to the community.

We also sought improvements to arrangements for intelligence acquisition, analysis and management. We submitted that early prediction of the spread of a fire was essential to community warnings and advice and to achieve this, improved arrangements for sector and division command on the fireground was essential. This included the capacity to initiate the early deployment of appropriate vehicles and competent personnel and the requirement for CFA to review the provision of suitable vehicles and associated resources.

In this submission, we gave an early indication that it was our view that CFA's Chief Officer should have greater responsibility for all bushfires in the state that either posed or had the potential to pose a threat to any area for which CFA had a responsibility.

We also highlighted our concern that it was becoming increasingly evident that volunteers were playing a less prominent role in major fire management and that the role of volunteers in incident management teams needed to be supported and nurtured in the future. We expressed our concern that the early reliance on interstate and overseas augmentation of IMT personnel in deference to the availability of competent volunteers was in our view unacceptable and not in the best interests of building state and organisation capacity and capability.

We further submitted that government needed to commit to future investment to support volunteer recruitment, training, equipment and for community engagement. We also emphasised that additional investment was required in operational systems and technology.

Most importantly we submitted that the capacity and availability of volunteers was dependent on an open, inclusive and supportive organisational culture focussed on volunteers and their communities.

3. Proposal for a single control agency and line of control for bushfire management in Victoria (October 2009)

This submission was specifically aimed at putting forward the proposition that all bushfires in Victoria should be under the control of CFA's Chief Officer.

The submission substantially expanded the preliminary view put forward in our July 2009 submission that CFA's Chief Officer should be assigned the responsibility to manage any bushfire in Victoria regardless of whether the fire is burning on public or private land.

We drew the Commission's attention to the fact that all of the other States in Australia that were at risk from high intensity, high community impact bushfires had legislation that placed the responsibility to manage a bushfire on a single fire service in the jurisdiction.

At the same time we emphasised that we did not support or recommend any amalgamation of the three agencies (CFA, DSE and MFB) as an alternative.

4. Training of Incident Controllers, Resourcing of IMT's and ICC's and Preparedness (March 2010)

This submission was filed in response to submissions by Counsel Assisting the Commission on these specific matters.

In the submission we emphasised the added value of the extensive “life skills” possessed by many volunteers in the performance of the role of Incident Controller and supported the recommendations of Counsel Assisting that the “best person” for the job should be appointed as the IC. We stated that this requisite should be applied regardless of an individual's agency or whether they were a volunteer or a paid employee.

We agreed with the need for uniform standards for training, accreditation and endorsement of incident management personnel but submitted that the time frame for implementation proposed by Counsel Assisting was impractical as it was our view that CFA were not prepared to the extent necessary to achieve the deadlines set.

We expressed our concern at the distribution of the “elite” list of Level 3 Incident Controllers and questioned the criteria used by the Chief Officers (CFA & DSE) to develop this list. (We also wrote to the CFA regarding this matter).

As with a number of other training courses, our submission also identified that there were significant issues associated with the delivery of training for incident management roles and access to training courses. We highlighted the absence in CFA of any formal role and training pathways associated with the acquisition of skills and knowledge between firefighter and higher level incident management roles and emphasised that CFA needed to ensure that future training courses should be constructed and delivered at times that were convenient to volunteers.

In particular we emphasised that CFA needed to recognise the value of volunteers and to make a real effort to encourage volunteers to attain higher level incident management competencies and to nurture those that had already made a significant sacrifice in achieving these skills and competencies.

Finally, we again emphasised the need for one agency (CFA) to have control over all bushfire management in Victoria so as to establish a clear and unambiguous regime of control and command.

5. Payments to Volunteers (December 2009)

We received a specific request from the Commission seeking our view on the question of payments to volunteers. This matter arose during evidence in the Commission by senior representatives from other Australian fire services.

Our submission on this issue re-iterated VFBV's previous position that “when income is attached, the service is no longer given freely and is no longer volunteering”. We emphasised VFBV's previously strongly held position that the introduction of a payment or even partial payment for service has the potential to destroy volunteerism.

In making our point, we did however indicate that volunteers should not be out of pocket for the contribution they make to CFA and their communities and that there may exist other avenues of recognition not necessary tied to monetary reward that are worthy of further consideration.

We also submitted that there should be incentives for employers who allow their employees to participate in CFA activities including response to fires and other emergency incidents.

We submitted VFBV's agreed Policy on Volunteers and Payments (2003) as an attachment to our submission.

6. The Fire Service Levy (December 2009)

In December 2009, the Commission issued a discussion paper on the Fire Service Levy that raised a number of specific questions in relation to the future funding of the fire services and the application of the levy on insurance premiums as the primary component of the funding regime.

VFBV used the opportunity to highlight our concerns at the inequity of the present arrangements between the insured and the un-insured or under insured.

We emphasised that regardless of future arrangements for funding, any alternative should meet the following criteria:

Be equitable and transparent
Capable of providing sufficient funds to meet the requirements of modern fire services, and;
Be efficient in both its administration and collection processes.

7. Land and Fuel Management and Planned Burning (April 2010)

Despite the fact that VFBV had not been granted leave to appear in relation to these particular matters, we sought and were granted the opportunity to submit our views on what we considered was an issue of significance to volunteers.

In general we supported the recommendations made by Counsel Assisting and the expert panel that there was an urgent need for increased fuel reduction on public land. We reiterated our previous position that in many instances, with appropriate discussion and negotiation, volunteers were prepared to assist with the implementation of fuel reduction burning on public land as a training opportunity, particularly were the activity was designed to reduce the risk to adjoining private property.

However, we expressed our concern that the deliberations of the Commission and in particular the contribution of the “expert panel” focussed almost solely on fuel management/reduction on public land.

VFBV submitted that any proposal that did not take into account issues associated with the need for fuel management on private land would be seriously flawed and fail to address the principal source of fire spread (and resulting property damage and loss of life) from uncontrolled fire in the urban rural interface.

We emphasised that the Integrated Fire Management Project (IFMP) whilst in need of rejuvenation, nevertheless presented an opportunity for a holistic view of “landscape” based fuel management and fire prevention.

We further submitted that as CFA were independent of any land owner, (public or private); CFA should be made responsible for fire prevention planning across the landscape. In this context, we went to some length to emphasise that any future arrangement involving the requirement to treat bushfire risk holistically must not absolve a particular agency or individual from the responsibility to deal with the risks that their land poses to the wider community.

8. Firefighter Safety - Primary Submission (March 2010)

VFBV made two (2) submissions in relation to firefighter safety.

In our initial submission we built on Statements filed on behalf of volunteers by Alan Monti and Allan Small and their oral evidence to the Commission. We emphasised our position that fire fighter safety was the major issue for CFA and that safety was inextricably linked to training.

We submitted that CFA's “Near Miss Reporting” processes whilst capturing a number of relevant factors in relation to incidents, often failed to consider the human factors associated with the occurrence. We also submitted that CFA needed to improve its processes associated with the collection of evidence and conduct of inquiries if volunteers and organisational safety were to benefit from the findings of these reports.

We emphasised that to be of value as a learning tool, the CFA needed to publish relevant sections of near miss reports rather than just file them away as was the present case.

We noted that whilst CFA had been required to make available its near miss reports to the Commission, DSE reports did not appear to be subject to the same degree of transparency and therefore industry wide learning and state capability improvement was not as comprehensive as it could be.

We submitted that CFA and other state agencies needed to apply an increased focus aimed at “lessons learned” i.e. a learning recognition process based on the experience of others. We raised the desirability of a national Lessons Learned Centre along similar lines to that established in the United States which would act as a central repository and distribution centre for a wide range of fire fighter safety and operational improvement initiatives.

We drew attention to the need to adopt enhanced training in relation to “situational awareness” ; increased participation in prescribed burning where appropriate and the implementation by CFA of a structured “skills maintenance” program. We again raised the matter of the availability of Instructors to deliver training and the use of sessional instructors.

In this submission we also emphasised the need for improvements to Sector and Division command deployments and the provision of adequate vehicles to enable rapid dispatch of these elements of command.

We pursued the matter of an effective HR management system to address what we described as poor workforce planning arrangements and a corresponding lack of efficient utilisation of the total volunteer workforce, particularly in IMT roles. (It should be noted that this matter has been the subject of discussion with CFA since 2007 with little positive progress to date).

We made additional comment in relation to the efficacy of back-burning as a suppression strategy; the use of Red Flag Warnings; communications; personal protective clothing and equipment design.

We also informed the Commission of the existence and success of VFBV's Welfare programs and the efforts undertaken to support volunteers following the tragic events of the 2008/09 fire season whilst highlighting what we consider to be an on-going obligation for CFA to continue to support volunteers affected by this event well into the future.

9. Firefighter Safety - Response to Submission by Counsel Assisting (May 2010)

VFBV's second submission in relation to Firefighter Safety was filed in response to submission made by Counsel Assisting following oral evidence and submissions by other participants in the Commissions proceedings.

In this submission we indicated that we did not support recommendations by Counsel Assisting that Safety Officers have a power of veto over what they may perceive as unsafe operational decisions. Our strong view in this regard is that the Safety Officer should provide advice of this nature to the IC and that it remains his/her prerogative as to any subsequent action which may included the cessation of or modifications to particular strategies or tactics.

We supported further training in back burning and the requirement to obtain the approval of the IC prior to undertaking this tactic.

We confirmed our opinion that there was a need to overhaul the processes and procedures for conducting investigations and reviews of OH&S incidents (including near misses) and importantly, arrangements for the on-going support for the health and well being of all firefighters.

We acknowledged and supported the recommendations of Counsel Assisting in relation to the provision of suitable GPS and Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems in all fire fighting vehicles; a matter raised and recommended in our initial submission.

We again emphasised that the introduction of a HR management systems as raised by VFBV on a number of occasions prior to the 2008/09 fire season would assist fatigue management and ensure that available competent volunteers were used to fulfil positions based on the “best person for the job”.

10. Communications (May 2010)

The Commission received extensive submissions and heard lengthy evidence in relation to a range of communications issues. At the conclusion of this evidence, Counsel Assisting filed a series of observations and recommendations to which VFBV responded.

In our response to these submissions, VFBV emphasised that volunteers considered the provision of capable and reliable telecommunications systems as being fundamental to safe and effective operations.

We supported the recommendations of Counsel Assisting concerning the need to undertake a further review of radio black spots; we sought an increase in the number of command vehicles equipped with appropriate communications technology to enable the rapid deployment of Sector and Division command capability matched to fire suppression resource escalation and improvements in the performance of the EAS paging system. In regard to the latter, we expressed our concern at the delays in the transmission of urgent operational information including critical safety messages that occurred during the 2008/09 fire season and which had the potential to place fire fighters lives at risk unnecessarily.

We reiterated our long held view that all CFA operational vehicles should be equipped with appropriate resource tracking systems including GPS and Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology.

We further submitted that as with any new initiatives and innovations being contemplated or investigated, the importance of volunteers as the majority end-user of communications systems and products being engaged and included in the development, determination and on-going review of any statewide public safety communications strategy. We stated that this would ensure that the extensive knowledge and experience of volunteers is captured in the performance criteria of our communications infrastructure rather than systems design being solely undertaken by deference to technical experts.

11. A New Bushfire Safety Policy - Replacing the Stay or Go Policy (May 2010)

It would not be over stating the position to indicate that of all the policy matters to come before the Royal Commission, the CFA's and national fire service's policy on evacuation and the commonly referred to “Stay or Go' policy evoked a high level of emotive reaction and criticism from a wide range of stakeholders, observers and the media.

The Commission heard numerous witnesses including emergency services personnel; national and international experts and a host of lay persons with many disparate and often conflicting views concerning the efficacy of the arrangements for advice to and management of the public prior to and during bushfire emergencies including the subject of mandatory evacuation.

During the principle stages of this debate VFBV elected to remain silent on the broader aspects of the matter, deferring to the expertise of the CFA and others to manage the argument.

Following the circulation of submissions from Counsel Assisting on the subject, VFBV determined to make a limited submission in reply, specifically in relation to recommendations concerning the imposition of a requirement on Incident Controllers to recommend an evacuation and safe route to take where a community is being or likely to be threatened by fire.

We submitted that a mandated requirement of this nature was impractical, primarily on the basis that the IC is not always in possession of the most up to date intelligence regarding the current position and projected spread of a fire and its' direct impact or effects on escape routes.

We also submitted that if such a proposal were to be accepted, in order to minimise or avoid future adverse criticism or action, there was a potential for IC's to take the step of recommending pre-emptive evacuations adding to the overall confusion associated with an incident and the likelihood of increased post incident criticism. We stated that the impact of such action (ordered evacuation) would require significant resources (not readily available in many small communities) and detract police (as the responsible agency to conduct an evacuation) from other key statutory emergency management and coordination roles.

We did submit that in the event that the Commission determined to accept the recommendation of Counsel Assisting, IC's should be provided with broad scale indemnity and legal protection should the decision to evacuate and recommended route subsequently place the public at greater risk or result in what would have otherwise been avoidable losses.

12. Amalgamation of the Fire Services - Organisational Structure(April 2010)

VFBV made two submissions in relation to this critical and controversial matter. The first of these was in response to a request from the Royal Commission for a formal statement setting out our views on the potential to amalgamate the three fire service (CFA, DSE and MFB).

As can be imagined, this particular issue probably resulted in the greatest concern by VFBV and involved significant consultation with a wide range of volunteers and other stakeholders. VFBV saw this issue as warranting a significant response on behalf of volunteers, principally in view of the fact that it has the potential to translate into significant change that would not necessary be in the longer term interests of volunteers and their communities.

VFBV dealt with this issue in a number of ways:

Conducted a workshop of experienced volunteers to consider options for change and strategies to manage imposed change;
Filed a detailed submission with the Commission;
Arranged for several volunteer witnesses and CEO Andrew Ford to appear as witnesses before the Commission to outline our concerns;
Cross examined other witnesses in connection with alternative proposals and to reinforce our position;
Filed additional submissions in relation to matters raised during the examination/ cross examination of other parties;
Held discussions with other stakeholders to ensure an overall appreciation of our position.
In our primary submission we made it clear that we did not support the prospect of amalgamating the three agencies due to the risk to the future stability and capacity of Victoria's fire fighting capacity. Whilst the Commission had identified a number of deficiencies in the current arrangements, it was our view that amalgamation was not the panacea to overcoming these deficiencies. We stated that the necessary changes could just as well be achieved within the current framework provided priority allocation of resources occurred.

We emphasised that one of the principal risks of amalgamation was a loss of local ownership of fire problems; loss of the embedded nature of the fire brigade in the community and a significant diminution of the surge capacity of volunteers as an adjunct to effective major fire fighting in the State.

We advocated an increased level of support from CFA for volunteers; highlighted the strengths of the integrated volunteer/career staffing model and the adverse impacts that an inappropriate and inflexible workforce and industrial relations environment has on volunteers and the future of volunteerism.

Regardless of any changes to the current structure of the services, we specified a number of key elements that a future model needed to incorporate including one Minister; single line of control (consistent with a number of our other submissions); priority of life; one organisation responsible for fire prevention planning regardless of land tenure; recognition of the volunteer culture; policy and program focus on maximising volunteer involvement in the organisation and land managers retaining the responsibility for mitigating risks associated with their land.

13. Amalgamation of the Fire Services - Organisational Structure. Response to the recommendations of Counsel Assisting (May 2010)

Following the release of Counsel Assisting's recommendations, we filed a further submission on this subject.

We submitted that whilst we did not oppose change, we opposed change being made for the sake of it where the need had not been clearly supported by evidence before the Commission.

In response to recommendations that there be an over-arching body (referred to by Counsel Assisting as the Victorian Fire Services Board) to administer the three fire services, we submitted that any future model would need to be established on the basis that:

The future focus is on increasing interoperability between the agencies in a practical and sustainable manner, rather than directing resources towards an unworkable merger or integration of the agencies;
There is no detrimental impact on volunteer firefighters; their relationship with the CFA; and consequently their numbers;
The positive attributes of the current system are maintained and continually developed, including encouraging volunteerism through offering appropriate training, removing disincentives to volunteerism and fully utilising volunteers;
The character of the CFA as a volunteer based organisation supplemented by paid staff as and when needed is retained.
In making this submission, it was necessary to defend volunteerism in the CFA in the face of extensive criticism and flawed submissions by other parties and in particular RMIT University in concert with the United Firefighters Union. The UFU commissioned, RMIT submission presented the case for a paid only fire services across the greater metropolitan area, regional cities and larger rural townships (as dictated by growth) with the replacement of volunteers in these areas with what was termed “professional" (means paid) firefighters over a 5 year phase in period .

VFBV strongly argued the folly of such a proposal and in particular the impact that the loss of thousands of volunteers from these areas would have on CFA's surge capacity and extended fire operations throughout the State. We were supported in this position by the State (on behalf of CFA and other government agencies) and evidence submitted by the Department of Justice.

We also argued that in relation to those areas experiencing increasing activity and operational complexity, the appointment of paid firefighters should be an option of last resort. We elaborated that the paid firefighter option should be one of the final elements of an extended range of other support mechanisms and alternatives. These alternatives, more commonly described as the “volunteer continuum” should be designed to support and sustain volunteerism and ease the administrative workload on volunteers without implementing a solution that eventually disenfranchises volunteers and acts as a disincentive to volunteerism and its' overall community benefits.

We strongly supported Counsel Assisting's assertions that “The major risk to this State's firefighting capacity upon organisational restructure is the risk of the loss of volunteers to the CFA”.

VFBV's submission on the subject of Organisational Structure also responded to matters including recommendations for the introduction of a new “Victorian Fire Services Board” replacing the current CFA and MFB Boards and in some way not yet fully articulated, having overarching responsibility for the fire management operations of the DSE; the flawed and inexpert nature of the present Board of Reference (established under the staff EBA) used to determine CFA staffing in deference to the powers and responsibilities of the Chief Officer and matters associated with Standards of Fire Cover. In this context we drew attention to the State's submission and supporting statistical evidence that “CFA's performance in outer suburbs is comparable to that of the MFB's in the outer reaches of the MFD (Metropolitan Fire District)”.

We also re-iterated our position that a command and control structure for bushfires in Victoria where there is a single State Controller be implemented and that the State Controller should be the Chief Officer of CFA.

14. Impediments to Volunteer Brigades Obtaining Access to Sessional Instructors (May 2010)

Following matters that arose from VFBV's evidence to the Commission and submissions by the UFU, the Commission sought an additional submission from VFBV in relation to matters affecting the availability and use of Sessional Instructors (SI's) within CFA that VFBV saw as appropriate to expedite the delivery of training to volunteers.

In particular the UFU sought to convey the view that there were no impediments to the use of volunteers as sessional instructors and that in fact CFA had never sought to use Sessional Instructors.

In a supplementary submission, VFBV advised the Commission that there were in fact a number of impediments to the effective and efficient engagement and utilisation of Sessional Instructors through what VFBV believed were convoluted and often impractical conditions attached to the engagement of SI's by virtue of a Deed of Agreement between the CFA and the UFU.

As expected, UFU spin on the arrangements for the engagement and use of sessional instructors presented a different view.

It is unfortunate that the CFA's approach to this matter was not entirely supportive of VFBV's attempts to remedy this situation which was designed to assist CFA in overcoming what VFBV still considers to be substantial issues and inefficiencies associated with the availability of competent trainers and training to volunteers, where and when required. Given the exchange that occurred, VFBV may now determine to consider further approaches to the CFA in connection with the appointment of volunteers as paid SI's.

The above summaries describes in a very much abbreviated form the extensive consultation and deliberations that have occurred since the Royal Commission commenced taking evidence.

VFBV commends the detailed submissions (located on this page) filed with the Royal Commission to all volunteers. They outline the future direction that VFBV on behalf of all volunteers advocates the CFA should take on a wide range of matters and will set the agenda for further extensive and detailed consultation leading up to and following the release of the Royal Commission's final report on the 31st July 2010.

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