Published on September 24th 20127 – Tim Barlass
With the state already facing “extreme” bushfire risks with hot and dry weather, a parliamentary inquiry has heard of allegations of bullying and nepotism within the Rural Fire Service. The hearing was told last week by vice-president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association that the community could no longer be protected.
At the public Emergency Services Agency hearing, chaired by Shooters and Fishers’ Robert Borsak, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was quizzed by Greens member David Shoebridge after it was revealed 48 per cent of RFS members had witnessed bullying while 18 per cent had been victims of bullying and that “only two people have been dismissed because of it”.
Michael Holton, president of the VFFA making allegations of bullying against the RFS said: “Nepotism and favouritism are evident in the management of disciplinary procedures.” He said he believed the time had come to appoint the RFS commissioner from outside the service, possibly by someone with a military background.
Volunteers vice-president Brian Williams said in the recent hazard reduction on the Northern Beaches fire trucks from all parts of the state had come to assist. “It is hard to get numbers in this day and age,” he said. “People are starting to lose confidence in the system.”
He said instigating a hazard-reduction burn, which used to be simple, had become very complicated. “The bottom line is we can no longer offer our community protection from wildfire.”
Submissions from a survey of 7000 volunteer fire fighters showed an increasing tendency for RFS staff to actively influence elections and cause removal of senior volunteers from positions.
Mr Fitzsimmons was challenged over allegations of nepotism. Mr Shoebridge said figures showed a person was 10 times more likely to get a paid RFS appointment if they came from one of 11 brigades in a “small part of Sydney” rather than from one of the other 2018 brigades in the rest of NSW. Those 11 brigades included Duffys Forest, Beacon Hill, Terrey Hills and Belrose, the hearing was told.
Mr Shoebridge asked the commissioner: “We should not be shy about this but one of the reasons it is raised is that your background is from Duffys Forest?”
Mr Fitzsimmons replied: “Correct.” In a brief exchange Mr Shoebridge responded: “You say there is nothing to see here but I think there is. I am after your systemic response.” Mr Fitzsimmons: “I do not have anything other than coincidence.” Mr Shoebridge: “It is a bloody lot of coincidence, commissioner.” Mr Fitzsimmons: “Yes, that is fair.”
Mr Shoebridge said the 2017 results of a People Matter Employee Survey showed the RFS had substantially more respondents who witnessed bullying (48 per cent) and experienced bullying (18 per cent) compared with figures for the police, ambulance or the NSW Fire and Rescue Service.
The commissioner said it was “actually quite concerning” but the survey didn’t correlate with the cases reported or being dealt with. There were a range of strategies to address bullying in the workplace, he said.
The Rural Fire Service Association, which represent volunteers and paid staff and raises money mostly from public raffles and bequests, was quizzed over changes in its accounts. Committee chair Mr Borsak said to RFSA president Ken Middleton: “I note that during the year … you changed the corporate structure of the association. You have incorporated a not-for-profit company. Is that true?” Mr Middleton said it was. He was also asked to explain a loss in 2016 of $1,444,000 and a decrease in members expenses of $1,944,000 attributable to deferral of the support program and provisions for givings in 2017-2018.
Mr Borsak said: “The way that reads to me, and I might be reading it wrongly, you have cancelled a whole lot of future payments or support for members?” RFSA chief executive officer Bernard Cox countered: “I would not say cancelled. We have revisited the giving programs that we give to our members.”