Senators hear both sides of fire fight in Macedon

Castlemaine volunteer firefighter Bill Maltby and his niece Holly Button protest against the proposed EBA in June. Picture NONI HYETT

Castlemaine volunteer firefighter Bill Maltby and his niece Holly Button protest against the proposed EBA in June. Picture NONI HYETT

A Castlemaine volunteer firefighter says a proposed enterprise bargaining agreement being pushed by the United Firefighters Union could drive a wedge between volunteer and paid staff.

Former Castlemaine Fire Brigade captain Bill Maltby told a senate committee the Country Fire Authority’s current “integrated model” was working, but was under threat from some clauses in the EBA.

“There is a wedge being driven and it shouldn’t be driven, and it’s being driven by the demands in a 460 page EBA which is normally 60 to 80 pages,” he told the committee hearing in Macedon yesterday.

“There’s tons of things in the EBA that are not about wages and conditions, they’re about operational issues – that 460 pages should be 80 pages and the other issues need to be sorted so that the fire service that is respected throughout the world as one of the best stays as it is.”

Mr Maltby singled out a clause requiring the CFA to consult with the UFU on changes to the role of Brigade Administrative Support Officers, saying “they want to replace it with a qualified firefighter”.

“The BASO’s job, which was a brilliant job for volunteer brigades, is primarily an administration job and that assists the brigades in their activities, there is no need for a firefighting qualification.

“Now wouldn’t it be a waste of a resource if that firefighter was sitting in an office typing letters for the local rural brigade?”

Career firefighters also addressed the inquiry, saying the changes included in the EBA were necessary as more paid firefighters were needed to improve response times.

“Volunteer fire trucks are failing to dispatch and meet response times but that is no fault of the volunteers themselves,” UFU Victorian secretary Peter Marshall said.

“They can’t be expected to be available around the clock when they have jobs of their own and families and life commitments.”

Mr Marshall cited examples where volunteer crews had arrived too late to save a man who was badly burnt in a house fire in Hoppers Crossing, and an incident where volunteers had insufficient training to backup their paid counterparts.

“Three career firefighters arrived first at the incident and didn’t get backup from the volunteer crew until well past the required response time,” he said.

“The first crew of three firefighters started fighting the fire but when the volunteer crew arrived they did not have the necessary structural firefighting qualifications and required competencies to fight the fire.

“Residents and firefighters were put at risk.”

Volunteer firefighters have previously voiced opposition to a clause in the agreement which they say requires seven paid firefighters to arrive on scene before volunteers can start fighting the fire, but the government disputes this saying the requirement is that seven career firefighters simply be dispatched.

Clause 43.2.7 of the draft agreement states: “The CFA will conduct an extensive range of preventative and preparedness programs and meet its duty of care by ensuring a minimum of seven professional firefighters to fireground incidents are dispatched before commencement of safe firefighting operations.”

Following the inquiry, senators will vote on an amendment to the Fair Work Act which would forbid the Fair Work Commission from approving any EBA which includes terms that affect the capacity of volunteer emergency services bodies to properly manage their operations.

Extracts from submissions to the inquiry provided by the UFU

Extract from Ballarat City Firefighters submission

“…A house fire was reported in a suburb of Ballarat, Mount Helen. Mount Helen is approximately 10 kilometres from the Ballarat CBD. At 8.13am Ballarat City responded with one pumper and four firefighters. Also dispatched to the call is the Ballarat Fire Brigade (volunteers only) who failed to respond. En route to the scene the call is updated with reports that persons are inside the house. As a result the Rostered Duty Officer requested that an additional appliance be dispatched to the incident. At 8.17am Buninyong Fire Brigade (also volunteer only) responded to the call, however they are carrying three members, none of which were endorsed incident controllers nor qualified in either pump operation or breathing apparatus, significantly limiting the roles they can perform on the fireground. At 8.20am some 9 minutes after the initial call, Ballarat pumper responds, however they are only carrying three firefighters only one of whom was qualified in breathing apparatus. Due to the lack of qualified breathing apparatus responding the Rostered Duty Officer called for further support from breathing apparatus operators. At 8.22am there are still no firefighters on scene and it is now reported on the radio that there is an unconscious female trapped on the roof of the property. Buniinyong was the first appliance to arrive on scene at 8.25am however as they were not qualified in pump operation, incident control or breathing apparatus they were unable to enter the structure to commence a rescue or internal attack. All they could do was advise via radio that a rescue was required and request a rescue appliance and breathing apparatus operator from Ballarat City to perform the rescue. After 13 minutes of Code 1 driving (lights and bells) at 8.26am Ballarat City Pumper was on scene and was able to perform the rescue of the person trapped who was handed to awaiting ambulance crews. This example highlights that the lack of certainty in relation to dispatch of firefighters can cause unnecessary risk to the safety of the public.”

Extract from the Rowville CFA submission

“Rowville was called to support at a call in the Upper Ferntree Gully Brigade’s primary response area. Upper Ferntree Gully is a volunteer Brigade. Rowville responded to explosions heard in a garage. On arrival, the house and the garage were well alight. Rowville was first on the scene. The next appliance on the scene was Ferntree Gully, approximately 8 – 10 minutes later. They were followed by Upper Ferntree Gully volunteer brigade shortly after. Half the house was lost due to lack of firefighters on the ground. Rowville responded with a crew of three and with no support for up to ten minutes. We were all put in grave danger. Had this call been an enhanced response with seven staff responding, the outcome would have been significantly different with less safety concerns and a better overall result.”

Extract from the Springvale CFA submission

“It is important to understand the role of career firefighters was created to support volunteer members, in what, during the early years, was predominantly a volunteer service. Today’s risks have heavily outgrown the capacity of volunteers to solely provide the service expected by the community and coupled with the ever-growing demands of employers and that of the family unit the time allocated to volunteers ones efforts has decreased. Society has changed since the creation of the Country Fire Authority, where a 7 days a week and 24 hour trading expectations 3 results in volunteers finding it more difficult to guarantee their availability to respond to emergencies and therefore having a greater need for career firefighters in and around these heavily populated, risk increased areas.”

Extract from Craigieburn CFA submission

“Lack of consultation in the past has caused significant issues and safety concerns for volunteers and staff alike. Just one example includes the radio performance of our current radio network. Currently at major shopping centres we cannot communicate between fire fighters when inside the premises. This radio network has a large amount of black spots. If genuine consultation had occurred during the radio replacement phase, CFA would have been aware of this issue and we believe would have opted for a superior product that enhances fire fighter safety rather than reducing it. This unfortunately is just one example of many incidents of the lack of consultation that has resulted in reduced fire fighter safety. Consultation also provides the ability to raise issues and improve existing practices.” 

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