Greens support fire services reform bill | Australian Greens

Greens support fire services reform bill

Thursday, September 7, 2017 - 3:00pm
Speaker:
Colleen Hartland

Ms HARTLAND (Western Metropolitan) — Before I start I would like to talk briefly about my experience of large-scale fires. Living in Footscray, I have experienced the Coode Island fire and the United Transport fire — fires that were horrendous and put my community at great risk, but there was always a firefighter there to make sure that our community was protected. That is why rather than going over all of the politics of the last two years I am instead going to talk about the evidence and the bill.

It is clear to everybody that the government did not handle this bill well. I believe they would have been better off having extensive consultation with senior emergency services personnel, the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and volunteers and their organisations to make sure that the bill would work and keep firefighters, both career and volunteers, and the community safe. The government unfortunately does not have a good record in the way it manages consultation, but neither did the previous government.

While it is quite clear that the government's consultation on this bill has been very poor, the question we must ask ourselves is: is this reform necessary? I believe that it is, and it was confirmed quite clearly to me by the evidence given to us at the Fire Services Bill Select Committee. The select committee revealed, obviously, that there is division between career and volunteer firefighters, but not all, and that there is division amongst volunteers and volunteer organisations. We heard from volunteers who worked well with career firefighters and others who did not. We heard from volunteers who told us that they no longer worked in the towns that they lived in and who knew that they could not turn out in time to keep their community safe. The statement we heard repeatedly from firefighters was that they were sick of being used as a political football and they just wanted this to be over so that they could get on and do what they do best, and that is protecting their communities.

The evidence we received during the select committee hearings, especially from the chief fire officer Steve Warrington, Craig Lapsley and Greg Mullins, was compelling, and I intend to use most of my time today quoting from these people because they are the experts, not me. I would like to start with Mr Greg Mullins. To give a bit of background, I will start with his opening statement to the committee:

… I will say some background on me, which I am sure you have. I have been a firefighter for 45 years. I joined as a volunteer in 1972 and, in 1978, became a career firefighter with what was then called the New South Wales Fire Brigades. I retired as commissioner; I spent almost 14 years as commissioner, which is both the CEO and chief officer, during a period of huge change within New South Wales fire services and emergency services generally, but particularly in Fire and Rescue New South Wales, in terms of culture, industrial relations — the whole gamut.

I would finish by saying something has to be done. I have looked with admiration at the Victorian fire services for decades, but I am very sad to see where it has gone. You have firefighters pitched against firefighters. The best armies in the world can lose wars if their morale is down, and I see firefighters' morale very low at the moment, and the status quo is not going to fix that. Something has to be done. This may not be the perfect fix, but nobody has put forward one that I can see that is any better. I hope this committee process will assist in bringing forward any improvements to the model or the process to reach that model. I do look forward to assisting to bring it in to land.

Mr Mullins went on to talk about consultation:

… but I did say before that before you can consult, you actually have to have a model to consult on or you will get 35 000 different views on how things should be. Then you have hubris, and then nothing gets done; it stagnates. I would say that typifies the Victorian situation at the moment, from an outsider looking in.

He went on to say:

Very significantly. It will improve things very significantly, I believe. You will have a single chain of command. It will be very clear. A serious incident, like the paper recycling fire recently —

at Coolaroo —

which — I am not sure if you are aware, but you had resources here, I understand, from New South Wales, South Australia and ACT, as well as CFA and MFB. So that is complicated. You need to know exactly who is in charge. We have a national incident management system, AIIMS — Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System. Every agency subscribes to that, but you actually need to know who is in charge without any confusion whatsoever.

During the inquiry we heard from a firefighter who was at the Coolaroo fire, and he talked about the fact that he was operating from three radios. He had never worked with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) firefighters before, and while the fighting of that fire was very successful, he said it could have been so much easier if people had been working together.

In the hearing Mr Mullins went on to talk about radio systems:

… they are safety systems. Firefighters can be killed or seriously injured doing the work they do. The men and women on the front line are just extraordinary people, and they need to have the systems and processes to back them up, as well as the equipment, to make sure that they can be safe. So if there is a breakdown in that command system or there is a lack of surety about who is in charge, people can lose their lives. The new model makes it very clear in urban areas of the state that the risks will be treated in a certain way. The command structure will be very clear. It will not stop urban CFA brigades staffed by volunteers responding to the fires they have always responded to. It will be very clear how that incident will be dealt with.

He went on to say:

In October 2013 there were major bushfires in the Blue Mountains and around Sydney. The MFB sent 10 fire engines and crews, but they were not trained in bushfire fighting. That was fine, so they sat in Sydney fire stations and responded to structure fires, medical emergencies, car crashes and chemicals spills. They did a fantastic job. The CFA came in force. It released 10 of our fire trucks to go up the mountain, and our people are trained. The value of an integrated structure is that those MFB firefighters will now have the opportunity to work out in regional areas and be trained in bushfire fighting. It will enable CFA career firefighters to be trained in high-rise firefighting. They are taking on the emergency medical response model to give that same service bundle.

That seems very logical to me — that we would actually want our firefighters to work in that way.

We heard a lot during the inquiry, and we have heard a lot in the last few weeks, about surge capacity. Mr Mullins went on to say:

I will probably upset some people by saying this, but I think that is a fallacy. Surge capacity is about your available resources and however many thousands of volunteers you have. What you lack at the moment is a surge capacity from MFB resources because they are not able to be used on bushfires to their full extent. That will improve under this model. No volunteer brigades will be closed down. You will have the same number of trucks, hopefully the same number of volunteers. In 1997 in New South Wales some volunteers did resign, but they were a very small proportion. We actually had — I think it was in 1997 — bad fires in Sutherland in Sydney. We needed strike teams from out of area, they came, and there had been talk about surge capacity.

He went on to talk about his experience:

The difference, I suppose, in Victoria is that the CFA is far more mature than the bushfire brigades in New South Wales were in 1997. They had standardised equipment coming in, but the training was not standardised, or the uniforms, so over time people saw great improvements. What you have in Victoria is an outstanding — I will call it — rural fire service that deals with not just bushfires but house fires, chemical spills, road accident rescues, and the government is putting a lot of money in. I do not have to be political, and I am not political, but I am impressed with the amount of money that is going towards volunteer development programs. I have looked at the age profile of CFA volunteers, and they are getting older and older and there needs to be more attraction and retention, so they are going to invest in that at the same time as investing in cultural issues. There is no room for bullying, harassment — up or down — in any organisation, but the current situation is sort of allowing that to happen.

We also heard from Steve Warrington, chief officer of the CFA. This was the first time I had actually met Mr Warrington, and I have to say I found him very impressive during the hearings. I would like to quote extensively from his evidence as well. Dr Carling-Jenkins asked the question:

… is there a case for change, because we have heard disputed evidence around that.

Mr Warrington stated:

That is a really good question. It is interesting you say Jack Rush had a different view. I do not think too many people are disputing the need for reform in the sector. We spend a billion dollars in this state on fire services per annum between the two fire agencies. We could be far more effective than what we are now, should we get reform. The main point for me is to give CFA autonomy and independence to make its own decisions, where volunteers can get on and do their stuff without intervention or interference et cetera.

Ms Bath interjected.

Ms HARTLAND — I will take up the interjection. So I presume you are saying that the chief fire officer, Steve Warrington, does not know what he is saying? I found him to be an extremely credible witness.

He went on to say:

There are a number of players in this space at the moment. Just give us autonomy, and we will not only continue but I think you will find that we will deliver an even better fire service than we have today. Potentially it is an exciting future if we can get some of the detail right.

Mr Young went on to ask him a question:

To be honest I do not see any conviction from you in this model. I see someone who has resolved to do the best with what we have got. Your wording has been evidence of that when you have said, 'We will make it work', not, 'It will work'.

Mr Warrington went on to say:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity. If I have not been clear, let me be really clear: this sector, including CFA, needs reform. I am an advocate for reform for the aforementioned reasons. The reality is at the highest level it is not CFA reform, this is MFB, so this is sector-wide reform. We have two organisations with career firefighters with different recruitment, different development and different training. I can tell you that it is this bizarre in Victoria — and I am probably embarrassed to put it into the public space — that we put up ladders differently. We do stuff differently. That is not good enough. That is not in the best interests. We need reform in this state.

He continued:

The third point that I would make in this space and very clearly is that I am sick to death of good people being put against good people. Our good name has been eroded in a public confidence sense. We are on the front page of papers and in the public space, and even this will put us back there, not for the good work that we do and for the good work that our community should be proud of but for all the wrong reasons. Bring on the reform. Give us independence. Give us an autonomous, independent fire service, and we will kick you goals to say, 'Hey, this will be the best fire service in the country'. Yes, I am a proud, parochial, passionate CFA person, but let us get on with it. Let us get this behind us, and let us get on with it.

I have a high regard for the work of Mr Warrington. I think he gave good evidence, and I am a bit surprised at some of the interjections that seem to say that he does not know what he is saying. I think he is quite honest.

He went on to say:

I have said there are four groups of people in CFA that will be impacted. They are in this priority order, and this is part of what I have been communicating to our people. Believe it or not, and some people do not like me saying this, but I think our career staff are the ones that will be most impacted by the change because you are bringing two cultures together. I have just talked about our different systems of work, how we need to do a lot to bring that together. When you are bringing cultures together, that is a difficult journey. I think the second group in this space is the volunteers at our integrated stations. For the exact reasons Mr Young just said, the reality is we need to do a lot of work, and that is why I have focused particularly at our integrated stations.

There is another group here that I think has been lost along this journey, which is our admin staff, because there is a thing called the Emergency Services Infrastructure Authority. My example to you would be clearly we have people in CFA that do rostering. If we do not have career firefighters and those career firefighters and their EBA and their veto and their powers — all are put into Fire Rescue Victoria; merry Christmas, happy new year — then the reality is that we do not need people doing rostering. I suspect some of those will go to Fire Rescue Victoria. Alternatively if we have people that just do volunteer staff, clearly they are going to stay in CFA.

My last quote from Mr Warrington was in response to a question that I had asked. My question was:

On the issue of the numbers of volunteers, we have been told by the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria that there are 60 000. On the numbers that I have from CFA, it is 35 600 who are operational, 18 935 that are non-operational, so it is roughly 54 000 volunteers. On the issue of presumptive, because there needs to be some way of deciding who is operational and who is not, I am told that it will be a very simple tick box type of exercise. What is your information on that?

Mr Warrington replied:

Thanks for the opportunity, because this has been one of the two emotive issues that are out there and there has been a lot of information. CFA has — and your information is right; I am not disputing anyone's data. I think we are all in the ballpark there; I do not want you to think we are disputing that. I would have said 58 if you were to ask me, off the top of my head, thousand volunteers. Probably half of those are operational and half of those provide support roles and do other activities. If you are a career firefighter, you are employed to go and fight fires. I think it is a fair assumption that if you are employed to fight fires, then you can access the presumptive legislation. If you are one of the 60 000 or 58 000 — whatever — volunteers, you have to demonstrate that you are an operational. Presumptive rights do not apply if you were not operational.

You do need to get through the gate to show that you are an operational firefighter, volunteer in this case. Once you get through that gate your starting point is exactly the same for career staff and volunteers, but you do need to demonstrate how that happens in a practical sense. It talks about a panel. You will probably have a better understanding of that than me, but the way it is explained to me is: demonstrate you are an operational volunteer and you will be treated exactly the same as a career firefighter.

This will be an issue that obviously will be discussed during the committee of the whole, and I do have a number of questions to go over in that space.

The last person I wish to quote is Mr Craig Lapsley. Mr Lapsley is obviously someone that is known to many people in the community as having had, again, very senior roles in emergency management for quite a long time. I have dealt with him over many years. Mr Lapsley also gave a lot of evidence that was very similar to Mr Warrington's about the need for reform, that he had been in the services for a number of years and that he did not feel that we could just continue with the status quo that we have at the moment. I will start off with a comment that Mr O'Sullivan made to Mr Lapsley. He said to Mr Lapsley:

We have got a problem. This committee has got a problem. Everyone in this room has got a problem. Everyone in this state has got a problem. We have had Jack Rush sit there no more than an hour ago and absolutely with conviction contradict everything that you have just said. The next problem is you have come in here and made your case and contradicted everything he has said. In my view you are the two most credible witnesses this committee has had.

Mr Lapsley responded:

I do not know what Mr Rush has said today. What I will give you about my conviction is that I have experienced it face to face, hand to hand and right now. I do not think I need to say anything more. That is not questioning Mr Rush at all. It is simply saying that I am in there. I deal with it every day. I have the letters over my desk. I have the emails. I have the face to face. I have seen the people. I have had a group officer in the outer metropolitan not so long ago walk up and say, 'Craig, fix it …

and that is what he intended to do. I think that was a very telling conversation because it was quite clear that what Mr Lapsley was saying to us was that the people we should be taking notice of are the people who actually have the experience in the field.

One of the issues that came up towards the end of the inquiry was the issue of response times. If we look at the report of the select committee and go to pages 56 and 57, the issue about response times has been very clearly laid out for us, and this is CFA data. Nobody else's data are set for the CFA. They have made it quite clear in this data that there are serious problems in some areas in terms of response times. These issues have to be faced. We cannot continue to believe that all CFA brigades are able to respond in the way they need to. This is no reflection on the volunteers. We met so many volunteers during the inquiry who talked about the service that they gave to their community, but they also talked to us about how they were finding it harder and harder to respond because they do not work in the towns where they live anymore. In some country towns and in some large regional towns where it used to take 5 minutes to get to the fire station it would now take 20 minutes. Clearly there is a problem with response times, so we either look at the real issues or we just continue with the politics.

I will talk a little bit about presumptive rights. I have already done that a bit with the comments from Mr Warrington, but the issue about presumptive rights to me is extremely important, because people in this house would know that I put forward a private members bill during the time of the last government which the government rejected; they refused to bring in their own bill and also actively said that there was not the science and that firefighters were not ones who would be affected by this — even to the degree that former emergency services minister Mr Wells at one stage said that there was no science to back the need for presumptive legislation. Four days before the last election, suddenly the Liberal-Nationals government decided that they did support presumptive legislation.

Mr O'Donohue — Before the election.

Ms HARTLAND — That is right, four days before the election, when they had had four years to bring in a bill. They decided that they did agree with it and they claimed that they would do it if they were re-elected.

After the election, when they were in opposition, they started what I believe was a very disingenuous campaign to suddenly say that they supported presumptive legislation when in the four years of their government they had done almost nothing and actively worked against that legislation. I am glad to see that presumptive rights are in this bill. I wish that it had been brought on quite some time ago and that we had dealt with it at least a year ago. But it is here and we need to deal with it, because firefighters are at risk. They need this protection.

We as MPs at some stage actually have to put away the pointscoring on this issue. All right, the consultation before the bill was released was poor. Nobody is going to deny that, especially not me. We need to put at the front of our minds whether this reform is needed. For me, the select committee proved that this reform is needed. We must look at the response times and start to think about community safety. We also need to think about the safety of firefighters, both career and volunteer, who every day put their lives on the line for us.

I have gone through the amendments and I do believe the government has taken seriously the issues that came up during the select committee inquiry. I think the amendments that we have before us are actually things that should have been in the bill right from the very beginning, but I will give the government credit in saying that clearly it has listened to what was raised in the select committee, it has listened to people and it has fleshed out a number of issues, especially around secondments. I will be asking a whole range of questions during the committee of the whole.

I just want to finish by saying how much I respect firefighters, both career and volunteer, because they are always the ones who are running into your house as you are running out of it. They are there. They put their lives on the line every day for us and I think as MPs we have an absolute responsibility to protect them and to stop the political pointscoring.