- Volunteer firefighter numbers have dropped by 15 per cent over the past decade
- Some volunteers are frustrated by the lack of support since Black Summer
- Volunteers want more control put back into local hands
Cathy Noakes walked away from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) in 2014, but she never quit firefighting.
After more than a decade of active service, three of them as captain of her brigade in Farringdon, Ms Noakes stepped down in frustration with the RFS bureaucracy.
“You weren’t allowed to just go and put out a fire,” she said. “You always had to wait for approval. So, as you waited, the fire just escalated.”
Instead, Ms Noakes joined the “mosquito army”, a network of community-based firefighting teams, that went on to play a vital role in firefighting efforts during the 2019-2020 bushfires around Braidwood in the NSW Southern Tablelands.
With their own firefighting gear and radios, local knowledge and experience, the “mozzies” worked in close partnership with their local brigades when RFS resources were stretched beyond their limit across the state.
'Plenty of cooperation'
For Mongarlowe RFS captain Paul Bott, the “mozzie” phenomenon is not entirely new.
He has always maintained a strong relationship with Southern Tablelands farmers who left the brigade due to frustrations about new rules, training and accreditation requirements when the RFS was established in 1997.
And he knew he could rely on them when “shit hit the fan”.
Since the Black Summer bushfires, some members of the Mongarlowe “mozzies'” have signed up with his brigade and, despite some initial resistance, the RFS now recognises the crucial contribution of “mozzies” to the firefighting effort.
In September last year, the RFS established a working group focused on integrating “farm fire units” into firefighting operations to ensure better coordination of RFS crews and independent firefighters.
But the question remains — how to manage the risks of working with unregulated firefighting units.
'Brigades are suffering'
Over the border in north-east Victoria, morale is low in the Walwa Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigade, and membership is dwindling.
“I think we still have members of our brigade who are suffering, who are still very raw in their mind,” David Hanna, who stepped down as captain of the brigade after the Black Summer fires, said.
After 45 years in the CFA, Mr Hanna has given up hope of ever seeing a solution to the incompatible radio networks that make communication between brigades on either side of the NSW-Victoria border impossible.
But he is intensely frustrated that requests for basic upgrades to equipment and facilities seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
“We had three meetings with CFA management, and no-one was even taking notes,” Mr Hanna said.
The Victorian government has committed to $126 million in funding to the CFA over five years, which will include 50 new dual-cab trucks and funding for 16 new fire stations, as well as new training programs and protective equipment for active volunteers.
Meanwhile, the captain of the neighbouring brigade of Burrowye, Hayden Drummond, says he has considered stepping down.
“I have considered, resigning or getting out of the CFA. It’s just you seem to be banging your head up against a brick wall trying to get things done,” he said.
“The people up here are really quite down on the CFA. There’s a lot of people who either won’t join, or others who are considering just leaving and going back to private infrastructure.”
Cumulative impact 'erodes resilience'
Volunteers make up about 90 per cent of the firefighting workforce, but over the past decade their numbers have decreased by about 15 per cent, according to figures from the Productivity Commission.
The latest figures show in 2019/20 there were about 146,000 volunteer firefighters, down from 172,000 in 2010/11.
“The reality is no government of any persuasion across this country can afford to pay and replace our volunteers,” chief officer of the CFA Jason Heffernan said.
“And that’s why it’s so critically important that we support our volunteer brigades across the country.”
Erin Smith, associate professor in Disaster and Emergency Response at Edith Cowan University, interviewed 60 volunteer firefighters who had fought in the Black Summer bushfires in Victoria and NSW.
Every volunteer she spoke to had suffered profound impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.
“Some had fleeting symptoms,” Dr Smith said, “but some still had impacts 12 months down the track, which significantly affected their personal lives and their paid employment.”
She says while support systems are in place, agencies need to strengthen local level peer support, and not rely on pamphlets and Employee Assistance Programs.
“I think that it is just incredibly sad to see this exodus of volunteers because they don’t feel valued,” Dr Smith said.
“And it’s something that we can rectify quite easily by putting in support services that actually work and meet the needs of volunteers.”
The federal government has asked Volunteering Australia to come up with 10-year strategy on how to attract and retain volunteers into the future.
Volunteering Australia’s Sue Regan says there’s going to be an increasing incidence of natural disasters.
“I think there are challenges for a model that relies hugely on volunteers,” she said.
“If we want policies and practices to work for volunteers, then we need to make sure that it really reflects the priorities they are feeling at a local level.”
'Everyone needs to step up'
Kathleen McCann has seen more than her fair share of fires since she joined the Tanja RFS brigade on NSW’s far south coast in 2003.
Fires that have steadily escalated from “cigarettes-out-the-window kind of burns, and pile burns that got away” to something far more serious.
In March 2018, her crew was one of the first to arrive as a ferocious bushfire engulfed Tathra.
“It was like, ‘Shit, this is different’,” Ms McCann said.
In a matter of hours, 65 houses were destroyed.
“There were planes, helicopters, trucks, sirens, gas bottles exploding and smoke everywhere, really toxic smoke. I was really frightened, but also working to try and save houses.”
Ms McCann is still seeing a psychologist, supported by the RFS Critical Incident Support Service, to manage her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But instead of stepping back from the brigade, she stepped back onto the truck.
During the Black Summer fires, she was on active duty for more than six weeks as her brigade fought to contain fires at the edge of their densely-forested community.
She spoke to residents on the phone every day to check who was staying and if they were OK. She also encouraged them to join the RFS.
Since the fires, her brigade has welcomed 12 new members, more than doubling the crew of active volunteers and bucking the nationwide trend.
Ms McCann would like to see an attitude in the brigades that “it’s totally OK to stop, if you can’t do it anymore”.
But she believes that everyone has something they can offer, and the need will only grow as the threat of fires and natural disasters intensifies.