The O’Farrell Government’s June Budget imposed across-the-board cuts to the public sector wages bill by 1.2%, with Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) being hit with a larger cut amounting to 1.75% – higher even than many clerical agencies.
FRNSW have confirmed that firefighters are not ‘frontline’ staff and FRNSW will have to make these cuts, despite Government announcements that ‘frontline’ staff will not be affected. In the case of FRNSW, O’Farrell requires employee-related expenses to be slashed by $7.6M in 2012/13, and by a cumulative $64M over the coming four year.
Budget cuts have a disproportionate effect on emergency services. Firefighting, like policing and ambulance services, is labour-intensive. The majority of FRNSW’s budget goes on firefighter wages. While the O’Farrell Government has said each agency can decide how it slashes its budget, there’s very little to cut apart from firefighter wages, conditions or positions.
FRNSW management’s proposed response is to temporarily close permanent stations whenever a firefighter is absent in order to reduce overtime expenditure. Whilst this will save FRNSW money, it does so at the expense of the safety of the community, and of the firefighters that serve them.
The budget cuts are such that even a 100% reduction in overtime expenditure (an impossible goal for an emergency service) would not meet the full savings demanded, and the radical measures now being proposed by FRNSW will not be enough to meet the required savings by year three, let alone year four, of the four-year period imposed by O’Farrell. It is difficult to see how firefighter job cuts can be avoided by 2014/15 without the funding situation (or the Government) changing.
The Government has already tried to blame these budget cuts on firefighters, claiming that firefighter sick leave is behind the closures. This is not the case. An overnight 50% reduction in firefighters’ sick leave would save only $4M per annum, still $21M short of the required $25M per annum savings.
A much higher proportion of overtime caused over the last financial year was caused by staff shortages which are of course completely beyond the control of the workforce or the Union.
The fact is that insufficient relieving staff to cover leave other than sick leave led to almost one quarter of all overtime worked and the continued shortage of retained staff was responsible for over one-fifth of the remaining overtime worked this last year.
The answer to both problems is to employ more firefighters, yet the Government’s response is to cut funding and, by extension, existing jobs, thereby placing even more strain on the system. The Government’s approach is making a bad situation worse.
Who voted for job cuts? Who voted for station closures? Who voted to wait longer for help when you need it?