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Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention

Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention

The NSW Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) currently boasts a volunteer membership of 70,000 members made up of active fire fighters, communication and catering personnel and other support roles.

There has been much debate recently within political circles and the media as to the exact numbers of active fire fighters available to attend fires within NSW with figures quoted, ranging from 28,000 to 45,000 active fire fighters. Whilst the exact figure is unknown, it is a fact that presently less than 30,000 members are registered as being trained in basic bushfire training, which is a prerequisite for being an active fire fighter in the NSWRFS.

Nonetheless, the VFFA contends that a significant portion of active fire fighters are of the baby boomer generation who will reach retirement age over the next 10 years. This situation coupled with an aging population, shifting demographics with many young people leaving rural areas and moving to the city pursing further education and employment may potentially diminish the number of active fire fighters in the NSWRFS available to fight fires.

The VFFA therefore supports the introduction of a range of “incentives” to encourage young people to join the NSWRFS as active fire fighters well as retain as long as practible, experienced fire fighters to lead and mentor the next generation of active fire fighters.
The VFFA is an advocate of incentives that could attract and retain volunteer firefighters and support them in the performance of their duties. However this does not extend to direct financial compensation which could be deemed a form of payment for services, or any other matter which conflicts with the ethos of volunteerism in Australia today.

Incentives that could be considered to recruit and retain active fire fighters could include:-

  • Tax relief for PAYE and self employed volunteers of the NSWRFS;
  • Reimbursement for out of pocket expenses associated with the maintenance of existing fire fighting equipment and the purchase of new fire fighting equipment;
  • Reimbursement for costs incurred while travelling to and from meetings, training and incidents;
  • Reimbursement of telephone costs associated with firefighting;
  • Rebate on drivers licence fees, etag fees, private health insurance fees, TAFE and university fees, council rates, electricity and water bills, public transport costs, car and home insurance policies.
  • The establishment by the Commonwealth government of a volunteer support fund to assist volunteer fire fighters who may suffer financial hardship as a result of being away from their normal employment fighting a bushfire during a protracted bushfire emergency that exceeds 7 days. For example, a self employed volunteer fire fighter and other firefighters whose employer is unable or unwilling to support their absence from work.

Recommendations

That the commonwealth government consider the introduction of a range of incentives to attract young people to join the NSWRFS as well as retain the services of experienced active fire fighters to lead and mentor the next generation of active fire fighters. Such incentives could include tax relief, reimbursement of expenses incurred while participating in fire services activities and the establishment of a volunteer support fund to assist volunteer fire fighters who may suffer financial hardship as a result of being away from their normal employment fighting a bushfire during a protracted bushfire emergency that exceeds 7 days. For example, self employed volunteers.

Author: Michael Scholz

VFFA Executive Council Member

RFS volunteer 34 years service

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Workers Compensation Review

Recent media publications outlining the State Governments plans to review existing Workers Compensation entitlements  should not be viewed as a threat to the level of coverage currently afforded to RFS Volunteers.

The VFFA is well ahead on this issue & have been in communication with the relevant Government Department looking into this review.

We feel comfortable that RFS Volunteers will not see any change to what we currently have in place, most particularly traveling to & from the station for bonafide callouts.

We will keep you abreast of any updates.

If you have any questions on this or any other matters, feel free to contact us at: feedback@volunteerfirefighters.org.au

VFFA – Keeping Volunteers Informed

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Welfare Relief Fund for Volunteer Rural Firefighters

The Problem / Background

Over the past 14 years, many parts of NSW have experienced a significant increase in major bushfire situations resulting in the declaration of numerous section 44 bushfire emergencies. The most notable fire seasons were 1994, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2003.

These fires season were particularly onerous and required considerable resources and effort by fire services and land managers before the larger campaign fires were bought under control and normality restored to affected communities. A significant portion of the fire fighting effort during these years was undertaken by the volunteer fire-fighters of the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Due to the size and progress of these fires, the potential threat to life and property and the resources required to suppress the fires, many volunteer fire-fighters had little choice but to avail themselves to fire fighting or other fire related tasks for a considerable period of time. In most instances, when they were not fighting the fires they were resting. Whilst there is no direct evidence to support this claim, there is much anecdotal evidence that many volunteer fire fighters suffered financial hardship during these fires as a result of not receiving an income whilst on duty with the RFS.

Since its inception, the Rural Fire Service (formerly Bushfire Brigade) prided itself on its ability to muster volunteers to fight fires in our local communities, usually for no more than few days at a time.

However, much change has occurred in the past 12 years and one of those changes has seen Brigades traveling further a field for extended periods to assist in the suppression of bushfires with many of these fires continuing well beyond a few days to over a month. An example is the recent Victorian Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 where CFA fire-fighters along with interstate colleagues were stretched to the limit and worked well beyond a month to control the fires. In addition, the RFS assists other emergency services such as the SES at other significant and protracted natural disasters such as the Sydney hail storm of 1999.

Whilst change has occurred within the RFS, notable changes have also occurred on the employment front, with workplace contracts, greater demands on employees and many self-employed working longer hours to make ends meet.

In the end, the volunteer fire-fighter has to decide between his work and the protection of his home, family and the community. This is an unsatisfactory outcome for the volunteer fire-fighter and the local community in times of emergencies and one that should be addressed as a matter of urgency with the evolution of our service. In this context, bushfires and other emergencies must be seen as a whole of community problem and associated costs must be borne by the community, business and government alike, otherwise volunteer services such as the RFS may not be sustainable in the future.

It is therefore proposed that a mechanism be established by the State Government to provide some form of “safety net” to cover the financial burden of volunteer fire-fighters and their families during protracted section 44 bushfires and other emergencies.

 Recommendation

That the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association make representation to the NSW Rural Fire Service to investigate the feasibility of providing financial support to volunteer fire-fighters during a protracted section 44 bushfire emergency and other emergencies where the service has an involvement.

The proposed model is an emergency welfare/relief fund, set up by the State Government and coordinated by the Department of Community Services (DOCs) or Centrelink at a local office. An ex gratia weekly cash payment would be provided to volunteer fire-fighters under the following circumstances;

Where a volunteer fire fighter participates continuously for a period of no less than 7 days in fire fighting or other related tasks during a declared section 44 bushfire emergency or other emergency and,  is self-employed or where an employer cannot financially support their absence during a section 44 bushfire emergency or other emergency.

Following the first payment, further payment would be made at intervals not less than 7 days apart for the duration of the section 44 bushfire emergency or other emergencies and shall only be issued on the production of a recognized certificate to DOCs or Centrelink that has been certified by the Fire Control Officer,

Such payment would only be provided to cover basic living and out of pocket expenses for the duration of the section 44 bushfire emergency or other emergency. The cash payment could take the form of a flat fee based on average weekly earnings determined by the Federal Government.

Why this proposal should be supported

This proposal should be supported to: –

ensure that volunteer fire-fighters have an income sufficient to cover basic living expenses to support themselves and their families during protracted section 44 bushfire emergencies and other emergencies, ensure that the RFS can deliver, support and maintain its core services to the community during protracted section 44 bushfire emergencies and other emergencies, ensure a strong, healthy and viable membership of the RFS, ensure the welfare and wellbeing of the volunteer fire-fighters of the RFS.

Consequences of this course of action

The consequences of doing nothing may result in: –

low recruitment and loss of experienced volunteer fire fighters in the RFS, increased morale problems in the RFS, loss of potential new members to the RFS, the incapacity of the RFS to provide an ongoing and sustained commitment to protracted section 44 bushfire emergencies and other emergencies due to lack of trained volunteer fire-fighters, a heightened concern in the community due to the diminished role of the RFS, the need to establish more permanent fire services to compensate for the loss of volunteer services.

The consequences of implementing the above proposal will as per section 3 above including;

  •  ensure that the RFS meets its community obligations and delivers its core business functions in a most timely effective and efficient manner during protracted section 44 bushfire emergencies and other emergencies.
  •  ensure a continued high level of membership and morale in the RFS.
  •  ensure the readiness and preparedness of the RFS to rapidly respond as and when required to bushfire emergencies and other emergencies.

Alternatives

One alternative that could be considered is the introduction of a system of tax relief for the self-employed and small business who employ volunteer fire-fighters. Such a system would need to be a national system administered by the Federal Government. A system of tax relief may be a viable alternative, but would require rigid criteria and a strong commitment by all stakeholders including volunteer fire fighters to ensure its success and prevent potential abuses.

Another alternative is the introduction of a paid retainer for volunteer fire-fighters during protracted section 44 bushfire emergencies. This system would need to be supported by the Federal Government and could be based on a similar system in place for members of the Australian Army Reserve when on duty with the Australian Army.

In conclusion, given Australia’s aging population, the decline in rural areas and membership of the RFS and the spectra of workplace contracts along with the likelihood of climate change and more frequent devastating bushfires as forecast by eminent scientists in the future – the need for a highly trained and rapidly mobilised volunteer rural fire service to protect life, property and the environment cannot be underestimated.

Conclusion

To this end, it is paramount that consideration be given by the RFS and the Government to introduce measures to enhance and improve the welfare of volunteer fire fighters that aim to minimize the risk of financial hardship suffered by volunteer fire fighters during protracted section 44 bushfire emergencies. It must be borne in mind that this is not a form of employment or payment, rather a short term scheme to support volunteer fire-fighters and their families if needed. This action along with other measures would undoubtedly foster the recruitment of new volunteer fire-fighters as well as the retention of experienced volunteer fire fighters and is worthy of further investigation by the RFS and the Government.

Author: Michael Scholz

VFFA Executive Council Member

Member of the RFS for 34 years.

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VFFA Submission to the NSW RFS Rank Review

VFFA Submission to the NSW RFS Rank Review 

The Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFFA), the voice of the volunteer rural fire-fighter in NSW, recently made a submission to consultation phase III of the NSW RFS rank review.

In our submission the VFFA asserted that the current volunteer RFS ranking system is working well however the RFS staff rank structure is not. The RFS has a twelve (12) tier rank structure which the VFFA contends is overly complex and will become more top heavy as the rank review proposes to add another staff rank (single impeller rank).

The RFS ranking system is top heavy in comparison to other Australian rural fire services such as the Country Fire Service (CFS), South Australia.  The CFS has a streamlined ranking system comprising only five (5) staff ranks and six (6) volunteer ranks.

Other submissions to the earlier consultation phases of the rank review have commented that ranked staff positions are more expensive than non-ranked positions due to award entitlements such as higher salary grades, allowances, cars, uniforms and overtime.

The VFFA contends that the addition of a further staff rank (single impeller rank) will increase the administrative costs of the RFS and serve to impede effective firefighting operations by convoluting the existing rank structure.

Single Impeller Rank (district staff that undertake operational functions)

The VFFA raised a strong objection to the proposal to introduce a new single impeller staff rank between Brigade Captain and Group Captain. The new rank structure will contribute nothing to the discipline, performance and operations of the RFS. It will only serve to add another layer of bureaucracy to the RFS command system and undermine the volunteer culture of the RFS.

The RFS have a proven volunteer ranking system from Deputy Captain to Group Captain. Indeed the volunteer ranking system in NSW is extraordinarily consistent, effective and the model has been adopted by other volunteer rural fire services such as the Tasmanian Fire Service so why does the RFS wish to change a system that works?

The VFFA contends by creating a position of single impeller staff rank the RFS is systematically concentrating authority within the staff ranks of the RFS and centralising the command system within the RFS hierarchy which is contrary to the principles of ICS.  ICS is based on a “bottom up” management system whereby the “first-on-scene”, brigade and its most senior ranked officer has charge of the scene until the incident has been resolved or a superior-ranking officer e.g. Group Captain arrives on scene and takes command.

The ICS system will be compromised by the single impeller rank as staff holding this position may “pull rank” over Brigade Captains and, command the incident remotely i.e. from the office.

The VFFA believes that the proposed single impeller staff rank is likely to:

  •  Subjugate and erode the authority of the volunteer Brigade Captain (and crew leaders) on the fire ground
  • The danger implicit in this new rank is that without proper oversight staff holding the single impeller rank may exercise authority beyond their scope to slow down and override decisions made by the Brigade Captain resulting in conflict, a power struggle, and ultimately a breakdown in the command system. That outcome can only cause disarray and pandemonium amongst brigade crews at a fast flowing bushfire or incident.
  • Break the existing unity of  command link between the Captain and Group Captain
    • The Captain (or Deputy Captain / Crew Leader) must report to only one supervisor at an incident / operation. In a large operation the Captain may receive conflicting instructions from two sources, a single impellor staff member or Group Captain placing the Captain or crew leader in a “no win” situation.
  • Make the command structure more complex which will only hinder the emergency response and slow down decision making. The CFS, South Australia has a streamlined ranking system without a rank of single impeller staff rank, so why is it necessary in NSW?
  • Create confusion amongst volunteer crews on the fire ground in regard to who is in charge i.e. the local Brigade Captain or staff holding the single impeller staff rank.
  •  Cause volunteers to perceive that the RFS chain of command is too complex, and that RFS management is allowing staff holding the single impeller rank to exert too much operational power. 
  • Have a frustrating and demoralising effect on Brigade volunteers providing a trigger for Captains and volunteers to resign when the full implications of the new rank impacts on their decision making authority.
  •  Result in staff being promoted to the single impeller staff rank based on attainment of competencies without essential operational (fire ground) experience. The VFFA asserts that all appointments must be earned and not automatic upon attainment of qualifications. Volunteers have to earn the rank of Captain or Deputy Captain through training, experience, respect and competencies and this must apply to all ranked positions in the RFS.

The rank review does not inform the reader of how many staff in a District/Zone/Team could be allocated the single impeller rank.  Potentially every staff member who achieves the required competencies would be eligible to acquire the single impeller staff rank. It follows that at District/Zone/Team level a brigade Captain will have multiple persons they will be required to take directions from in the RFS chain of command.

The VFFA is calling on the rank review committee to clarify what criteria aside from attainment of competencies must a RFS staff member meet to be appointed to the single impeller staff rank.

If the RFS is ideologically driven to create a single impeller rank for staff then it must  be positioned at a level lower than that of a Brigade Deputy Captain in the RFS chain of command.

If the outcome of the rank review is predetermined by the rank review committee, then the Service Standard must set minimum operational and fire ground experience that a staff member seeking a single impeller rank must achieve e.g. 5 – 10 years fire ground experience prior to being appointed to the rank.

The VFFA surmises whether there is a hidden agenda underlying the rank review to create a single impeller staff rank in order to surreptitiouslyreplace the number of  paid commissioned officers ranks in the service  e.g. is it the plan of the RFS to reduce the number of  RFS Inspectors, replace them with a single impeller ranked staff and thereby reduce RFS staff salary costs?

State Mitigation Support Services and Rank 

The VFFA believes that the proposal to introduce a new rank for State Mitigation Support Service staff “should they attend the incident before a volunteer brigade” is tacit recognition that the RFS is progressing an agenda to create a “full time” paid fire service in order to counter declining volunteer numbers.

The proposal is an insult to volunteers and will further erode the powers of the local Brigade Captain and Deputy Captains to have a say in the management of local fires and incidents, where the SMSS is in attendance.

For volunteer Brigade Captains and Deputy Captains to retain confidence in the chain of command the RFS must unequivocally reassure volunteers that the SMSS ranked staff will not have authority over local brigades and must relinquish command and take instructions from the highest ranked officer of the first local brigade or incident controller upon their arrival at the incident.

Further the RFS must reassure volunteer brigades that the SMSS will work under the existing chain of command during operations and not independently of the local volunteer brigade or incident controller.

The VFFA is advocating that if it is the agenda of the RFS to apportion rank to the SMMS then that rank must be sit below the rank of Deputy Captain in the RFS chain of command. The SMSS rank may be afforded similar powers available to that of Brigade Captain under the Rural Fires Act 1997 but must NOT be equivalent in rank to a volunteer Brigade Captain or Deputy Captain.

Conclusion 

The VFFA believes the current RFS ranking system is overly complex and top heavy. This will only be exacerbated by the latest rank review proposal to add another staff rank (single impeller rank).  The VFFA is advocating a more efficient streamlined ranking system similar to that adopted by the CFS South Australia.

The VFFA recommends that the RFS abolish the proposal to create a single impeller staff rank above the rank of Brigade Captain. Unfortunately the single impeller rank for staff appears to be a  fait accompli based on the position paper of the rank review committee. Is this case the VFFA asserts that any single impeller staff rank must be positioned at a level lower than that of a Brigade Deputy Captain in the RFS chain of command.

As  the RFS appears implacably committed to promoting the SMSS as a paid fire fighting service by virtue of assigning SMSS staff a rank,  then in dealing with this new reality, the VFFA believes that there must never be a circumstance where the SMSS has authority over a local brigade. To avoid this situation arising on the fire ground the VFFA is calling on the RFS to apportion any rank to SMSS staff below that of Brigade Captain and Deputy Captain and where the SMMS are responded and arrive at an incident before the local brigade, they must relinquish command and take instructions from the first arriving local brigade Captain (senior brigade officer) or incident controller at any incident in a Rural Fire District/Zone/Team.

It is hoped that VFFA submission will be considered on merit and not on how it may support a predetermined outcome advocated by proponents who are committed to increasing the complexity of the RFS ranking system.

Peter Cannon

President

Volunteer Firefighters Association

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