AUSTRALIA – The structure of Western Australia’s planned Rural Fire Service (RFS) is yet to be finalised, despite the state government announcing it wants it to be headquartered in the South West town of Collie. Creation of an RFS was one of the key recommendations of the wide-ranging Ferguson Inquiry into last year’s Waroona bushfires, which devastated Yarloop. In the wake of the tragedy, volunteer firefighters were critical of department of fire and emergency services (DFES) management of the firefighting effort and pushed hard for the establishment of a separate rural service.
The media revealed late on 15 February 2017 that the Liberals want the new organisation based in Collie, about 200 kilometres south of Perth. The RFS would operate alongside but independent of, DFES and its fire commissioner, Wayne Gregson. Premier Colin Barnett said the new organisation would report directly to the minister for emergency services and work collaboratively with the fire commissioner according to protocols that would be developed.
Barnett said the new service would maximise the contribution of volunteers. “Local bush fire fighters, most of whom are volunteers, bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the fighting of fires,” he said. “Often, in the past, this knowledge and expertise has not been fully and properly utilised. A RFS will enhance the ability to draw on that expertise and add to the bush firefighting arsenal.”
However, the exact structure of the service and its relationship with DFES remains unclear. Speaking in Bunbury, Barnett said the service would be funded by the emergency services levy, with some staff being re-directed from DFES in Perth.
“Those people will be moved and it will be concentrated into Collie,” he said. Whether we convert existing premises or build a new one remains to be seen.”
Francis said consultation about the staffing and funding of the service was ongoing. “We still haven’t nutted out the detail of its primary responsibility and what its structure will be but I’m keen to ensure the independent fire service will be independent from the umbrella and the actual physical location from the current department at Cockburn,” he said.
At the last election, Labour won the seat of Collie-Preston by just 56 votes but it is now notionally liberal following electoral boundary redistribution. Francis denied the commitment to set up the headquarters in the electorate equated to pork barrelling. “I don’t really care what the margins are and where Collie might sit on some electoral pendulum,” he said. “I care about trying to stimulate the economy and to ensure that we have a RFS that is located in regional Western Australia.”
Labour leader, Mark McGowan, said he would take a bipartisan approach to establishing a rural fire service. He said he agreed Collie was the best place for the service but would not be drawn on what he would prefer the structure of the organisation to look like. “Clearly it needs its own senior executive, if you like but it would need to work closely with DFES to make sure that we maximise resources dealing with fires,” he said. “I do understand that rural people want to see their expertise is taken serious account of when a fire is being fought.”