RFS expansion on the table while national firefighting strike force floated

Dominic Giannini 20 December 2019 61

Mick Gentleman says the ACTRFS has around 10 per cent of its force currently deployed in NSW to help contain the raging bushfires with staff being rotated daily. Photo ACTRFS.

The ACT will ask the Federal Government for more funding to tackle the current bushfire season as resources are set to be tested while NSW burns and fires worsen.

The ACT has always relied on a reciprocal agreement with NSW where each jurisdiction sends firefighters across the border in an emergency, but as fire seasons become more intense, it is not clear if either has the resources to spare.

The ACT had 248 people deployed near Braidwood towards the end of November, an ESA spokesperson told Region Media, with around 200 of them being on-ground firefighters. Large and single-engine air tankers were also deployed to drop water, gel and retardant.

If an emergency scenario were to unfold in the Territory and these resources are pulled, it is unclear how a further-stretched NSW force would be able to deploy support across the border as fires continuing to burn across NSW.

The ACTRFS has around 10 per cent of its force currently deployed in NSW to help contain the raging bushfires, with staff being rotated daily to ensure they are not too exhausted should a fire break out in the ACT.

While Minister for Police and Emergency Services Mick Gentleman says the ACT currently has the capacity to combat fires that may emerge, he would expect NSW to send support and resources should the ACT become overwhelmed.

“[Emergency Services Agency] Commissioner Georgeina Whelan has done a great job ensuring we can support our neighbours in NSW, but we have limited that support so we have 90 per cent [of our force] on the ground in the ACT for any incident that could occur,” he said.

“We hope that it is reciprocal, so if something occurs within the ACT then we would expect NSW would come and help us as well.”

A professional RFS may be something the Territory would need to consider if bushfire seasons continue to get worse and resources are stretched thin, Mr Gentleman said.

“I think [a professionalised force] is something that we may need to look at in the future,” he said. “We have seen the effects of climate change, the lessening of rainfall, and the extremely dry conditions we have in the ACT.

“Our bushfire season is getting longer, it is taking much more organisation to ensure that we can do prescribed burns. We have to look at other innovative ways to address the fuel loads in our areas like strategic grazing and strategic slashing as well.”

There are currently 420 active members in the service with hundreds on a waiting list, according to ACT RFS Acting Chief Officer Rohan Scott; however, a recruitment drive to increase numbers will not be looked at until next year.

“We have a lot of inquiries to join the service and that is something we will look at after the season, to run a recruitment process in the new year and have them ready for the following season,” he said.

“I do not have an accurate number [of volunteers waiting to join] but it is definitely in the hundreds. We are getting phone calls regularly. It depends on how much fire activity is happening up north, or over to the east of us, it tends to generate a higher number of inquiries to join the service.”

Braidwood fires

Braidwood resident Jarrah Knowles captured this image of the bushfires near Braidwood this week. Photo: Jarrah Knowles.

Mr Gentleman says calling in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is not off the table should these resources wane, while extra funds from the Federal Government will also be needed to help ease pressures on the budget.

“We understand that there are some capabilities available through our Defence Force, so if necessary we will definitely be calling on them,” he said. “We have seen support from the Commonwealth, particularly through our aerial firefighting resources, and we are pleased to see that.

“It would draw on the budget of course, so at our next Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Services I have no doubt that when we meet we will be asking for more resources from the Commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week dismissed the idea of paying volunteer firefighters saying RFS volunteers want to be out in the field fighting fires and protecting their communities.

Former ESA Commissioner Peter Dunn agrees with this sentiment, saying that RFS members he spoke to would be insulted at the idea of being paid as it would go against the ethos of the volunteer-run brigade.

However, other strategies need to be put in place to help support the people who are leaving their businesses and communities for longer periods of time to fight these fires, he told Region Media.

ACT RFS volunteer

ACT RFS needs to be supported while they are volunteering away from home former ESA Commissioner Dunn says. Photo: ACT ESA

“These guys are the quintessential example of volunteering spirit. We need to ask what we can do to back them up,” he said.

“Something needs to be done about providing the opportunities and funds for people who leave farms and small businesses, perhaps a fund to employ casuals to come in behind them and keep their businesses running.

“People will have to stop volunteering soon because they have to go look after the cattle on their property – the fires will start to go for so long that they can directly impact the ability of people to survive financially.”

While former Commissioner Dunn says no position has been crystallised, a conversation needs to be had about resources and potentially setting up a national rapid strike force to compliment the state’s volunteer contingents.

“There needs to be a national discussion about whether we need something like a flying squad or strike force that is built up nationally so we can overkill a fire as soon as it starts – hit it so hard it does not have a chance to expand,” he said.

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61 Responses to RFS expansion on the table while national firefighting strike force floated
Mary Beveridge Mary Beveridge 1:58 am 28 Dec 19

Agreed..I have heard this idea mentioned just recently..great idea

rationalobserver rationalobserver 9:50 am 26 Dec 19

Paying someone a salary does not guarantee you get a more competent service.

I mean, we pay our politicians don’t we?

Mick Harvey Mick Harvey 11:17 am 25 Dec 19

Funny how they want professional trained people but they don’t look at what they already have gotten.it takes more than what they can get

Trevor Watson Trevor Watson 10:20 am 25 Dec 19

This is the start of the pork barreling from Mr Gentleman. Don't get your hopes up....

Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 7:07 am 24 Dec 19

Surely this is the sort of issue that should be referred to the Productivity Commission

Peter Dwyer Peter Dwyer 9:00 pm 23 Dec 19

Good on you Mick definitely need a professional RFS


Fritz Finemaster Fritz Finemaster 8:16 pm 23 Dec 19

We need a retained and volunteer National fire service, same gear same trucks, Australia wide.Each brigade could have according to brigade numbers a certain percentage of retained firefighters.They could up skill and train the volunteers.When only out on major campaign fires all could be paid an allowance only if they choose to receive it.Lets get rid of the State based system and become a UNITED AUSTRALIAN FIRE SERVICE. 😎

Peter Mcleod Peter Mcleod 5:58 pm 23 Dec 19

We had one, city parks had tankers and trained firefighters but as with govts let it wither on the vine, they knew the ACT area better than most.

Des Jeremic Des Jeremic 5:45 pm 23 Dec 19

A paid ACT RFS is workable.

In non fire hazard seasons, they could be assigned to all Ranger depots , to do controlled burns , etc . This would justify them being paid, and utilised all year round.

Suj Estelle McKinnon Suj Estelle McKinnon 2:53 pm 23 Dec 19

Treat the volunteers better and provide them with better funding and equipment. Its time to move past the 'volunteers' title and give them proper recognition as firefighters. They are doing the same job, why treat them differently.

Ean Newell Ean Newell 11:54 am 23 Dec 19

This is how volunteers were paid and rewarded for their voluntary efforts

Angus McDonald Angus McDonald 10:53 am 23 Dec 19

Alistair disappointing comments made by the Minister about professionalising the Service to cope with increased fire risk in the future - on my reading, the Minister is implying he does not think volunteers will be able to handle things. He also overlooks the availability of paid firefighters with Parks Brigade and Fire & Rescue.

Perhaps most disappointing are the things currently within the Minister’s power to improve fire response for the Service. For example, two of our brigade trucks are past replacement age (a heavy tanker is now 17 years old and command vehicle is now 12 years old - historically these appliance types were replaced at 15 and 10 years respectively) and we’ve been told no new appliances for at least 2 years due to “budget constraints”. What does this mean for firefighter safety, fire appliance effectiveness, maintenance costs, environmental pollution from ageing vehicles, etc?

The saga with improved breathing masks continued. The ACT Government has a report dated August 2006 that says P2 masks don’t stop all the bad stuff in bushfire smoke - what has the Government been doing for the last 13 years since the report’s publication? Details on the breathing mask trial currently being run by the ACT Government, which began sometime between August and November this year, are vague. For example, it is unclear when the trial will finish, how a “good mask” will be assessed, how long masks will take to be rolled out across the service, whether funds are available, whether independent chemists and occupational hygienists are being consulted, etc. One of our firefighters returned from the Braidwood fire, experienced respiratory issues and saw their doctor - the doctor ordered them not to return to the fireground for several days due to smoke inhalation (and they were wearing the P2 mask). So not only did our firefighter experience a medical situation, but the ACT was not able to have that firefighter available to protect the community. How much more dangerous smoke do volunteers need to inhale?

Training remains problematic. For example, I understand the most recent basic firefighter course, which is the entry level course for rural firefighter, ended up being stretched over 4 months to get all the sessions completed. I believe the NSW RFS can complete a course in 2-3 days.

Facilities are also challenging. For example, we recently had change rooms installed in our shed (which is great). However, as one of our firefighters pointed out, with the showers/toilets on the other side of the shed to the change rooms, for her to shower before getting changed she would have to do a nude streak through the shed. We’re a close-knit brigade, but that might be a bridge too far.

Also of concern, I understand the ACT RFS Chief Officer has been absent for the last 4-5 weeks attending a leadership course and on leave. I do not begrudge professional development opportunities or taking leave, but I believe the timing of the absence is of concern - as surrounding NSW is burning and the ACT is preparing as best it can for this bushfire season, is it a sensible time for the Chief Officer to be away for that long?

    Rob Gore Rob Gore 9:00 am 24 Dec 19

    Well said. Just need the Minister to also appreciate that the volunteers are professional in what they do. They may be unpaid (which is fine), but they are professional.

    Phillip Scharf Phillip Scharf 8:15 am 26 Dec 19

    Angus McDonald great take on the situation

Ed Haywood Ed Haywood 10:04 am 23 Dec 19

Why have they NOT called in the Army?

Sue Handbury Sue Handbury 9:08 am 23 Dec 19

The governments should pay for all equipment that local brigades need like they do for DWELP and theMFB, so brigades don’t have to raise funds,chopping wood sausage sizzles and the like,to get what they need ,the CFA supplies the basics only

Ric Hingee Ric Hingee 9:24 pm 22 Dec 19

Get ready for another regressive levy on your rate notice or registration renewal. That is the way this ACT Government works.

Andrew O'Reilly Andrew O'Reilly 9:22 pm 22 Dec 19

There should be a similar model for the RFS and SES as the amry reserves with regards to how they are paid etc.

Brian Hogan Brian Hogan 9:01 pm 22 Dec 19

More likely, they need a professional minister !!

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:54 pm 22 Dec 19

“Former ESA Commissioner Peter Dunn agrees with this sentiment, saying that RFS members he spoke to would be insulted at the idea of being paid as it would go against the ethos of the volunteer-run brigade.”

The sentiment is very admirable, but there may well be volunteers who face serious hardship as a result of this work. If a practical system of payment can be devised, it would always be open to those who don’t want or need it to donate their payment to a good cause.

Clair Greenwood Clair Greenwood 2:31 pm 22 Dec 19


Acton Acton 2:07 pm 22 Dec 19

If the ACT Government is given additional Federal funding to tackle bushfires there has to be guarantees that these funds will be allocated to specific identified ACTRFS needs, not mismanaged or sythoned into pet Greens/ALP projects.
Given the remote and rugged terrain, what we need is more aerial fire-fighting capacity, not trucks that have limited water carrying capacity and access difficulties from limited fire trails.
Why has the ACTRFS only deployed 10% of its force to NSW where out of control fires are raging and inundating us daily with smoke, while 90% of the force sit around waiting for a possible fire in the ACT? The emergency is happening just over the border now and that is where assets are needed. If fires ignite in the ACT those assets can be retrieved.
As there are hundreds on the RFS waiting list, why are they not being trained and deployed now?

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