29 June 2020

Ninety-nine new firefighters in ACT after "historic" agreement

| Dominic Giannini
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ACT fire fighting vehicles

ACT fire fighting vehicles cross a line of pink fire retardant as they enter the village of Tharwa on the evening of 1 February 2020. Photo: ACT Emergency Services Agency.

Almost 15 months after firefighters took industrial action when they failed to reach a pay deal with the ACT Government, a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) has received almost unanimous support from union members.

Over the next four years under the agreement, ACT Fire and Rescue (ACTFR) will receive an extra 99 firefighters, 84 of whom will be on the frontline, including 36 in the coming financial year.

New equipment, training and wellbeing initiatives are also included in the new EBA, estimated by the ACT United Firefighters Union (ACT UFU) to cost around $45 million over the life of the EBA.

“Better trained firefighters, more fighters, and healthier firefighters equal a safer Canberra,” ACT UFU Secretary Greg McConville said.

The EBA will see the current force of 339 firefighters increase by 29 per cent to 438 by 2024.

Mr McConville said the agreement reached “Don Bradman-like statistics in EBA” after 99.4 per cent of members voted in favour of the new measures.

Firefighters had previously rejected a package in late 2018 that would have stripped away key conditions of employment in exchange for a 10 per cent pay rise, which the union said should have been invested in safety instead.

Greg McConville

ACT UFU Secretary Greg McConville has welcomed the “historic agreement” between the ESA and ACTFR. Photo: Supplied.

“It was a struggle at times. We went a very long time without an EBA, and our members took industrial action … but today marks a historic agreement,” Mr McConville said.

He added that the extra firefighters will help alleviate the unacceptable toll on firefighter’s physical and mental health that extended overtime only exacerbates and which results in high rates of PTSD among emergency services personnel.

“[The job] takes a deep personal toll on firefighters and many of them end up broken. We have members who are not able to return to work because of what they have endured in the course of their duties.

“[The EBA] will include the ability to undergo [mental health] screening with a practitioner of their choice and to be supported by peer support firefighters, organised by firefighters for firefighters.”

Firefighters will also be able to access medical practitioners of their choice to screen for common illnesses suffered in the line of duty, including 12 cancers that are “presumed” to have developed through their work.

“Presumption legislation is very good but we would prefer our members not avail themselves of that compensation,” Mr McConville said.

ACT fire truck

An ACT firefighting truck in March 2020, hounding the Government for a new EBA. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Fitness trainers will also be available for firefighters to help build resilience and resistance to injury and fatigue.

The increased focus on fitness and wellbeing follows a Canadian model that aims to lower workers compensation premiums.

Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan called the process collaborative and constructive.

“This is five years of work,” she said. “It is a very good day for us but we also have a lot of work ahead of us.

“The new enterprise agreement is focused on building a modernised fire service, meeting the needs of firefighters, revitalised allowance, skills and training incentives and staffing arrangements during the bushfire season.”

Plans are also underway to build new emergency services stations in the city and in Molonglo that will house ambulance and ACTFR staff.

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