Department Declares War On Retained Brigades
March 28, 2000
Most retained members would be aware that our Union has been negotiating with the Department and NSW Government for a new industrial Award for all retained firefighters over the last few months. The Union lodged a new Award application back in November last year and whilst negotiations have been slow, we were hoping that progress had been made to the point where we could put the newly negotiated Award to you, our members, for your vote. That was until yesterday when the Department wrote to us (a full copy of their letter follows immediately below).
The main thrust of the Department’s demands can be summarised as follows:
They are rejecting our revised claim for a 100% increase to the retainer, which we proposed as a compromise in lieu of our earlier claim for a 1000% increase in the retainer in recognition of the rescue accreditation held by over 1300 retained firefighters. Reading between the lines, the Department is saying that a retained rescue operator is not really up to standard – a position the Union rejects outright. They are also saying that your availability as a retained member, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is not worth the 10 cents an hour that we are claiming (they currently pay you only 5c/hr!).
They are now wanting to close an un-named number of so-called “redundant” retained fire stations and further, to force out potentially 100’s of retained firefighters who are currently attached to permanently staffed stations.
They also want to re-write In Order 1995/20 to remove the need to maintain minimum staffing on not only certain appliances such as water tankers, but even whole stations “which can be covered … by adjoining stations”. Of course they’re taking about nearly all retained Brigades on the Central Coast, Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong – and that would be just for starters. If they can close a station for a day then why not a week, a month – or even permanently?
And just as offensive is their demand to “clarify” response protocols at mixed retained/permanent stations. What they’re really saying here is that if permanent firefighters are available at either your station or another station nearby then you will not be called out unless it is a very major incident. But they say it isn’t just about saving money, it’s also to boost your morale!??!!
It was only 2 years ago that our Union revealed – and defeated – their plan to hand over all retained brigades in towns of less than 2500 people to the RFS. Now this. If they want to destroy the retained system then they should come out and say it. We will never agree: our Retained Brigades are not for sale. Stay tuned.
Retained Sub-Branch Secretary
28 March 2000
Correspondence: Department to Union
NEW SOUTH WALES FIRE BRIGADES
227 ELIZABETH STREET SYDNEY NSW 2000
PO Box A249 SYDNEY SOUTH 1232
27 March 2000
Dear Mr Read
Re: Negotiations for proposed successor award to the Crown Employees (NSW Fire Brigades Retained Firefighting Staff) Award 1997
I refer to the award application by the New South Wales Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (the FBEU) for a Crown Employees (NSW Fire Brigades Retained Firefighting Staff) Award 1999 [IRC Matter No. 7026 of 1999], and to the meeting held on 20 March 2000 between representatives of the NSW Fire Brigades (the Department) and the FBEU.
It may be recalled that the initial view of the parties was that, in accordance with customary practice, attention would be given to the award for Retained firefighters following the conclusion of negotiations over the award for Permanent firefighters. However, following events earlier this month, it was agreed that a meeting would take place between representatives of the Department and the FBEU and explicitly devoted to the FBEU’s award application for Retained firefighters, while negotiations continue for the Permanent firefighters. This was the meeting held on 20 March 2000.
The FBEU will also be aware that traditionally, any percentage increase awarded to the salaries and allowances of Permanent firefighters is ‘flowed on’ to the retainer and payments made to Retained firefighters. A continuation of this approach, i.e. to apply percentage increases to the Retained award with minimal cost offsets, had been proposed by Department representatives on a “Without Prejudice” basis to the FBEU during negotiations in January/February 2000.
Apart from the claim for increases to existing rates for actual attendance and for allowances the FBEU’s award application includes a claim for a 900% increase to the retainer (i.e. the current rates multiplied by 10). During the meeting on 20 March, this claim was modified to a 100% increase, incorporating and ‘absorbing’ the Department’s offer for a rescue allowance for Permanent firefighters. The methodology proposed by the FBEU, as understood by the Department, is to apply the Department’s Permanent firefighter rescue allowance offer of $8.00 per shift as the quantum, extend this to the total number of Retained rescue operators, and multiply this by the total number of shifts worker per annum by a Permanent firefighter. The resultant figure would be spread across and applied to all Retained firefighters by way of the increased retainer.
A 100% increase in the Retainer would add approximately 9% to Retained firefighters’ overall wages costs, in addition to any flow-on of increases granted to Permanent firefighters.
There are a number of difficulties with the FBEU’s approach:
* consistency with the Government’s fiscal and wages outcomes strategies;
* consistency with the Wage Fixation Principles;
* the majority of Retained firefighters registered as rescue operators by the State Rescue Board are attached to secondary accredited stations. The level of training required for secondary rescue operators is lower than that for primary operators. The Permanent firefighters’ allowance offer was predicated on the fact that most Permanent rescue operators are based at primary accredited units, and therefore took into account the higher level of training and skill; and
* very few Retained firefighters at rescue accredited stations would work 159 shifts per annum, as used in the FBEU’s calculations. Due to their part-time employment status, Retained firefighters generally only attend work for emergency calls and drills, for which they are paid.
There may be persuasive grounds for absorbing some payment rescue accreditation qualification in the Retainer, but further consideration needs to be given to the consequences of doing so. The parties need to jointly examine further the issues identified, to assist in resolving this matter.
The FBEU has also made a claim for a pay rate based on double time for a Permanent Qualified firefighter for all situations where a Retained firefighter “stands by”. The Department understands the FBEU’s position at stations where a Retained firefighter will temporarily replace a Permanent firefighter. However the suggestion that this also apply to stand bys at other retained brigades, or at a firefighter’s own station, for example during a day of extreme bushfire danger, is not accepted by the Department.
An additional consideration is the portion of the proposed pay increases – 6% that will not be funded by Treasury within the Government’s proposed wages outcome. In recognition of this component, together with any increase that may arise from movement in the retainer if this is greater than the percentage increase to Permanent firefighters, the Department seeks FBEU agreement to a number of cost offsets/productivity improvements as follows:
1. Closure of redundant Retained fire stations, and offering those affected Retained firefighters voluntary redundancy, consistent with current Government policy. The Department would only seek to apply this provision to situations where the Standard of Fire Cover shows that a station is excess to community needs, and resources can be better deployed in growth areas elsewhere. It would also apply to the Retained component at stations that are staffed by Permanent firefighters on the 10/14 roster, and where retained firefighters are also attached but do not operate an appliance.
2. Re-writing of In Order 1995/20 which relates to the maintenance of safe and effective staffing levels at fire stations. The Department is concerned at instances where the In Order has been cited as a reason to work overtime on secondary response vehicles such as water tankers, and at stations which can be covered within the Standard of Fire Cover by adjoining fire stations. As such it can be seen as an unnecessary cost driver under certain circumstances.
3. Clarification of response protocols at “mixed staff” fire stations. At present retained firefighters are automatically alerted to all calls regardless of the ability of the on-duty permanent crew to handle same, eg car and rubbish fires. This not only increases costs unnecessarily, but also erodes morale. The practice can also lead to a loss of overall retained firefighter availability when they perceive that it is rare that they are actually required, or when employers of Retained firefighters withdraw their support due to the high number of “nuisance” calls attended by the Retained crew.
4. Develop an agreed approach to the qualification of Retained firefighters on rescue monitor appliances at identified country locations, as agreed under a previous award.
5. Agreement to the introduction of e-form technology in a number of applications; eg AIRS forms and timesheets.
6. Introduction of station Unit Trainers for BA/hazmat, first aid, and cordage.
The Public Sector Management Office (PSMO) has been informed of the matters detailed above.
In relation to specific award issues, the following is provided as confirmation of, or expansion of matters discussed on 20 March.
The FBEU requested early advice as the claim for an increased retained based on the methodology proposed by the FBEU (permanent firefighter rescue allowance used on basis of total number of retained rescue operators, and total number of shifts worked per annum by a permanent firefighter).
The Department’s position is set out earlier in this letter.
The Department gave in-principle agreement to introduction of computers to all fire stations “by 2004”.
The Department seeks agreement to a number of commitments, to improve efficiency and in some cases reduce costs, that have also been detailed above. These commitments to be progressed by way of administrative action, or by inclusion in the proposed award, as appropriate.
Clauses 6.2.2 and 6.2.3
The Department sought changes to these sub-clauses to give effect to a previous award commitment that enabled qualification of Retained firefighters on rescue monitors. The FBEU believes that the current wording enables sufficient latitude for the parties to reach an agreed position on such issues.
The Department seeks agreement to a form of words that will restrict the practice of Retained firefighters (generally in metropolitan locations) booking on duty long after a call is received, then expecting payment.
The FBEU claim for a pay rate based on double time for a permanent Qualified Firefighter for all situations where a retained firefighter “stands by” is noted.
The Department understands the FBEU’s position at stations where a retained firefighter will temporarily replace a permanent firefighter. However the suggestion that this also apply to stand bys at other retained brigades, or at a firefighter’s own station, for example during a day of extreme bushfire danger, is not accepted.
This clause provides mechanism to calculate adjustments during the term of the award. The Department understood to analyse whether or not this provides any useful purposes, with a view to its possible removal.
The Department agrees to the requested inclusion of “Central Coast”, which should be identified under “Definitions” as “the Wyong and Gosford Fire Districts.”
The Department withdraws its request to include a form of words which makes it clear that the OIC has a responsibility to arrange provision of meals and refreshments in accordance with the award. Instead the parties agreed that this has always been the intent, and should be dealt with administratively by the Department through In Orders and Standing Orders.
The parties agree that this clause contemplates a mutual obligation between the employer and employee. Respectively these are to grant leave, and to take leave within a 12 month period.
The Union contends that there is no right for the Department to force employees who have or taken leave during the 12 month period to subsequently take it when directed by the employer. However the Department does have a right under both the Award and the Annual Leave Act to direct employees to take leave currently due (within the 12 months). The Department held that it would give effect to the right contained in this provision. The Department also informed the FBEU that it may initiate action to direct employees, following suitable notice, to proceed on leave accrued prior to the 12 month period.
The parties agreed to an amendment which will enable applicants for transfer to be placed on an eligibility list should there be no immediate vacancies at the desired station.
The Department acknowledged, in principle, the FBEU claim for 2 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) for every Retained firefighter. At present this is only the case at high activity stations. Cost is obviously a factor, though the Department concedes a remote possibility that a situation could arise where a Retained firefighter at a low activity station may be called to two incidents within a short time frame and not have clean, dry PPE available.
The FBEU agreed that due to high turnover of Retained firefighters, most retained stations have a stock of “spare” PPE. The FBEU indicated that it would agree to excess and second hand “outwear” (coat, over-trousers and helmet shell) being reallocated within or between stations to effectively achieve a second issue, in the short term. It was also indicated that a commitment to a second issue of PPE across the board during the term of the proposed 2 awards would be acceptable.
The Department seeks to change the differential attendance requirements between shift workers and day workers, and have a general requirement of 50%. The parties may need to examine this requirement in relation to high activity stations, particularly where there is a permanent staff component which should reduce the availability burden on Retained firefighters during business hours and other times.
This section requires re-wording to better communicate the FBEU’s expressed intent; i.e. that it covers the situation of retained brigades from nearby fire districts just outside the 50 km zone, which would return to stations rather than stay in the area. For example Blue Mountains and Central Coast stations assisting at the Sydney Hail Storm.
On this basis the Department withdrew its suggestion that this would be better dealt with by an appropriate accommodation allowance. The FBEU undertook to re-draft the sub-clause.
The Department notes the FBEU’s justification for a minimum of 16 hour payment in order to roughly align the cost of Retained firefighters with that of a Permanent firefighter.
The Department rejects this as an appropriate methodology upon which to base the clause. As has been shown during recent disasters and major emergencies (Thredbo, Sydney hailstorm), Retained firefighters are not sourced as a supply of “cheap labour” nor at the expense of Permanent firefighters.
The Department acknowledges that in the situations envisaged by the clause, firefighters would generally work 12-hour shifts. The shift changeovers may take up to an hour at both the start and finish. The Department is therefore prepared to agree to a minimum payment of 14 hours for the purposes of this sub-clause. Any time actually worked beyond the 14 hours will be paid as per the provisions of the draft clause.
The Department seeks greater precision with regard to the changes which may be sought by the Union in “leave reserved” clauses.
Representatives of the Department continue to be available at short notice to progress this matter. Please contact the Manager Employee Services, Leigh Bray on 9265 2951 in the first instance.
I D Mac Dougall AC AFSM
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