By Tim Barlass – March 13, 2016
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Volunteer firefighters have complained after they said they were compared to the bumbling characters portrayed in the TV series Dad’s Army by Emergency Services Minister David Elliott.
The claims emerged at a General Meeting of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association held last Saturday in Murrumbateman, Southern Tablelands, and attended by more than 70 members representing volunteers across Australia.
Members told the meeting they were insulted by the allegations and have called on the minister to apologise or explain his comments.
Executive members say the comments were made at a private meeting in November attended by three members of the fire fighters top brass in an attempt to build bridges after a previous falling out with the minister three months after he was appointed.
His comments then that he hadn’t heard of the volunteers fire fighters widened the rift between the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, which represents only volunteers, and the Rural Fire Service Association, which represents paid staff as well as volunteers.
Mr Elliott said in a statement he firmly rejected the volunteer fire fighters’ interpretation of his comments.
Dad’s Army was a cult comedy series in the ’70s featuring the incompetence of a volunteer Home Guard unit during World War II. Main characters were buffoon Captain Mainwaring, Lance-Corporal Jones (the butcher) whose catch phrase was “Don’t panic”, mummy’s boy Private Pike and dithering Sergeant Wilson.
Graeme Jay, who is on the fire fighters executive council and a captain of Glossodia Rural Fire Brigade with 17 years experience as a firefighter who was at the November meeting said the comparison to the fools portrayed on Dad’s Army was “downright offensive”.
“There was considerable angst in the meeting last Saturday that we were being portrayed in that fashion,” he said. “There was no explanation by Mr Elliott at the time what he meant by it.”
“When challenged he tried to back pedal by saying you guys can’t operate aircraft. He tried to back away from the comment quite quickly but we weren’t talking about aircraft at the time. It was clear to us in the room what he meant, basically he was having a shot at volunteers as being a Dad’s Army. We never really gave him a hard time about it at the time because we were all in shock.
“If he wants to offer an explanation, we are all reasonable people, we are happy to hear it.”
Volunteer fire fighter Vice President Mick Holton said the matter was raised on Saturday in front of a representative attending the meeting on behalf of shadow emergency services minister Guy Zangari and Opposition Leader Luke Foley.
The members thought it was poor form and a little bit foolish on Mr Elliott’s part, he said.
“The volunteers feel that the minister ought to clarify what he meant by that comment and either offer an apology or an explanation.”
Documents sent to the shadow minister for emergency services state: “… Minister Elliott told us that with such a rapid level of technology within the Royal Fire Service, more qualified salaried people will have to be sought, which means it won’t be long before we do away with the Dad’s Army.”
Mr Zangari said that it was a slap in the face to people who put their lives on the line, leave their families and go into risky and dangerous situations for the betterment of the community.
Mr Zangari told Fairfax Media: “The minister needs to face up to what he said. It is a massive kick in the guts for those men and women who don’t go out there seeking glory.
“They go out there to help other people and to have the minister of the Crown say that about these people is disappointing and he needs to show some appreciation of these people. Our country was built on the back of volunteers.”
Mr Elliott said his comments were intended to reflect the importance of the established command structure with an analogy that you don’t require a general to consult with Dad’s Army during battle.
“The need for a full-time permanent command structure reflects the professional and highly-skilled volunteer base of the NSW RFS, which is supported by a record budget and modern firefighting equipment,” he said.
“Volunteers are a critical part of all NSW RFS operations and I would never seek to undermine their role.”