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19 January 2012

The VFFA, the voice of the NSW volunteer rural fire-fighter is concerned that under the new safety laws, volunteer rural fire-fighters could be prosecuted if an accident occurs whilst protecting their communities from bushfires says President Peter Cannon.

Volunteer rural fire-fighters are now classified as “employees” under the new safety laws and face a legal duty of care to do what is “reasonably practicable” to prevent injury to themselves and others including members of the public.

We know that the duty of care will extend to any setting where volunteer rural fire-fighters are “conducting an undertaking” such as bushfire fighting, training, maintenance and fund raising activities. It means every decision a volunteer rural fire-fighter makes whilst on duty carries a risk of prosecution if an accident happens as a result of that a decision says Peter Cannon.

The level of bureaucratic red tape is expected to increase as the new safety laws require volunteers charged with running their local brigades such as the Brigade Captain and President to have the same level of expertise and resources you would expect of the senior executives of the RFS, which is completely unreasonable and unrealistic says Peter Cannon.

The ramifications of the new safety laws on volunteer rural fire-fighters are significant as breaches of the new safety laws means that volunteer rural fire fighters can face penalties of up to $300,000 or five years in jail.

The duty of care imposed under then new safety laws could cause volunteer’s numbers to decline at a time when volunteer numbers are already suffering. Many older and “retired” volunteer rural fire fighters in country NSW are concerned they may not be permitted on the fire ground under the new safety laws which would undermine the capacity of Rural Fire Brigades to provide protection to their local communities says Peter Cannon.

Retaining volunteers in positions of leadership in the RFS such as Brigade Captains could prove difficult as serving Officers now know they could be prosecuted if an accident occurs on the fire ground under their watch says Peter Cannon.

The fact is that fire fighting is a high risk occupation where things can and do go wrong and it grossly unfair that liability for accidents in such a high risk environment has now shifted to volunteers who could even be prosecuted for an accident even when acting in good faith says Peter Cannon.

The VFFA is calling on the RFS and NSW Government to immediately clarify what the new safety laws mean for volunteer for rural fire-fighters, provide appropriate training and resources to cope with the new safety laws and, most importantly reassure volunteers that they will be provided with appropriate support by the RFS if they are subject to prosecution under the new safety laws.

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