AUSTRALIA – Some of the issues facing fire brigades in the central west, north west and far west of the state are: drought, changing demographics, new fire-fighting technology, and a lack of new recruits.
For many rural communities, a fire brigade is the only emergency response team in the area, with a reliance on volunteer labour.
Among those facing a recruit shortage is the Cumnock Rural Fire Brigade in central west NSW.
Cumnock Group Captain Justin Barr said he was concerned about the trend.
“A lot of the captains and group captains of the area are getting around the 70-year-old mark,” Mr Barr said.
“In another 10 years they’re not going to be doing it.
“The problem I see is in the next five to 10 years when someone is going to ring triple-zero and no-one is going to turn up.”
Without a local brigade, help for fire, flood, search and rescue, and motor accidents would be up to two hours’ away.
And it is a similar story across much of New South Wales.
The Rural Fire Service has changed dramatically since its inception more than 100 years ago.
“When the first bushfire brigade started, it was about neighbours helping neighbours,” Inspector Brett Bowden said.
Inspector Bowden is the District Manager for the Canobolas Fire Zone, headquartered in Orange, NSW.
He believed that changing land use in regional areas was changing the type of neighbourly interaction, as well as the type of resident.
“You only have to look around the Mount Canobolas area for example,” he said.
“People have split them up into 20 and 30-acre lifestyle blocks — 30 years ago that was all orchards.
“With the land-use change, you also get a different type of resident.”
That is something Lower Portland Superintendent Karen Hodges was also seeing, as people moved out of Sydney onto lifestyle blocks in the Hawkesbury.
“I’m not sure if it’s a lot of people moving out from the city, out into the rural lands and think that the fire brigade is the same as Fire and Rescue and that they don’t need to put things into it,” Superintendent Hodges said.
“We’re trying to educate and get that message out there. Whatever they put into the brigade is the fire protection they get.”
The missing generation
Changing farm management models is also creating a lack of succession options for some rural fire brigades.
Many country towns have noticeably fewer men and women aged between 30 and 50 years old, as land management models change, requiring less labour.
“A lot of properties would have had two, three or more people running those properties,” Inspector Bowden said.
“Whereas these days, they are one-man shows and those one-man shows are normally the most senior person.”
That is something Far West District Manager Vaughn Elsworth was progressively facing across the Cobar, Central Darling, Bourke and Brewarrina districts.
“The challenges that we have, because it’s farming communities, properties are becoming larger so as farms get sold, they merge into the neighbouring farm,” he said.
“There’s just not that cohort of people to continue that succession planning in the brigade.
“We have captains who have been captains for 20-odd years because they don’t want to see the brigade fold but there’s not really [anyone else].”
Rural stoicism and an aversion to formalisation
Cumnock’s Justin Barr believed the increasing formalisation of the rural fire service conflicted with rural people’s prevailing attitudes of practicality and no fuss.
“Many, many years ago, we just went to bushfires. That’s just what you did,” Mr Barr said.
“Technology has caught up and they do regiment it a little bit more, the organisation of it.
“I think it’s the safety thing that rural farmers [struggle with]. A lot of them don’t like to have that pushed at them.”
“It’s alright to say ‘I’ll be alright, I think I can work it out’, but if you’ve got someone screaming at you to put their house out and you’re fumbling around trying to work out what to do, it’s not going to work.”
The Rural Fire Service’s improved technology is creating resistance among current and future members as training competes with drought and reduced on-farm labour for members’ time.
“We’ve never had it so good in terms of fire tankers, fire stations, the type of fire-fighting gear we have on those tankers, aviation support,” Inspector Bowden said.
“But at the end of the day, in the rural fire service, every fire fighter is a volunteer.”
That was something Kristine Wendtman at New South Wales Rural Fire Service conceded was a growing challenge.
“It’s a real balancing act because the need for training is increasing in a lot of ways because the job itself, the equipment that they are using, and the requirement for training is increasing but people’s time is more limited,” she said.
“Getting that balance right by providing the training in a way that suits people’s lifestyles but also giving them the skills that they really need is actually quite a challenging thing.”
Fires no longer attracting members
The silver lining to large fire events has typically been an influx in members, impressed by the scale of destruction and potential for personal ruin.
But now even catastrophic bushfires are failing to galvanise residents in the central west.
“What we saw in the Mt Canobolas fire in February of this year, normally you would get all the local people who were not involved in the local fire brigade go ‘right, I need to join that brigade because I need to be involved — to know what to do and to provide a hand’,” Inspector Bowden said.
“We haven’t seen that this time with that brigade, so that’s a concerning result.”
North West district manager Paul Metcalfe, whose zone spans Nyngan, Coonamble, Walgett and Warren believed the model was already changing in his district.
“It’s certainly going to be a struggle for us in the future,” he said.
“At the moment the service is being pretty proactive in some ways. They have put together a health check toolkit — for district managers and brigades to go out and start having these conversations about succession planning in the future.
“But again, it’s hard to get brigades to come around the table and have a discussion about that. It’s not their priority. Their priority is running their farm, feeding their stock.”
“What I find really good about country communities is they come together in crisis.
“So even though they might not be volunteering right now, many would come out of the woodwork and be what we call spontaneous volunteers,” Mr Metcalfe said.
“I think that’s probably the future of the service — and then how we actually manage those volunteers when we need them.”