Bushfires: group captains angry over cuts to salaried staff

Bushfires: group captains angry over cuts to salaried staff

07 November 2013

published by www.theguardian.com

Australia — Firefighters are overstretched and facing a “desperate” summer, according to New South Wales Rural Fire Service group captains who have lambasted the state government over what they see as cuts to the organisation’s salaried staff.

Phil Holding, of the RFS south-west slopes zone, told Guardian Australia the NSW government was run by people who “don’t have the faintest clue” about firefighting, resulting in “big holes” in the fire service’s ability to function effectively.

“The premier has decided to have 10% savings from each department, which means getting rid of paid workers and leaving big holes in what’s left,” Holding said.

“Paid staff are a small proportion of the RFS but they provide the logistical support that’s essential. We’ve just lost our trainer of cadets, which I’m very annoyed about. That person has now gone, so there will be less training of cadets and without a culture of volunteering in schools, we’ll end up like other countries and have no one wanting to volunteer.

“That will be insane. It will basically mean that no one will be able to live in the mountains any more because it is completely uneconomical to pay all of the firefighters.”

Holding’s division, based around Young and Cootamundra, sent five fire trucks and 18 firefighters to help tackle the recent Blue Mountains bushfires. He said more fires this summer would put severe stress on the RFS and it was only a matter of time before the system “caves in on itself”.

“If there’s enough fires in different places this summer everyone will be very fatigued indeed. Looking at the long-range forecast, this summer is going to be very dry. It’s going to be desperate,” he said.

“The commissioner [Shane Fitzsimmons] knows about firefighting, but the government has a lot of economic specialists who don’t have the faintest clue. They run the emergency services like it’s a day-to-day business, but it’s not. You need certain types of people and instant support during an emergency.”

Geoff Ryan, group captain for the Chifley zone, which encompasses Bathurst, told Guardian Australia the Blue Mountains fires placed a significant strain on resources.

“We didn’t have paid staff here as they all had to go to the Lithgow control centre,” he said. “The Bathurst office was closed so we had to get a volunteer to open it, just to have the light on in case someone needed to walk in.

“All the staff were out of town. If a serious fire had kicked off in Bathurst, something would have fallen over somewhere.”

Ryan said his zone and two adjoining zones had just five full-time staff between them, overseeing 2,500 volunteer firefighters.

“There was a funding cut for staff and we’ve been about four people down for two years now,” he said. “The lack of an admin person is the real thorn in our side – it’s a big workload and it’s awkward for the operational people to do it. We haven’t had permission for an admin person. We make a recommendation but we don’t get any response back.

“The senior management team is very frustrated. If funding is cut, it shouldn’t be from operational personnel. Their workload has increased but they have to put up with it to pick up their weekly cheques.

“I hope the fires open people’s eyes a bit. The citizens are suffering more than us, of course, but I hope someone in government looks at it.”

The NSW government denied that the RFS budget had been cut, pointing to budget figures that show the 2013-14 allocation is $331m. Although this is down on the $391m allocated in 2012-13, that total included an extra $90m on the previous year to manage last summer’s unusually taxing bushfire season. The government tops up the baseline budget each year depending on the severity of the summer fires.

“The lower total expense allocation reflects normal budget allocation levels, rather than actual costs in a peak fire season,” according to the NSW budget papers.

A spokesman for the fire and emergency minister, Mike Gallacher, said: “The NSW government has increased the budget of fire and rescue by $28m on the previous year.”

But Chris Read, an industrial officer at the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union, backed the group captains’ criticisms, accusing the government of an “ideological” desire to cut labour costs.

“We know for a fact that the RFS has been cutting jobs and obviously that’s having an impact,” he said. “There was a government edict for the public sector to reduce employee expenditure by 1.2% a year for the next four years.

“They may be spending more in total dollar terms, but labour costs have gone down. The NSW government said there will be no cuts to frontline services but they have qualified that by saying that only applies to police, teachers and nurses – they don’t see firefighters as a frontline service.

“It’s indiscriminate and unscientific. They seem to be happy to buy shiny new fire trucks so that the local MP can get a picture next to it, but there’s not much use in that if you don’t have the staff to operate them.”

The RFS has a volunteer force of more than 70,000, with fewer than 1,000 in salaried, day-to-day positions.

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