Australia — AS the Gympie region’s bushfire season worsens, a crisis in volunteering has meant significant and potentially disastrous recruiting problems for rural fire brigades across Queensland.
Cr Larry Friske told this week’s regional council meeting that the problem threatens to seriously affect public safety.
Shortages of available volunteers has had a noticeable effect on rural fire brigades and other vital volunteer-based organisations, including the State Emergency Service.
Cr Friske said the problem was highlighted by the decision of long-serving Veteran Rural Fire Brigade first officer Merv Gibson to stand aside from the position and take up a more supporting role as third officer.
He said new young volunteers were no longer coming through and the average age of a Queensland rural brigade first officer had soared in the past 30 years.
The result was that volunteer services were suffering an age crisis which could see them suffering serious problems.
Mr Gibson, currently on duty fighting fires as part of a strike force in the Wondai area, is a veteran firefighter in more ways than one, as Cr Friske pointed out.
“He’s attended something like 1200 fires and has a significant amount of silverware to hang on his chest,” Cr Friske said.
“When he took over 30 years ago, the average age was 47 for a first officer.
“Today it’s 70 years,” he said.
“I suggest, from looking at the age of fire brigade members, that there has to be a significant change in the way our rural fire brigades are structured or we will seriously not have rural fire brigades.
“As third officer he will be mentoring the first and second officers.”
Mayor Ron Dyne expressed his strong agreement.
“You’re dead right in relation to fire brigades,” he said.
“I know that in the brigade I belong to it is an ageing brigade and unfortunately people are not being replaced.
“All our philanthropic organisations and the SES are suffering the same problem, although the SES does have a very good cadet scheme which is attracting a lot of interest.
“That is very much attributed to the people running that program,” he said.
“As a society we have to look at our volunteer services.
“Gympie is renowned for volunteering.”
Cr Friske said the administrative burden on volunteers was also driving many away.
He said the problem was well-known within rural brigades.
Changes in society and an overwhelming paperwork burden were bringing important emergency services to the point of collapse, Gympie Regional councillors have been told.
“Everyone involved in rural fire brigades knows about the enormous amount of paperwork that is required of them,” he said.
“People are simply saying, ‘I’m leaving because I can’t stand the paperwork’.”
Mayor Dyne said there were complexities, however.
“You only need the death of one volunteer and (with no-one to replace that person) everyone blames the government for not training people.
“Paperwork justifies training and vehicle purchases, et cetera.”
But he added that big problems emerged when administrative requirements were changed without reason and work had to be done repeatedly.
“I think I’ve done my Level 1 about three times, because they keep changing the system and you don’t get recognised.
“I accept that the paperwork is painful,” he said.
However, Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts made it clear earlier this month that he did not believe claims of inadequate and repetitive training was driving volunteers away.
“That’s not what I’m told,” he said about claims from Rural Fire Brigades Association CEO Dick Irwin.