Australia — Territorialism within Victoria’s firefighting services has been blamed for blocking urgent resources needed to properly combat the deadly bushfires that have raged across the state.
Members of both the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFB) have complained after being told their services were not wanted during the height of the fires.
The United Firefighters Union says it has documented the numerous complaints it has received from frustrated firefighters.
The union’s national secretary, Peter Marshall, says some crews had simply been told to go home by other crews.
“I can show you email after email, phone call after phone call that we have logged where you’ve had professional officers who have been on duty [and] not deployed, or alternatively off duty, they’ve offered their services and the offer has not been accepted by a relative authority,” he said.
“We’ve had complaints not just about the CFA but indeed about the MFB as well.
“We’ve had many emails expressing frustration from professional officers, both who were on duty and indeed the ones who were off duty that had offered their services and they were not utilised.
“We don’t understand why that has happened, in particular in the context of one of the largest fires, if not the largest fire that the Victorian community has faced, the resources that the community has paid for were not deployed and were not utilised to their full potential.”
Thousands of homes have been lost and 208 people have been killed in Victoria’s bushfires, but Mr Marshall would not speculate on whether infighting amongst fire services may have contributed to the enormity of the tragedy.
“It’s hard to say,” he said.
“Simply, when the left hand’s not telling the right hand what to do or alternatively the left hand’s not talking to the right hand, of course you haven’t got the most effective force you can have.
“Does that mean you have the most effective firefighting force at the communities’ disposal? The answer is no.”
Mr Marshall says the problem has stemmed from territorial issues between fire services.
“What we’ve seen historically is a parochial attitude between fire services, irrespective of who the fire service is, in relation to territorial issues,” he said.
“We say that is just not appropriate, nor is it in the best interest for the community when it comes to large scale emergencies like we have seen.
“There has been a number of coronial inquests which have identified problems historically like the one that has been raised by our members at the moment.”
Parochialism within the services has also led to low morale and Mr Marshall says many union members are frustrated.
“These people, their very existence, their working life is to protect the community,” he said.
“They train enormously for that. Many people sacrifice other careers to go into protecting the community in the fire industry.
“It is absolutely morale-shattering when you are not given the opportunity to fulfil the very reason you joined the fire service – and for no good reason.”
Mr Marshall says the employment of firefighters from interstate and overseas has rubbed salt in the wounds for many.
“It’s even more moral shattering when these professional people who serve the fire services of Victoria are sitting home not being utilised and they see overseas and interstate troops being brought in,” he said.
The United Firefighters Union says it is preparing a report for the royal commission into the bushfires.
“We say that’s a very real issue and we’re not just raising it as criticism, we are raising it so there will be a process to ensure it will not happen again,” Mr Marshall said.
At the time of publication the CFA and the MFB were unavailable for comment.