By Lauren Duffy
A group of more than 70 members from across Country Fire Authority, CFA, District 12 have raised concerns about a lack of operational volunteers, limited training opportunities, ageing equipment, and increasing fuel loads ahead of the summer fire season.
District 12 extends from Wallan and Kilmore in the south to Avenel and Seymour in the north, across to Alexandra, Yea and Kinglake in the east, and to Tooborac in the west.
The current captains of Kilmore, Nullavale, Tooborac, Pyalong, Glenaroua, Yea, Mia Mia, and Limestone are among many to put their name to a six-page letter, which raises many operational concerns, as well as funding and direction from the State Government.
The letter reads ‘CFA has lost their way in many respects’ and needed reminding ‘of where they have evolved from’ and the lessons learnt from major fires over the past 180 years.
The CFA members are also calling for a ‘whole of community and government approach’ to help mitigate fire risks.
“Volunteer numbers are particularly relevant in rural communities. Many smaller brigades need increased numbers of operational firefighters to have the ability for a sustained emergency event,” the letter reads.
“Many of these brigades are in areas that are actually growing in population, but the new residents are unaware that they have an unrecognised responsibility to provide mutual protection and support for the community in which they live. There are many ways in which this can be delivered.”
The letter calls for a centralised recruiting campaign for operational volunteer firefighters in Victoria, and for the CFA to improve the ‘minimum skills’ process to induct new firefighters.
“The current structure of the CFA and emergency management has evolved into a large and bureaucratic organisation that seems more focused on itself than the volunteers who are its backbone,” the letter reads.
“Currently there is a very ponderous and time-consuming recruitment process that is limiting the ability of the CFA to attract new volunteers.
“The original ‘minimum skills’ program delivered on what was required to maintain volunteer numbers. Additional training can be phased in over time. The system needs to work for volunteers.”
The CFA members said there had been ‘limited training opportunities for rural volunteers in recent years’, listing chainsaw courses, advanced driver training, and first aid.
The CFA tanker replacement program extending from a 20-year to 30-year replacement was also raised.
“Volunteers should not be expected to face these increasingly threatening emergency events in vehicles which, because of their age, are no longer really fit for purpose,” the letter reads.
CFA chief officer Jason Heffernan said of the CFA’s 52,000 volunteer members, nearly 29,000 were operational firefighters.
“CFA has never drawn on its full pool of operational volunteers in any given year and its membership in these operational roles remains strong right across the state,” he said.
“CFA is constantly working to attract new members and earlier this year launched the ‘Give us a Hand’ campaign to encourage people to join the CFA.
“Since the campaign was launched in August this year, CFA has received almost double the amount of applications this year compared to last year.
“Not all brigades need new members and the campaign was targeted to those areas which may be experiencing a drop in numbers due to factors like rural decline, ageing population or competing family priorities.”
Mr Heffernan said the current push for more volunteers was an investment in the future of emergency response in Victoria.
“The time taken between when a person applies to join CFA and when they can become fully operational through training can vary quite substantially,” he said.
“All new members go through a screening process before their applications progress and this requires the provision of a range of information and verification documents including working with children checks, police checks, and physical readiness to undertake CFA duties.
“There are currently more than 3200 applications going through the process and at varying stages of the process. In the last 12 months, more than 2220 applications have been approved.”
Mr Heffernan said CFA had processes in place to ensure potential new members could join their brigades as soon as possible.
“The base training required to become an operational firefighter is the general firefighter training. This program delivers nationally recognised units of competency and must comply with the national and state training standards including the requisite course hours,” he said.
“The course takes approximately six to eight hours of theory that can be completed online at a time that suits the students’ needs or face-to-face.
“There is also between 10 and 20 hours of practical training that varies based on participants’ current knowledge/skills. The practical training is often undertaken at the station with the brigade, supported by qualified trainers to ensure that the members are familiar with their own equipment, appliances etc.
“Our training is continuously improved to ensure it is meeting the national standards as well as reviewing our delivery avenues to meet the needs of our members wherever they are across the state and our regulatory environment.
Mr Heffernan said it was critical that volunteers possessed the necessary skills and capabilities to respond effectively to emergencies while maintaining a safe environment.
“Every effort is being made to ensure we provide maximum opportunities for our members to receive the training they need and it is a high priority for CFA,” he said.
“The increasing complexity of modern firefighting necessitates more contemporary training. Fires today often involve hazardous materials, advanced technology, and unique building structures that require specialised knowledge and skills.
“Firefighters must be prepared to handle a wide range of scenarios, from the agricultural fast-running grassland fires to structural fires, and hazardous material spills and urban rescue missions.
“The base level of training is consistent across the CFA and other skills required will vary depending on the brigade and the fire risks in their local area. This has led in some cases to the duration and intensity of some training.”
Mr Heffernan said the CFA’s base budget for fleet replacement vehicles was $12.8 million each year and CFA allocated that funding ‘on the basis of the highest priorities for replacement’.
“In the past few years CFA has prioritised the replacement of single-cab medium and heavy tankers because they are the oldest trucks in our fleet. However CFA reviews its procurement priorities on a regular basis,” he said.
“In addition to our base funding, from time to time CFA receives additional funding from government to accelerate the fleet upgrade program. For example, additional funding has recently allowed a replacement program of 50 single-cab tankers with dual-cab tankers.”
Minister for Emergency Services Jaclyn Symes said Victorians should be confident that volunteers would be there during times of need, ‘unwaveringly backed’ by the State Government.
“Victoria’s volunteer numbers remain strong and the CFA has never had to draw on its full pool of operational volunteers. Volunteering for the CFA is an extremely rewarding way to give back to your community, and I’m pleased that the latest recruitment push has seen nearly 6500 applications for brigades around the state,” he said.
“While our emergency services are prepared for the summer season, they need everyone else to be too — an expected return to a traditional bushfire season means no one can afford to be complacent.
“I urge everyone to download the VicEmergency app, and sit down with their loved ones to write out a bushfire action plan — so everyone knows what they’re doing. Now is also the time to be preparing your property — cleaning gutters, cutting back the grass and whatever else needs to be done to keep your home safe.”
Ms Symes said the government provided $126 million in 2020 to strengthen the CFA, with funding delivering volunteer leadership and capability, additional training, new infrastructure, and $22.7 million for a new fleet of 48 heavy tankers and two light tankers.
“We also provided $12.8 million for 29 new ultra heavy tankers, which are being rolled out to brigades across regional Victoria along with the 48 heavy tankers,” she said.
The 2022-23 Victorian Budget included more than $11 million over four years to upskill the CFA volunteer workforce, deliver volunteer driver training and licensing, as well as dedicated training trucks.
The CFA members also raised concerns about fuel loads, particularly on land managed by government departments.
“There should be one common set of standards for fuel reduction expected from all. Currently, this is not the case, although there is legislation in place, that particularly applies to private individuals enforced by councils. Government departments and agencies are controlled by different legislation that enables them to set their own standards,” the letter reads.
“In many cases, these standards are far below what is expected from individuals and the community.”
The State Government is also implementing recommendations from the Inspector-General for Emergency Management to review the legislation to clarify accountabilities for fuel management across land and fire agencies, public authorities, councils, private organisations and individuals.