Bushfire Emergency, Part 2
January 5, 2002
Hopefully, members will have noticed that your Union’s officials have been pretty active on the media front over the last day or so. We can assure you that Phil Koperberg, Bob Debus and Bob Carr have all noticed, and that they’re none too happy about it! Mr Koperberg appears to have be so angered by our Union as to lower himself to making personal (yet feeble) attacks on yours truly. At the same time, Minister Debus hid behind feigned outrage (but answered nothing), and Bob Carr made the bizarre assertion that anything and everything we’ve said has somehow been motivated by a drive for Union membership. How or why this was meant to work wasn’t explained – which is probably good thing for the Premier given that he knew as well as we did that he was talking absolute rubbish.
This Union led the call for the introduction of specialised firefighting aircraft back on 28 December, we wrote to Debus on 30 December and we were again at the forefront of the call for further AirCranes when Mr Koperberg poured cold water on the Government’s offer to purchase up to four of them. Suffice it to say that Doubting Phil was forced to backpeddle early Thursday afternoon, as was the Government, after they’d been on the receiving end of a media monstering. Two more AirCranes are now suddenly on their way, with Phil modestly (but most unconvincingly) offering that “to be fair to the Premier, it was at my suggestion”!
FBEU (and the NSW public) 1 – Carr Government 0
The Union also went public this week over members’ concerns that over 1500 permanent firefighters were off-duty, or on annual/long service leave, yet they were not being recalled to duty. Of course at the same time the RFS was shipping in a never-ending stream of interstate firefighters to Sydney in order to “relieve exhausted NSW fire crews”.
The Government, the RFS and the NSWFB spent all day Thursday and the better part of Friday rejecting our claims about the lack of NSWFB recalls, but never quite managed to explain why. At any rate, and contrary to their public stance, the NSWFB, the RFS and the Government did all react to our call yesterday afternoon.
The NSWFB had run out of trucks, but still had plenty of off-duty professional firefighters available. The RFS on the other hand had plenty of trucks, but had run out of sufficient volunteer firefighters to staff them. The Union therefore yesterday reached a breakthrough agreement with the NSWFB and the RFS to allow for the recalling of 80 additional NSWFB professional firefighters to staff 40 RFS appliances. The crews will be mixed – 2 RFS, 2 NSWFB – and will operate by our agreement as per the GroupWise email posted yesterday by Assistant Commissioner Mullins. Rather than going over the same ground, we’ve lifted the appropriate sections of AC Mullins’ email and inserted them at the end of this notice.
It should be clearly understood that this is a one-way arrangement only. That is to say, we have agreed to our members staffing RFS appliances, but we have most certainly not agreed to any staffing of NSWFB appliances by RFS volunteers. The Government will have to employ more NSWFB firefighters before they ever contemplate doing that.
FBEU (and the NSW public) 2 – Carr Government 0
And our third contribution to the public debate this week has been to say what every professional and volunteer firefighter knows: immense problems remain with the two-service system. We have been at pains all week, however, to stress that our concerns about inter-service rivalry and friction have not been directed at the professional and volunteer firefighters on the ground (who have worked very well together indeed), but rather at the senior management and bureaucracies of both services. Speaking from first hand experience as a 5 year member of the Minister’s Fire Services Joint Standing Committee (where I share a seat at quarterly meetings with Commissioners MacDougall and Koperberg), it is abundantly clear that the turf war between the two services continues to rage. The fact is that the two services remain at odds over numerous boundary disputes, MAA’s and various station openings, and there’s very little (if any) sign of such disputes ever ending.
In short, we continue to believe – as we have for the last 30 years – that a single fire service is the answer. That it probably won’t happen shouldn’t stop us calling for much-needed reform. So to all members (and indeed to the many RFS volunteers who appear to visit our website), we wish to make it absolutely clear that our complaints are not directed against the RFS volunteer firefighters on the ground. Everyone, including this Union, has rightly acknowledged the invaluable effort of the 1000’s of volunteer firefighters throughout this protracted emergency. The fact that we are now responsible for the unprecedented step of mixed crewing on RFS appliances will hopefully be seen, as it was intended to be, as a demonstration of our members’ goodwill towards our volunteer counterparts. It should certainly go a long towards dispelling the myth continually peddled by Mr Koperberg and the Rosehill elite that the so-called ‘culture’ of volunteer and professional firefighters is so different that we simply can’t mix. Who knows, perhaps a single fire service may still prove to be achievable after all? At the very least, we continue to hope that something which has never occurred – ie, a serious joint examination of the single service option – might now as a consequence of these fires become a reality.
We opened the debate and Bob Carr has already (again) said no. Whilst this knee-jerk response from the Premier might be a setback, it’s still early days:
FBEU (and the NSW public) 2 – Carr Government 1
For all of our supposed agendas and plotting, the evil old FBEU’s contribution to date could not seriously be viewed as anything other than constructive. We led the call for additional specialised air support, and that support is now of course on its way. We blew the whistle on the lack of permanent recalls, and today there are now an additional 80 professional firefighters and 40 fire appliances committed to the emergency. That’s 40 fully staffed appliances which simply wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for this Union. And we’ve raised the single service question again, not (as the Government spuriously claims) in a push for more Union members, but simply in the hope that this option may at last be seriously examined.
The relevant section from AC Mullins’ memo re RFS appliance staffing follows, in italics, below:
“In discussions today between the Commissioner, RFS Commissioner, Union Secretary, and I, agreement has been reached to recall 80 people tomorrow to staff RFS tankers. There will be composite crews of an RFS driver and firefighter, plus two NSWFB firefighters.
The following guidelines will apply:
1. SAFETY: because BA will not be available, NSWFB crew members SHALL NOT engage in offensive (internal) structure fire attack
2. COMMAND: as per the MOU; ie strategies will be assigned by an Incident Management Team which will usually consist of both RFS and FB officers. Each crew or group of crews will determine the tactics to implement the strategies. The MOU provides that joint command will involve the senior RFS member and senior NSWFB member conferring, with the RFS member essentially being the Incident Controller, and the NSWFB officer essentially acting as Operations Officer (under ICS principles). In the event of concerns about safety by any of the crew members, the unit should desist from any particular activity forthwith and report the disagreement to senior personnel.
3. STAFFING: each crew will as far as possible comprise 2 NSWFB members one of whom should be at least of the rank of SF. ONLY PEOPLE WHO VOLUNTEER FOR THIS DUTY WILL BE USED [note: all award entitlements will, of course, remain – CR]. Preference will be given to firefighters from bushfire areas, and particularly former or current members of the RFS who are also FB members. Nobody will be compelled to participate in this exercise against their will.”
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday, January 5, 2002
Deal boosts brigade force after union complaint
The number of professional firefighters brought in from off duty to fight the bushfires is being increased after union complaints that they were underutilised due to a shortage of vehicles.
An additional 80 NSW Fire Brigades officers from Sydney will work on Rural Fire Service trucks for the first time in the crisis tomorrow. That move will allow the RFS to rest some of its tiring force and possibly reduce reliance on interstate firefighters.
The use of extra personnel was greed to yesterday by the Fire Brigades, the RFS Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, and the NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union.
It follows complaints by the Union leadership that more than 1000 members were available to fight the bushfires but were not being used because the brigade had run out of fire engines.
The NSW Fire Brigades director of state operations, Greg Mullins, said the agreement would bring to about 280 a day the number of professional firefighters brought in from off duty to fight the fires.
About 500 staff who were also rostered on were also involved each day. The total commitment had climbed past 1000 on the biggest days such as Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“We have made an agreement with Commissioner Koperberg,” Mr Mullins said. “He was having trouble with staffing [because] a lot of the volunteers are exhausted, of course. A lot of them are saying enough is enough or they need a rest or have a job they have to get back to.”
Mr Koperberg said morale remained high among the firefighting forces but admitted they were tiring. He said that to take any more professional firefighters would reduce the pool available for everyday fires in buildings, factories, shops and houses.
The Premier, Bob Carr, admitted yesterday that there had been some pressure from big businesses to get volunteer firefighters back to work but they should be able to accept the cost.
“We want the big employers who can easily carry the burden of volunteers staying in the front line to give their people time off to save property and to save lives,” he said.
The NSW Chamber of Commerce called for a “temporary holiday” from state taxes for businesses hurt by the bushfires – whether through losing staff to volunteer firefighting or because of fire damage.
“We could be facing a rash of business failures,” said the chamber’s chief executive, Margy Osmond.
The RFS and the NSW Fire Brigades said the decision to increase the number of professional firefighters showed the union’s claim of tensions between the leadership of the two services during the crisis was false.
Mr Carr reaffirmed the Government’s position that there was no need to merge the two services. He said the union’s secrtetary, Chris Read, was trying to boost membership numbers.
Sydney Morning Herald
Friday January 4, 2002
Tensions mar the fight, says union
About 1500 firefighters in Sydney could not be used because of a lack of vehicles, the NSW
Fire Brigade Employees Union complained yesterday.
The union also charged that there had been simmering tensions between the NSW Fire Brigades and the Rural Fire Service during the crisis and criticised the rural service’s chief, Phil Koperberg.
“The troops on the ground have worked pretty well together but there have been a number of areas where things haven’t worked seamlessly,” the union’s secretary, Chris Read, said.
“That clearly is a consequence of running two fire services in this state … when we would be far better with a single service with a single chain of command and uniformity of equipment and training.”
Mr Koperberg and the Emergency Services Minister, Bob Debus, last night dismissed the union’s claims of differences between the firefighting services as groundless and badly timed.
The NSW Fire Brigades have been recalling firefighters from leave and directing as much of their resources as possible at the bushfires since they began on Christmas Day.
Mr Read said the brigades’ management during the crisis had been good but a lack of firefighting vehicles had prevented the recall of more officers in Sydney who wanted to contribute.
“What is angering our members is that there is all this guff in the media about bringing in [volunteer] firefighters from interstate and New Zealand. We don’t need firefighters,’ he said.
“There are 1500 professional firefighters off duty in the suburbs of Sydney who are sitting idle and frustrated. But they have run out of fire engines.”
Mr Read said several strategies needed to be examined, including perhaps bringing in interstate equipment or even putting the brigade’s officers on the rural service’s trucks.
The NSW Fire Brigades Commissioner, Ian MacDougall, admitted all fire engines were already fighting the fires.
But even if more became available they could not be used because of the potential for fatigue among firefighters and the need to maintain adequate services across the state, he said.
Mr Read would not detail the disputes between the Fire Brigades and the rural service, but it is believed they relate in part to who should be in charge of particular districts where fires break out.
Mr Debus said reforms implemented since the 1994 bushfires had reduced tensions between the two services to a point where they hardly existed.
“He is wrong [and] I am quite shocked that he would choose to raise these things while the crisis is still going,” he said.
Mr Koperberg said all the agencies were getting along “remarkably well”.
“You have to realise that Chris Read is a very junior officer with the Fire Brigades,” he said.
“He hasn’t seen any active firefighting for I don’t know how many years. He doesn’t understand what we are about.”
He also rejected the union’s claim that he had been slow to bring in specialised firefighting aircraft, saying he had acted quickly to secure specialist water bombing helicopters from Victoria and overseas.