The following news article was published by the Newcastle Herald (September 18 2017)
THE Rural Fire Service (RFS) has lost touch with its regional roots, and volunteers who have spoken against the bureaucracy have faced bullying and harassment, including election interference at a brigade level, a parliamentary inquiry into the emergency services has been told.
The inquiry also revealed a grants scheme that was giving nearly $2 million a year to brigades for upkeep and improvements has been dumped in favour of a process where brigades must apply to receive funding.
Allegations of nepotism were also raised, with a document not yet publicly released indicating a tenfold increase in likelihood of a paid position for applicants working out of a pocket of 11 RFS brigades in northern Sydney.
On the first day of hearings on Monday, the inquiry, which will look at responses to bullying, harassment and discrimination in emergency service agencies, heard from the representatives of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFF) and the Rural Fire Service Association (RFSA), and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said he had “no explanation” for the apparent tenfold increase in paid positions for members in 11 brigades in Sydney’s north.
“I don’t have anything other than coincidence,” he told the inquiry. “It doesn’t correlate with the recruitment process.”
He said every recruited position was the subject of open, merit-based selection.
When questioned about a People Matters survey which found 48 per cent of RFS respondents had witnesses bullying, Commissioner Fitzsimmons acknowledged there was a disconnection between formal reports of bullying and the survey results, but said the organisation was working to address the issue.
“Bullying is a serious issue. There should be no retribution, there should be no punishment (for reporting bullying),” he said.
“We’re seeking to ramp up again changes and adjustments … we are trying to do more to ensure that we hear those matters so we can deal with them appropriately.”
Of the submissions made to the inquiry, 20 relate to NSW Police, 26 to NSW Ambulance, 25 to Fire and Resuce, 16 to the SES and 46 for the RFS.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the inquiry needed to acknowledge “we are proportionally larger than a lot of those other agencies”.
VFFA president Mick Holton said his organisation was concerned about the loss of valuable local knowledge.
“One of the complaints we get from volunteers is we’ve got a loss of local knowledge,” he said. “We’ve got situations where, because everything is run from the Sydney-centric model so, nothing against city people, but if we’re going to be fair to rural people, we have to tailor things to their needs.
“If the bureaucracy is such that it is not meeting the needs of rural people … we’ll lose them.”
When asked if there were occurrences of paid staff interfering with volunteer elections at a brigade level to ensure a favoured outcome, Mr Holton said “absolutely”.
“We do hear these cases (of management manufacturing an election outcome to get rid of people) but it’s also comforting to know that it’s not everywhere.”
Ken Middleton, president of the RFSA, rejected the claims as “hearsay”.
“I haven’t had any member or salary member come to me saying that their career has been terminated because somebody had it in for them,” he said.
He also defended housing the RFS head office in Sydney, rather than a regional centre such as Orange, Dubbo or Parkes.
“In order to effectively manage and co-ordinate high level functions of the service, head office should remain within Greater Western Sydney,” he wrote in his submission.
When questioned about a $1.9 million reduction in member expenses this year, RFSA chief executive Bernard Cox defended the organisation’s decision to review the giving program.
“We found the brigades were actively supplied … so we changed it to you come to us with what you would like … we put it back to them to come back to us.”
He said the change was gaining momentum and applications were increasing.
“At the end of the day we want to be responsible with the money we raise from the public,” he said.
Why has the RFS Commissioner allowed this to happen under his watch?
The inquiry has exposed what many volunteers already knew:
– that the city centric RFS is out of touch with rural volunteers
– that the RFS has intentionally created disciplinary procedures that are biased against rural volunteers
What a pathetic and sad state of affairs and a very poor reflection on the so-called leaders of the RFS
Meanwhile, our NSW Politicians with a few exceptions such as the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party sit back and do nothing. Their silence betokens consent.
This comment is posted by the Website Coordinator. The content comes from a letter forwarded to the VFFA.
Note: Names and some details have been suppressed to protect individuals from further bullying and harassment.
I read with interest your comment quoted in the Newcastle Herald… Ken Middleton, president of the RFSA, rejected the claims as “hearsay”. “I haven’t had any member or salary member come to me saying that their career has been terminated because somebody had it in for them,” he said.
I did not bring my specific situation to the your attention nor the RFSA as the matter was dealt with by my Industrial Union being the Public Service Association of NSW (PSA) in the Chief Industrial Magistrates Court. The ruling was promulgated far and wide to all NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) staff members who were financial members of the PSA, I would be very surprised if the RFSA did not know about the matter as there are RFS staff on your executive.
The matter related to me questioning Membership Services over an incorrect payment and their refusal to acknowledge certain conditions in the Crown Employees (Rural Fire Service) Award. Subsequently the PSA took the RFS to the Chief Industrial Magistrates Court for a ruling. The ruling was in our favour and clearly showed the contempt that the RFS had for its staff and the underpayment of award conditions to all staff over many years.
When voluntary redundancies were offered under Barry O’Farrell’s public service staff slaughter, I had very little choice but to take a VR based on my families location on the Mid North Coast of NSW, the lack of any RFS or Public Service jobs in my area at the time with equal or similar grade or I would be forced to take a redundancy after 3 months.
I have suffered mentally and physically from the treatment by senior staff at the RFS over a 2 year period when the matter went to court. So, after 16 years of unblemished full time employment in the BFB/RFS and nearly 10 years doing statutory requirements for the RFS, management decided that my substantial position was no longer required, even though it was a requirement under section 62A of Rural Fires Act 1997.
Did someone have it in for me, certainly yes. From the Commissioner whom I used to call a friend, through to the Director of Membership Services and all the cronies under those positions. My career was terminated and hidden under the Barry O’Farrel VR’s of 2012.
My life and work skills were made worthless because I questioned the RFS. All I wanted was fair and reasonable payment for myself and then equally to all my colleagues under the Crown Employees (Rural Fire Service) Award that had been written and agreed to for all RFS staff. It took the Chief Industrial Magistrates Court to agree and rule if favour of all our claims.
I have been a member of the RFS/BFB since 1983 and am currently a DC at the *********** Brigade.
There would be many issues that the RFSA would not know or deal with as RFS staff are employed by the Crown and most RFS staff are members of the PSA for industrial matters.