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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