Volunteers fear a State Government foreshadowed takeover of local brigades is a done deal.
The Times has sought to clarify what response was received by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services from councils across WA to a report outlining a proposed bureaucratic takeover of volunteer bushfire brigades, but DFES media said no details would available in the immediate future.
Legislation is before the WA Parliament to give councils the ability to hand over control of volunteer bushfire brigades to DFES, which some rank-and-file members believe will mirror the local government reform process in Perth and become mandatory.
Volunteers who asked not to be named said they welcomed the recognition and additional equipment provided by the WA Government in the wake of the 2011 bushfires, after which big areas of the Capes became gazetted fire districts under DFES control.
However, the additional workload and bureaucracy involved in operating as dual use brigades left some members feeling burnt because they were at risk of becoming de facto Government employees.
Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades vice president David Gossage said the decision would ultimately come down to whether Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis backed DFES in the takeover, which was handled badly, without consultation, within a very short timeframe, and excluded volunteers’ representative body.
“We are extremely disappointed with how they did it and we were concerned it would create dissent and that’s what they’ve done,” he told the Times.
“They’re only interested in centralised control and not brigades and the community.”
Shire chief bushfire control officer Rob Bootsma said the process was likely to become mandatory, but the timing of the move wasn’t known.
Mr Bootsma said despite the increased pressures, brigades remained voluntary.
Although individual members were committed to the community – and he believed some older members would quit if the forced merger occurred – volunteers could choose how and when they took DFES directives.
Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis said he didn’t believe fire Commissioner Wayne Gregson wanted the headache of overseeing 30,000 volunteers.
However, he believed some councils would jump at the chance.
“There is an argument for some brigades. The priority is getting value for money for some ratepayers,” Mr Francis said.
“I don’t really care who has control of them as long as the ratepayer gets maximum value for money.”
Shire chief executive Gary Evershed said feedback showed most volunteers wished to remain under the Shire’s co-ordination and he feared volunteer numbers could drop if they were forced into a merger with DFES.
“From a financial viewpoint we would be better off as we provide 50per cent of the funding for a co-ordinator’s position and management wages above that,” he said.
“Also, it would eliminate any risk of legal action in the unlikely case that any bushfire burns got out of control, but the brigades are very professionally run and I see this as a very low risk.”
Shire president Ray Colyer said the “overwhelming feedback” was volunteers preferred the existing arrangement and he questioned whether DFES really wanted to create a backlash by forcing brigades into the new arrangements.