Old uniform. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
The state’s problem-plagued new firefighting uniforms were made in a factory in China that had no experience producing protective gear and was not safety accredited to do so when the state government awarded the contract, it is claimed.
Five Australian companies that lost the bid to produce 13,000 uniforms have banded together to demand an independent inquiry into ”serious problems” in the tender process for the $17 million contract.
Firefighters have complained they are too hot to wear to fires and have faulty zippers and small pockets.
New uniform. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
On Friday, the Fire Brigade Employees Union advised firefighters to go back to the old uniform until new lightweight undergarments are delivered and zipper faults rectified.
Industry insiders said it would have cost about $1 million more to produce the uniforms in Australia but the government has refused to reveal whether it applied a 20 per cent import loading – designed to support local manufacturing jobs – on the bid of Pacific Brands, the company that produced the uniforms in China with British-made fabric.
Pacific Brands, which owns the Bonds, KingGee and Stubbies labels, made the previous Fire and Rescue NSW uniforms and overlooked tenderers believe it was chosen again despite lodging a non-compliant bid.
A trail of correspondence, obtained by The Sun-Herald, reveals at least three senior O’Farrell government ministers were sufficiently concerned by industry claims of ”blatant unfairness” in the procurement process to ask the chief auditor of the Department of Finance and Services to investigate.
The audit found probity had been applied. But one of the five aggrieved companies, Bruck Textiles, said it feared the investigation was a whitewash and has called for the Independent Commission Against Corruption to look into the matter.
Among the claims of Melbourne-based Bruck and four other bidding companies are:
That the Nanjing Rongrui Garment Company engaged by Pacific Brands was not certified to make structural clothing before the contract was won – a breach of tender guidelines
The sample provided by Pacific Brands to prove its quality was made in Australia – not in China – and the Gore-Tex ”airlock moisture barrier” was initially rejected as substandard
That the government and FRNSW hierarchy knew Pacific Brands could not meet the delivery deadline of June 30.
Pacific Brands has so far delivered just 20 per cent of the order despite being nearly four months past the deadline date. Competing companies costed their bids based on tender guidelines that demanded delivery by June 30.
But in an email to staff by the FRNSW commissioner, Greg Mullins, sent on the day the contract was announced, he says: ”We are currently negotiating with the supplier to secure the fastest possible production and delivery schedule. However, the industry has made it clear that an order of this size will take up to a year to deliver.”
Bruck’s general manager sales and marketing, Darren O’Loughlin, said the industry believed June 30 was a concrete date not up for negotiation, adding to the cost of bids.
“Bruck is concerned with a number of aspects of the tender process and have asked questions of the Finance and Services Department, the NSW Minister for Emergency Services [Mike Gallacher] and the NSW Premier, regarding a number of issues, none of which have been answered satisfactorily or, in some cases, answered at all,” Mr O’Loughlin told The Sun-Herald.
”From our understanding of the facts, it is very disappointing and alarming that a government department could make the decision it has.”
A spokesman for Pacific Brands said the factory in Jiangsu province met ”stringent accreditation standards”. ”The fabrics used in the sample product and the uniforms now being rolled out to our firefighters are from the same provider and of the same quality.”
Nearly four months past the due date – and with fire season fast approaching – Pacific Brands could not say exactly when the order would be filled.
The Department of Finance and Services said in a statement: ”The tender process has previously been reviewed through [the department’s] Internal Audit Branch.
The director-general has advised Bruck that based on that review, the tender followed established procedures and probity.”