PETER FLINN. The brave new world of fire services in Victoria: is it go or woe?

Sep 19, 2017

The Country Fire Authority (CFA)in Victoria has long been recognised as one of the world’s leading volunteer fire-fighting organisations, but its boundaries with Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB),which  comprises career fire-fighters, have not changed since 1945.

Melbourne’s huge population expansion means that CFA volunteers now routinely operate in suburbia as well as in rural areas and country towns.  A long-simmering dispute over an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement between the militant United Firefighters Union (UFU) and the CFA rapidly escalated when the Andrews Government sacked the CFA Board.  This in turn led to several high profile resignations, including a Government Minister. In April, the Andrews Government suddenly introduced legislation to Parliament to restructure Victoria’s fire services, resulting in a bitter power struggle involving the CFA, MFB, UFU, Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) and politicians.  The legislation is currently deadlocked in the Legislative Council.

The currently fraught situation enveloping the fire services in Victoria is almost like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Earlier this year, the rumour mill suggested that a secret plan was being hatched to divide Victoria’s fire services into volunteer and career streams.

Sure enough, in April, the Andrews Government did indeed bite the bullet and introduce legislation to this effect.  The reaction from various quarters was predictable, and what was a festering sore is now, unfortunately, an open wound.  The Government did not have the numbers in the Upper House, so the legislation was referred to a Parliamentary Committee.  Following extensive submissions to and deliberations by the Committee, the legislation is at a stalemate, with debate still underway in the Legislative Council.

It seems to me that political bloody-mindedness on all sides has coalesced to produce a quagmire of gigantic proportions.  The Government, desperate to solve the long-running EBA dispute, and kow-tow to its UFU supporters, recklessly slapped the legislation on the table without consulting volunteers – or, apparently, even the Emergency Services Commissioner.  Amazingly, they bundled the plan in with the “presumptive rights” legislation, an entirely separate issue.  In effect they said “Well, folks, here is the package – take it or leave it”.  How to win friends and influence people – not!

On the other hand, the Opposition, with the tacit support of the VFBV, is keen to batter a Government already unpopular with many rural voters, and is worried about marginal seats around the edge of Greater Melbourne.  It smelt blood.  “Throw the legislation out” was its cry.

And what about Commissioner Lapsley?  Poor Craig, I feel sorry for him.  I have known him since the 1980s, when he was a young and energetic assistant CFA officer in western Victoria.  Clearly he has caught the Spring Street disease, and must find it very uncomfortable being, metaphorically, astride a barbed wire fence.  Long on record of being in favour of one humungous fire service, he now has to support the opposite model.  The unwise and out-of-character remarks he made to the Parliamentary Committee, saying that Victoria’s fire services were “the worst in Australia”, clearly show that he is a man under enormous pressure.

I believe the proposed plan to restructure Victoria’s fire services is like the curate’s egg – good in parts.  I remain firmly convinced that the current boundaries between CFA and MFB brigades are ridiculous and ignore reality.  What was appropriate in 1945 is not today, given Melbourne’s population explosion.  Those who push for the status quo to be maintained really do have their heads in the sand.

The problem is not always only what is done, but also how it is done.  The way the Government has handled this delicate issue is clumsy, to say the least.

Also, no-one has ever suggested it would be easy.  There are different priorities, indeed cultures, not only between the CFA and MFB, but also within the CFA.  As usual, most of the focus in this diabolical mess is around Greater Melbourne.  I would suggest that many rural brigades would be delighted for the CFA to return to its roots and focus totally on providing a “country” fire service, with a correspondingly smaller, more supportive and less bureaucratic organisational wing – like we used to have.  Few tears would be shed in rural Victoria over a management “divorce” from brigades in Greater Melbourne, which face totally different challenges.

Of course there are several caveats here.  A major one is finance and the Fire Services Levy (FSL).  It must be remembered that in rural areas, farmers shoulder a large part of the FSL burden as well as fighting fires themselves as brigade members.  If the boundaries change, the CFA must retain its fair share of funding, to maintain and improve its equipment and buildings.  Any move to increase the FSL, with the proceeds being used to accede to UFU demands in Melbourne, would meet with a vigorous response.

The rather bizarre proposal to move all CFA officers to Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV) – a new body comprising all MFB and CFA career fire-fighters – and then contract them back, also needs reviewing.  At the very least, volunteers deserve a detailed explanation on how it is supposed to work in practice.  No-one knows as yet.

The vexed issue of “surge capacity”, a vague piece of jargon if ever I heard one, also merits a rational discussion.  I may be missing something, but in a major emergency, such as Black Saturday, I fail to see how a realistic administrative change in CFA-MFB boundaries would impact negatively on a concentrated effort by ALL fire-fighters, regardless of uniform, equipment and location, to throw everything at the red steer, wherever it strikes, as needed.  It has always happened before – just read Henry Lawson’s classic poem “The Fire at Ross’s Farm”, in which sworn enemies end up working together to defeat a common foe.  Let’s face it, fire respects no-one, and no boundaries.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a bit of give and take in the current fiasco, and a focus on community needs instead of political games?

There is an apocryphal story about Queen Alexandra, the widow of Edward VII, mother of George V and aunt of both Tsar Nicholas of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, at the time of the inevitable descent into the horrors of World War I.  She is supposed to have said words to the effect that “If only I could get George, Nicky and Willy together in one room and tell them to stop this stupid war!”

If only, indeed.  Would that a modern incarnation of Alexandra could gather together Andrews, Merlino, Guy, Battin, Ford and Marshall in one room and lock them in until a solution is found to the problems of Victoria’s fire services which is fair to all parties.

In the meantime, whatever happens, I confidently predict that volunteers will continue to turn out quickly to every fire, do their best to put it out, and go home, as they have always done.

Peter Flinn is a Life Member of Dunkeld Rural Fire Brigade in western Victoria.  He recently retired as Brigade Secretary after 44 years, and also was Communications Officer for the Serra Group of Brigades for 25 years.

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