Dramatic overhaul for state’s fire services

Victoria's fire services will be dramatically overhauled with Premier Daniel Andrews splitting volunteer and paid firefighters into two separate authorities.

The move comes with serious political risk for Mr Andrews, who has already lost much political capital, and a minister, over his intervention in an industrial dispute between the CFA and its paid staff represented by the United Firefighters Union.

The Age understands that the MFB will be abolished and replaced with Fire Rescue Victoria, which will cover all paid firefighters, including those at 35 integrated CFA stations across suburban Melbourne and in regional centres.

The CFA will continue to exist and will become a volunteer only service, with its role strengthened under law. The Andrews government is also injecting $100 million to the service.

Volunteers and the new Fire Rescue Victoria will share some stations and continue to work together at some incidents.

Insiders on both sides of the debate say "it will be bloody", with some saying the changes are long overdue. Others warn there will be more political pain for Labor from the volunteers.

The overhaul allows the government to bypass federal legislation that has stymied efforts to pass the controversial workplace agreement for the paid CFA staff.

The transition, which will require legislative change, is expected to take two years. 

Government sources said this would also end an impasse between the UFU and MFB, with a new deal struck, which some hope will trigger much-needed cultural change. The government wants to increase the number of women in the urban firefighting from 100 to 400.

A formal announcement will be made on Friday, and will also include a new fire district review panel that will regularly assess which parts of Victoria require coverage by Fire Rescue Victoria.  

A key reason behind the volunteer association's resistance to the original CFA deal was an understanding that the deal did not properly recognise the role of volunteers at fires, leaving a less than harmonious working relationship on the fire ground.

And then there is the cost. Well-placed sources suggest the taxpayer toll could be well above $1 billion, when the extra firefighters promised at the last election are factored in.

Just this week Emergency Services Minister James Merlino was unable, or more likely unwilling, to answer questions at a parliamentary hearing about how much the new recruits would cost.

The decision to shake up the fire services has bewildered many Labor MPs, including ministers, given the damage it did to the government and federal Labor last year.

Former minister Jane Garrett quit cabinet over her opposition to a workplace deal which was condemned by the volunteers' association and the CFA board as handing too much control to the union.

For decades union and volunteer firefighters have been at loggerheads, with a culture of mistrust between each other which descended into hostility in recent years.

The mooted changes will be met with strong resistance by Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. Chief executive Andrew Ford said that changes – which he had not been briefed on – were being done without consultation and would damage the state's capacity to provide surge capacity during major events.

Victoria's tens of thousands of volunteers provide the state extra capacity during major bushfires.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission warned expanding the MFB boundary would "probably decrease the critical surge capacity of the CFA", but it did say the current metro boundaries were "incongruous".

Mr Ford said on Thursday: "Far from this ending the unrest over the dispute, this will be the beginning of much greater unrest."

The risk for the Premier with the latest plan is that the split looks like he has again caved to the demands of the UFU, which will give fodder to the idea Mr Andrews is beholden to unions.

There is no doubt Melbourne's fire boundaries are outdated, well established suburbs including Springvale and key growth areas like South Morang are currently serviced by the CFA.

The challenge for the government is to hose down the likely outrage from volunteers that their roles being undermined and from wider voices that the expensive plan is nothing more than a sop to the unions.

- The Age

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