AFTER years of planning, a new fire service is now operating in Victoria, combining career firefighters from the Country Fire Authority and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to create Fire Rescue Victoria.
While this is not expected to affect the Wellington Shire’s local CFAs, which are 100 per cent volunteer firefighters who live and work in the community, the move is a political hot potato.
The changes have been supported by the United Firefighters Union, which represented paid firefighters in both services, and opposed by Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, a peak body affiliated with most CFA brigades.
Fire Rescue Victoria operates 85 fire stations with full-time staff firefighters, about half of which are in the greater Melbourne metropolitan area, and the remainder in regional cities and large towns throughout the state.
Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said he held concerns for CFA volunteer numbers, with reforms being “forced on” the organisation by the state government.
“There are already just on 5000 fewer volunteers since Andrews came to power six years ago and we now have a case where many long serving volunteers, including CFA captains, have announced they were resigning this week,” he said.
Mr Bull said he had heard from a number of volunteers concerned about several of the changes, including the potential loss of strike teams from urban areas to support local brigades in times of fire crisis.
Mr Bull said the recent resignation of the CFA chief officer Steve Warrington, for refusing to sign up to the deal, rings more alarm bells.
“When you look at the list of people who have been forced out by Daniel Andrews as a result of objecting to this reform, how anyone can say it is not of major concern is beyond me,” he said.
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien said the Nationals in government would legislate to rebuild and restore the CFA as an independent, volunteer-based autonomous fire service.
The Nationals have also promised to establish a volunteer commissioner to independently hear and arbitrate on disputes.
“This will include repealing provisions of Labor’s disastrous legislation which undermines the capacity of the CFA to function as an independent, autonomous fire service and enshrining in law the power for the CFA to select, recruit and manage its own staff,” Mr O’Brien said.
“We will also ensure that CFA staff wear the CFA uniform and we will require the CFA board to sign up to the Volunteers’ Charter, which was legislated in 2012.”
Nationals leader Peter Walsh said CFA volunteers had been pushed out by a militant union and a Premier who “doesn’t have their back”.
But the state government is adamant the changes will benefit communities and fire fighters.
In a statement, Premier Dan Andrews said firefighters up to now had been “let down by a system that has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s”.
“And as our state grows and changes, the demands on our fire services will only continue to mount.
“These challenges have been made clear through a number of reviews in recent years, including the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.
“Each of the reviews has reached the same conclusion: if we are to keep up, we must modernise our state’s fire services.”
The main change under the new brand of Fire Rescue Victoria results in paid and volunteer firefighters in separate services, and stemmed from an industrial dispute between the CFA (and separately the Metropolitan Fire Brigade) and the United Firefighters Union Victoria.
The CFA will be restored to a volunteer and community-focused firefighting organisation, enshrined in law, and continue to be overseen by a board with volunteer representation and a chief executive and chief officer.