By Colin MacGillivray
A lack of consultation and underfunding are two of the major concerns expressed by volunteer firefighter leaders in condemning State Government fire service reforms set to come into effect tomorrow.
The government’s restructuring of Victoria’s fire services will see Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade combine with 38 current Country Fire Authority stations in regional centres under the new banner of Fire Rescue Victoria.
The 38 transitioning CFA brigades, including South Morang and Craigieburn, which currently operate as integrated stations combining career staff and volunteers, will become fully staff-operated.
The CFA will continue to operate all other stations across rural Victoria as volunteer-based operations.
The reforms, which the government said would help modernise Victoria’s fire services in line with the recommendations of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, have been slammed by volunteer firefighters and the state opposition.
CFA chief officer and chief executive Steve Warrington resigned last week, ahead of the fire service reforms.
Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria district 12 president Chris Lloyd said the government had left volunteers in the dark during its consultation process.
“There was to be a lot of consultation along the way with all of the stakeholders, and there’s been some consultation with a few of the stakeholders,” he said.
“A lot of the staff haven’t had their questions answered. Staff in our own district only found out their fate very recently, which I don’t think is right.”
Mr Lloyd said members were concerned the CFA would be left underfunded as a result of the changes.
“I think the people of Victoria are going to be considerably worse off for it, and I think it’s going to cost them a lot more money the way this is being undertaken,” he said.
“Our concern is that probably a far greater amount of money in the budget will go to FRV and the reformed CFA volunteer element will be significantly disadvantaged.
“If a high degree of our funding is taken away from our operational requirements – i.e. to do training and various other things – the skills acquisition is not going to be there and skills maintenance is going to struggle.
“I also think it’s important that we maintain a healthy budget to allow us to keep vehicles renewed.”
Member for Euroa Steph Ryan was also critical of the reforms, saying the government had failed to operate in good faith with volunteers.
She claimed the restructure was a calculated move by the Labor government to appease the United Firefighters Union.
“VFBV said they had been completely sidelined in the discussions between government and the union about how this reform is going to be implemented,” she said.
“They’ve now been informed that the CFA is effectively going to be run by 229 union-appointed staff.
“Most people strongly feel – and I believe – [Labor] did a deal with the United Firefighters Union before the 2014 election. The union wants to expand its power base and its membership, and this is the way that it’s doing it.”
Ms Ryan said the changes would lead to CFA volunteers quitting, limiting the capacity of brigades on Melbourne’s rural-urban fringe to respond to major fires.
Labor Member for Yan Yean Danielle Green, a CFA volunteer, slammed Ms Ryan’s comments as ‘hysterical hyperbole’ and said fire-service reforms were vital.
“Steph Ryan is completely wrong if she believes fire systems and structures that have not changed since the 1950s were adequate to meet the changing demands of our growing state – with population growth, urbanisation and climate change some of the challenges we face into the future,” she said.
“Her claim that FRV staff are being seconded to each fire station is utterly fanciful and false. I’m a volunteer at Wattle Glen and there’s no staff there. Similarly, fire stations in the Mitchell Shire area are continuing to function as volunteer stations.
“As someone who fought the Kilmore East Fires on Black Saturday, I am disgusted at the shameful fear mongering being peddled by Steph Ryan. The communities that we are both privileged to represent are still trying to recover from this tragedy and deserve facts and support, not fibs.”
Ms Green said the government’s announcement of $126 million for the CFA last week – including money to replace 15 stations and purchase new dual-cab fire trucks – showed it was committed to supporting volunteers.
“Labor backs our volunteers and staff by investing in stations, the firefighting vehicle fleet and health and safety training for volunteers,” she said.
But Mr Lloyd said volunteers wanted more long-term assurances.
“The government has said it’s going to fund some crew-cab trucks, wonderful, and it’s going to give the CFA $126 million, but that’s not going to go very far or do very much,” he said.
“I think we need to see a serious, ongoing commitment from the government towards the CFA and not just a token value.
“Since this whole thing has started we’ve lost about 5000 volunteers out of what we had, which is not a good thing.
“Some of it might be due to natural attrition, but some of it is people saying they’ve had enough.
“What the people of Victoria don’t need is more volunteers walking away.”