The structure of a WA Rural Fire Service (RFS) is expected to be announced in the coming weeks but Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan said the state cannot afford an independent service.
The establishment of an RFS was a key recommendation of the Ferguson Inquiry into the 2016 Waroona Fires which destroyed over 200 homes in WA’s Southwest.
“I don’t think you will see a significant change in the relationship between the [Fire and Emergency Services] Department and those responsible for rural fire services and that is the local governments,” Mr Logan said.
“As the budget on Thursday showed we are not in a fiscal position to be able to afford an independent Rural Fire Service therefore I do not support one,” he said.
Parts of the southwest are facing a worse than usual bushfire season this summer and the United Firefighters Union (UFU) warned the regions were ill-equipped.
UFU State Secretary Lea Anderson said the state budget had done little to address a lack of funding for regional firefighters and change can not be expected unless the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) was raised.
“There’s been far too much emphasis on creating a rural fire service, instead of actually ensuring that we put resources into country regional WA,” Ms Anderson said.
“In our country regional offices there’s no significant budget available to adequately relieve personnel when they are on annual leave or long service leave and that means that the positions are unfilled.
“The workload is spread back across other people and that’s not fair, and we are terribly worried about the impact on our members’ health, both their physical health and their mental wellbeing because they carry enormous responsibility.
“They’re not sitting behind desks working nine to five, they are available to their local communities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Volunteers say ESL “mismanaged”
Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades President, Dave Gossage, has been a vocal advocate of an RFS independent from DFES but agreed the budget had done little to address under-resourced regions.
He said DFES had mismanaged the Emergency Services Levy and that local governments had told him they were pressured by DFES to further curb spending.
“The complaints we’re getting in the training space is that when local governments are putting in for funding for training they’re getting rejected because DFES controls the ESL, so where’s it going, this is crazy,” Mr Gossage said.
“The ESL has to be removed from the Department, this is a classic example why.
“Whilst you’ve got a city-centric department running a state-wide business you’re always going to have this conflict,” he said.
Cultural, not structural change needed
Outgoing DFES Commissioner Wayne Gregson was open about his views of the RFS in what was likely his final public address before he stepped down as commissioner next week.
Commissioner Gregson addressed hundreds of firefighters, including members of the Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades, at the WA Fire and Emergency Services Conference and called for a change to culture rather than structure.
“For my part as I retire I would like to go on the record and say I believe the Ferguson Report is fundamentally flawed with respect to the creation of an Independent Rural Fire Service.”
“I have found some very supportive people among your brigades [but] sadly however it is my belief that there are some in the association who have made the point of creating unnecessary barriers and deliberately stymying collaboration and cooperation.
“I think that we could have done more [and] I can’t help but think there have been lost opportunities working with your association.
“We are in a serious business whether we are paid or whether we are volunteers,” he said.
An Economic Regulatory Authority report into the Emergency Services Levy is expected to be published at the end of the month.