General members’ update

May 9, 2002

Issues in this notice:

1. All New/Extra Duties Banned
2. SRAFS – Staffing Dispute
3. D&D Update
4. Safe Minimum Staffing = 4
5. New Retained Timesheets
6. Bushfire Inquiry a Joke

1. Reminder – All New/Extra Duties Banned

Members are reminded of the standing Union instruction that all new and/or extra duties – no matter how small – remain banned, and no member is to participate in such work until such time as your Union has reached formal agreement with the employer to do so. Don’t trust senior management when they tell you (as they all too often do) that “the Union has agreed to this” – if in doubt, check with us first.

The Union ban on the “Community Activity Reporting Service” (or “CARS”, see In Orders 2001/26) dated 21 December 2001 remains in place, as does our ban on the entering of all other recently introduced systems such as members’ training records, etc. Basically, the only information other than standard reports and GroupWise postings that members should complete on your Station’s computer are AIRS entries.

Of course, the same ban applies to any and all new paperwork, and indeed any new work routines or other duties. One exception, being an issue on which agreement was reached with the Department, is the (paper) Pre-Incident Planning pro-forma. Being little more than an updated Brigade Exercise form, this was accepted by your Union as part of the last wage negotiations in 2000. We have also previously agreed to the recording by members (again, in paper format only) of their Station’s FireEd activities, but only on the understanding that there are no minimum work quotas.

Firefighters are presently paid for the roles and responsibilities we performed at the beginning of 2000 – no more and no less. It must be understood that our next round of wage negotiations are now only 18 months away, and each and every extra form, work routine or piece of equipment the Department wants is your next wage rise.

2. State Rail Fire Service – Staffing Dispute

Back on 9/6/00 we reported under the heading “State Rail Authority Fire Service – Back from the Dead”, that:

“Last November [1999] the SRA Fire Service, a small group of rail firefighters employed by the SRA and based in Redfern, was closed down without warning. The SRA firefighters responded in support of the NSWFB to major rail incidents, and to all calls on the city underground rail system. Railways are dangerous areas at the best of times, and the SRA firefighters had intricate knowledge of track safety, rail signals, tunnel networks, rail fire systems, etc. It follows that when the SRA axed its firefighters, they also stripped our members of an important support service, placing NSWFB firefighters at further risk along with the commuting public. Our Union therefore demanded – under threat of industrial action – that the Government agree by today to the immediate return of the SRA firefighters.

There’s still some detail for us to negotiate, but the 10 former SRA firefighters have now all got their jobs back. They’ve also joined the FBEU. Stay United!”

Since that time we’ve battled against both the SRA and the rail industry unions for the right to strike an FBEU Award for our SRA firefighter members – an issue which remains before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission at the time of writing. However, this has not the only issue of concern for our SRAFS members.

With only 10 staff available, our SRAFS members have needed to work inordinate amounts of overtime over the last two years in order to maintain their required minimum of 2 firefighters per Platoon on 10/14. Our members’ frustration with management’s failure to engage more firefighting staff has reached the point where they have resolved to ban the working of overtime if extra staff are not employed immediately. Once this ban commences, SRAFS members will be forced to “go off-line” on a regular basis.

Of course, if the SRAFS is off line then so too will the NSWFB be when it comes to any call within the underground rail system. It follows that if our staffing demands are not met, and our SRAFS members are forced to commence their overtime bans, then NSWFB members will be instructed (and indeed obliged out of OH&S considerations) to refuse to respond to the underground rail network for every shift that the SRAFS is without minimum staffing. Members can expect to hear more on this issue shortly.

 3. D&D Dispute Update

With the arbitration hearings now less than three weeks away, we thought members would be interested in the some of the data thrown up in the evidence filed to date:
Permanent Firefighters – Membership of Super annuation Schemes

SSS : as at 30/6/98 = 1530 (54%) – as at 31/12/01 = 1290 (42%)
SASS : as at 30/6/98 = 672 (23%) – as at 31/12/01 = 679 (22%)
FSS : as at 30/6/98 = 665 (23%) – as at 31/12/01 = 1085 (36%)

Permanent Firefighters – Ages within the Super annuation Schemes

The average age of all permanent members increased from 40 to 42 in the last 5 years.
SSS members have an average age of 50. Half of the current SSS members will have left the Brigades in approximately 10 years.
SASS members are concentrated in the 35-45 years group, with an average age of 39.
The vast majority of FSS members are under age 40, with an average age of 34.

Permanent Firefighters – Medical retirements 1980-2002

There was an average of 13 medical retirements per anum over the 15 year period 1980-1994. However, this figure had doubled to 26 by 1997 (the year the D&D Dispute commenced) and rose steadily to 29 in 1999, 46 in 2000 and 68 in 2001. The trend is ever-upward – the figure for (the yet to be finished) 2002 has already topped 60.

Permanent Firefighters – Exit Data

According to the Government’s evidence, there were 353 exits of permanent members from the Brigades in the 4.5 year period 30 June 1997 to 1 December 2001. Of these, 48 were due to resignations, 111 were standard retirements, 15 were deaths, 6 were terminations, and 173 – or almost 50% – were medical retirements.

Safe Minimum Staffing = 4

There appears to be some confusion (fuelled by senior FB management) as to the meaning of In Orders 1995/20 and the requirement to staff NSWFB pumping appliances with a safe minimum crew of 4.

1995/20 provides that retained pumpers may respond with a minimum crew of 2, provided that it is known that there are at least another 2 retained members available to follow on with thatappliance. However, numerous Zone Commanders have recently adopted the view that the requirement for a minimum of 4 firefighters is not for each appliance, but rather for each incident. In other words, they’re saying that it’s now OK to respond 2 pumpers knowing that there will be only 2 firefighters on each pump, because combined they will then be able to make a safe minimum crew of four. This is simply not correct, nor has it been agreed to.

The Union’s position on this matter is clear – there must be at least 4 firefighters available at all times to staff each pumping appliance (not each incident). If there is not, then that appliance must be grounded until such time as sufficient permanent firefighters have been brought in on recall, or sufficient retained firefighters from another station have been brought in on stand-by. Our safe minimum crewing standards are essential to our members’ safety, as well as that of the community, and all members are expected to ensure that they continue to be strictly enforced.

 New Retained Timesheets

The Union and Department have cooperated in the development of a new retained timesheet, which following a successful trial is now being distributed to all stations with retained members attached. These new timesheets have been designed to eliminate the need for Miscellaneous Vouchers, as well as allowing our retained members to claim recent Award improvements such as stand-by rates and overtime.

Unfortunately, however, the final timesheets circulated to stations are not the same as those agreed upon by the Union – the previous successive half hour column having been replaced with minutes, or actual time worked. We do not believe that this was by mistake. The Award requires that the Department must continue to pay to the half hour minimum, and members are therefore instructed to claim in 30 minute blocks – ie, do not show the actual minutes in each part-hour worked.

Bushfire Inquiry a Joke

The latest Parliamentary Inquiry into NSW fire services is shaping up to be an even bigger joke than its predecessors – and that’s saying something. Your Union again made a submission, as we did in 1994 and 2000, and we have again been snubbed – the Inquiry’s Chair, Labor MP John Price refusing to call the FBEU to give evidence.

But we are not alone in our criticism of this latest self-congratulatory farce. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine today devoted an entire article on the subject under the headline “All the signs of a smokescreen”. That article is reproduced immediately below, and a copy of the FBEU submission to the Inquiry is available in pdf format by clicking here.

All the signs of a smokescreen

By Miranda Devine

Sydney Morning Herald
May 9 2002

The bushfire disaster inquiry seems intent on hearing only a limited range of views.

The parliamentary inquiry into the Christmas bushfire disaster is in danger of becoming a farce designed to exclude anyone with a view contrary to the Government’s. Submissions blaming inadequate hazard reduction by NSW authorities have been mislaid, committee members remain in the dark and major players in land management, such as State Forests, which advocates prescribed burning, have been ignored.

Meanwhile green groups, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Rural Fire Services chief, Phil Koperberg, have been free to run the same line they tried when the embers were still smouldering across the state: that systematically reducing ground fuel by prescribed burning – in other words, hazard reduction – would not have prevented the disaster.

”Hazard reduction is not the panacea,” Koperberg told the bushfire inquiry last week. ”In order to contain fires across a broad landscape to the point they were manageable under extreme fire conditions … you would have to hazard-reduce all of the landscape about every nine months.”

The same line has come from the NPWS, which has told the inquiry that in the past four years it had hazard-reduced a measly 22,000 hectares (or 1.4 per cent) of the 1.6 million it manages in south-eastern NSW.

Rather than being an investigation into how best to prevent another Christmas bushfire emergency, the inquiry is shaping up to continue the status quo.

One committee member said yesterday that until a forester called him to ask why he had not been asked to appear at the inquiry, he was not even aware that State Forests had submitted a detailed, thick, bound report setting out the scientific case for regular hazard reduction to minimise bushfire devastation. What’s more, he has had no say in who the committee has called as witnesses.

Common practice for such committees is that all members receive all submissions as they arrive, so they have time to read them and decide which witnesses should be called, said the member.

There seems to be an extraordinary level of secrecy in the way the seven-member bushfire committee, chaired by Labor MP John Price and due to deliver its report by June 28, has been operating.

For instance, transcripts which you would expect to be posted on the Internet within a week, as happens with other parliamentary committees, have still not appeared, despite the fact the first meeting was on March 20, and the first of four public hearings was on April 22.

Committee manager Mervyn Sheather said yesterday the delay was due to the fact that witnesses had been given time to correct transcripts, and some had ”taken a bit longer”. The usual period given was 10 days, he said.

As well, members of the public who made submissions to the inquiry were sent letters warning they should not be ”publicly released or circulated without first seeking the committee’s consent”.

What can be said about the inquiry is that, apart from the NSW Farmers Association, prominent hazard reduction proponents have been conspicuous by their absence. For instance, the committee will not hear from CSIRO principal scientist Phil Cheney, one of Australia’s foremost bushfire experts, who has spent 40 years trying to convince people of the necessity of hazard reduction.

If ground fuel had been reduced in a systematic fashion in national parks, the Christmas fires would never have reached the scale and intensity they did, Cheney said at the time.

Why would you have an inquiry into bushfires and not call Cheney as a witness unless you didn’t want to hear what he had to say? And why, instead, would you call a green group, the Nature Conservation Council, to take pride of place as No1 witness on your precious 1 hearing days in Sydney last week, just to criticise hazard reduction as environmentally damaging?

Price said yesterday he did not expect a submission from Cheney and had not invited one, as federal organisations such as the CSIRO would not be expected to participate in state inquiries.

Despite the fact the RFS and the NPWS appeared on both hearing days last week, they would be called again on the final hearing day on May 31, he said. Price, alone among committee members, decided who to call as witnesses, with the help of the staff who were preparing the report, he said.

Another hazard-reduction proponent, upper house MP Malcolm Jones, also known as the Cassandra of Macquarie Street after he warned of the bushfire disaster seven months before it happened, has made a submission but despite his best efforts has not been invited to appear.

Jones, representing the Outdoor Recreation Party, said his submission was stapled to the back of another, by the Access for All group in Batemans Bay, and thus not given its own number. When he complained, he was told the stapling was ”an accident in the photocopy room”.

”I have been excluded,” he said. ”The Government is determined to keep me away from this committee. It will be as big a whitewash as they can do, real damage-control spin-doctor stuff. What is at stake is the whole philosophy of NPWS, which is biodiversity first and bugger the people.”

Kurt Lance, a life member of the Hawkesbury RFS with 34 years of service, said his submission about hazard reduction had also been ignored. He said the convoluted system of consultation with landowners and environmental impact reports required to carry out hazard reduction was unworkable.

The submission from the Kurrajong Heights bushfire brigade was hand-delivered to the inquiry and then went missing. It did not reappear until yesterday, after the brigade complained and produced a receipt.

And there are other long-term volunteers of the RFS who have objected to having to present their submissions to the RFS Rosehill headquarters ”so that a united front would be presented to the parliamentary committee”, said one.

Jones said the hazard-reduction facts speak for themselves: of the 2.8 million hectares it manages in NSW, State Forests hazard-reduced more than 100,000 hectares in the 12 months before the Christmas fires. Just 2000 hectares were lost to the flames. In contrast, the NPWS hazard-reduced just 19,000 hectares of the 5.3 million it manages and lost 750,000 to bushfire.

The irony is that the organisation the greens love to hate, State Forests, is the one which best preserved the flora and fauna under its care. The secret ingredient was commonsense, which at this stage has not been invited to the bushfire inquiry.