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There are many common problems that volunteer firefighters face in an Australia wide context. One issue that has been raised by the VFFA is the need for the NSW State Government to look at the rural culture that has been eroded by city-centric RURAL Fire Service management.

This media content is being shared to highlight the parallels that exist with our WA counterparts.

VFFA comments in red text.

Fire tensions flare as Commissioner condemns Yarloop fire report as ‘fundamentally flawed’

Western Australia’s outgoing fire boss Wayne Gregson says a rural fire service should not operate outside of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ (DFES) control.

Note: NSW operates very differently with a controlling RFS Head Office (in metropolitan Sydney). Many of our members have suggested that we need a similar controlling body with the existing two fire services working as independent service providers. Regardless of the future direction by the government, decentralisation of the NSW RFS Head Office (out of Sydney) will help to restore and retain the independence of the rural culture of the NSW Rural Fire Service. Should a single fire service or single controlling body eventuate, the government can retain a Rural Directorate that is based in a rural or regional location.

A key recommendation of the Ferguson Inquiry into the Waroona / Yarloop bushfires, which destroyed more than 200 homes, was the establishment of a rural fire service either as a division within DFES or as a stand-alone entity.

DFES Commissioner Wayne Gregson has criticised the report and called for a cultural change, rather than a structural change, in the state’s firefighting services.

The VFFA agrees that a cultural change is needed to ensure that rural people get a fair go.

“For my part, as I retire I would like to go on the record and say I believe the Ferguson Report is fundamentally flawed, both intellectually and philosophically, with respect to the creation of an independent rural fire service,” he said.

In what was likely his final public address before he steps down next week, Commissioner Gregson was open in highlighting divisions between the DFES and some members of the Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades.

As he addressed hundreds of firefighters, including members of the association, at the WA Fire and Emergency Services Conference, he called for a change in attitudes and improved cooperation.

“I have found some very supportive people among your brigades [but] sadly, however it is my belief that there are some in the association who have made the point of creating unnecessary barriers and deliberately stymying collaboration and cooperation,” he said.

“I think that we could have done more [and] I can’t help but think there have been lost opportunities working with your association.”

‘WA can’t afford independent rural fire service’

The structure of a rural fire service is expected to be announced in the coming weeks but Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan said the state cannot afford an independent service.

“I don’t think you will see a significant change in the relationship between the [fire and emergency services] department and those responsible for rural fire services and that is the local governments,” Mr Logan said.

“As the budget on Thursday showed we are not in a fiscal position to be able to afford an independent rural fire Service therefore I do not support one.

Parts of the south west are facing a worse than usual bushfire season this summer and the United Firefighters Union (UFU) warned the regions were ill-equipped.

UFU state secretary Lea Anderson said the state budget had done little to address a lack of funding for regional firefighters and change cannot be expected unless the emergency services levy (ESL) was raised.

“There’s been far too much emphasis on creating a rural fire service, instead of actually ensuring that we put resources into country regional WA,” Ms Anderson said.

“In our country regional offices, there’s no significant budget available to adequately relieve personnel when they are on annual leave or long service leave and that means that the positions are unfilled.

“They’re not sitting behind desks working nine to five, they are available to their local communities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

‘Remove levy from DFES’

PHOTO: Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades President Dave Gossage said the regions were under resourced. (ABC News: Irena Ceranic)

Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades president Dave Gossage, who has been a vocal advocate of a rural fire service independent from DFES, said the budget had done little for volunteers in the regions.

One parallel here is that the VFFA is opposed to the growth of NSW RFS high profile capability when regional and rural people are missing out.

He said DFES had mismanaged the emergency services levy and said that local governments had told him they were pressured by the department to further curb spending.

“The complaints we’re getting in the training space is that when local governments are putting in for funding for training they’re getting rejected because DFES controls the ESL, so where’s it going? This is crazy,” Mr Gossage said.

“The ESL has to be removed from the department, this is a classic example why.

“Whilst you’ve got a city-centric department running a state-wide business you’re always going to have this conflict.”

The VFFA agrees with the statement (above) and we are fighting against city-centric management of the NSW RFS.

Commissioner Gregson insisted adequate training for both professional and volunteer firefighters has always been a priority of DFES.

“The health, safety and wellbeing of both our career and volunteer firefighters is paramount in all our decision making and training and skills development remains our priority,” he said.

“We are in a serious business whether we are paid or whether we are volunteers.”

Regardless of your employment / engagement status, NSW needs all firefighters including urban, urban interface, regional, rural and remote rural working together when needed and they must all be adequately resourced and supported.

An Economic Regulatory Authority report into the emergency services levy is expected to be published at the end of the month.

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