Victoria's 150 volunteer State Emergency Service units have been left without operational funding for four months with VICSES head office in a standoff with the state government over the service's annual budget.
The units rely on the annual funding - which was worth $75 million in 2022-23 - to maintain facilities and life-saving rescue equipment. It was supposed to be paid in August 2023 but still hasn't come through.
The government's annual equipment and facility grants were also announced on November 23 with south-west Victoria's 18 units all missing out on funding.
Unit commanders say the delay in operational funding has occurred because VICSES head office is still negotiating its annual budget with the government. The Standard asked both the VICSES and the government why the budget still hadn't been finalised but they declined to say.
"We expect all units will have received their annual subsidy by the end of next week (1 December)," a VICSES spokesperson said.
The operational funding is paid according to the size of the unit and the facility and equipment it has to maintain. For a smaller unit like Mortlake or Heywood the funding is worth $10,000-$20,000, whereas a bigger unit like Warrnambool gets closer to $50,000 per year.
One unit commander said for units with equipment requiring maintenance the lack of funds could start to bite quickly.
"If you don't have a cash buffer you could be in trouble," he said.
A VICSES spokesperson said any units struggling as a result of the delay could apply for emergency funding.
"Any volunteer unit experiencing financial strain has been able to reach out to VICSES and arrange a portion of the subsidy to be paid," they said.
For many south-west units the ongoing lack of operational funds was compounded by the region's total omission from the annual Volunteer Emergency Services Equipment Program (VESEP), which provides grants for new equipment and facility improvements.
The Standard asked VICSES how many south-west units had applied for grants and why none had been successful. A spokesperson said 11 units across Barwon South West had applied for grants, with three units - all in the Barwon region - receiving funding.
"A thorough VESEP grant selection process is conducted based on a number of factors and the funds available," the spokesperson said.
"This includes regional and state internal reviews and a multi-agency panel before recommendations are provided to the Minister for Emergency Services."
The Standard published a two-part series in August 2023 revealing a range of structural failings by VICSES, including chronic underfunding that had left many south-west units in a dire state.
Some south-west units don't have showers, or change rooms, or usable toilets, or heaters. The Cobden unit is run out of a 1903 dance hall. One member said the door the Heywood facility used to get its truck out "only works half the time", while the Hamilton unit is run from "an asbestos chook shed".
But the unit commanders who spoke to The Standard said they weren't surprised at being overlooked by the grant process.
"Nothing's changed for us. Head office organised a couple of meetings to basically calm the natives, but that was it," one unit commander said.
Some units said they were still facing severe volunteer shortages, which could prevent them from having road crash rescue capability by early next year.
The VICSES spokesperson said there had been a series of changes since August.
"VICSES now has a full staff support team in place in the south-west area. We have continued to support our south-west volunteer units with increased staff visitations, listening to concerns and addressing identified challenges," the spokesperson said.
"We have also undertaken several group meetings with unit leaders in the area to enhance support provided.
"Our volunteers do a tremendous job supporting their local communities."