A REGIONAL shire president believes a lack of clarity around the State government's Work Health and Safety legislation and the introduction of the vaccine mandate for WA's bushfire volunteers will reduce local bushfire volunteer numbers by 30 per cent.
The Shire of Wagin recently endorsed a policy that recognises prior learning for its bushfire volunteers to help mitigate concerns about WA's Work Health Safety (WHS) Act 2020 and Regulations.
Shire president Phillip Blight said misinformation and a lack of clarity on changes to the WHS legislation, as well as the government introducing a mandate for bushfire volunteers to be vaccinated so they can attend a fire, had created more hesitancy for WA's bushfire volunteers.
"We have potentially lost 10-15pc of our bushfire fighting force due to the work health and safety legislation and it's because of the messaging and misinformation that has made people confused over what they can and can't do," Mr Blight said.
"Then you layer on top of that the vaccine mandate and you are going to lose 10-15pc, so all of a sudden you're at 30pc loss of your bushfire fighting force and we just can't afford that."
Mr Blight said having a third of their volunteer firefighters not respond to a fire would be devastating and he questioned the State government's risk analysis of its vaccine mandate for WA's bushfire volunteers.
"Surely there should be a difference between a vaccine mandate for someone who works in the local post office compared to someone who is going to go out broadacre bushfire fighting," Mr Blight said.
"The simple difference is it's an emergency.
"Whether they get their post today or tomorrow because the office is one man down - no one is going to die over that, but you need to have some measure of higher thinking when it's an emergency."
A change in the WHS Act's Regulations which clarified volunteers as workers means that all registered bushfire volunteers will be deemed to be employees of their respective local governments which will therefore have a duty of care with respect to their safety, training, performance and compliance.
The legislation prompted the Shire of Wagin to devise a standard to issue a competency for its bushfire volunteers, based on a recognition of prior learning which will be assessed by its Bushfire Advisory Committee chairperson and the chief bushfire control officer.
The policy is expected to be rolled out this week and will recognise the prior learning of local volunteers who are deemed competent.
The Shire of Williams has also formally adopted the same policy with slight amendments.
Mr Blight said the aim of the policy was to make their volunteer firefighters feel comfortable to attend fires in their region.
"Our Shire believes that they have the skills, the capacity and the knowledge to go and do it, so we want them to go and get on with it," Mr Blight said.
However he is not confident that the recognition of prior learning would be sufficient to cover their liability under the new legislation.
"If it goes before a coroner's court, I don't know what the coroner will view of us, but I can tell you my attitude is that the highest priority and the greatest risk we face is around the fire," Mr Blight said.
"The longer we delay putting the fire out, the greater the risk - so put the bastard out when it's only a little fire and no one is in any great danger.
"If we dither, waiting for bureaucracy to catch up and do all of their processes, the fire will be too big for us to manage."
Bushfire Volunteers chief executive Darren Brown said the issue was not necessarily with the legislation itself, but the unclear way in which it was being communicated.
"The communication of the rules is creating more problems and is more damaging than probably the rules themselves," Mr Brown said.
"There's only one thing worse than bad policy and that is confusion that could mean volunteers stay at home or work because they didn't know they were allowed to help while our regional communities are under threat from fire this summer.
"Certainly the government needs to be more proactive in providing clarity on both fronts."
Mr Brown's comments came after the State government included the State's bushfire volunteers in vaccination mandates earlier this month, requiring them to have had one vaccine by December 31 and to be double jabbed by January 31, 2022.
Mr Brown said the Public Health Act 2016 (WA) had a clause stating that unvaccinated volunteers would still be able to attend fires.
"The chief health officer's directions (clause 7) clearly say nothing in the directions that prohibit an unvaccinated person from helping at an emergency if not enough vaccinated people are available, so why did the DFES commissioner publish a circular saying there was no ability for unvaccinated volunteers to help in an emergency?" Mr Brown said.
"The confusion this causes ultimately makes volunteers unsure about whether they should show up and we need every pair of hands on deck when there is an emergency."
Liberal Agricultural Region MLC Steve Martin sought clarification from the Emergency Services Minister Reece Whitby in parliament last week.
Mr Martin highlighted Section 8C of the Public Health Act Fire Emergency Services Workers Services directions and said "nothing in the directions prevented a person who is not vaccinated against COVID-19 from entering any part of a fire and emergency services site for the purposes of responding to an emergency, where the emergency response is required to be provided immediately, and a fully vaccinated or partially vaccinated person is not available to provide the response".
"I asked whether an unvaccinated volunteer firefighter would be able to attend a fire and the minister directly responded no, despite this direction in the Public Health Act," Mr Martin said.
"So that's contradictory to me and if I'm struggling with understanding that I think the minister needs to create more clarity for the community."
In parliament Mr Whitby said DFES was in the process of developing frequently asked questions and support information for bushfire volunteers which would be uploaded on the DFES, Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) and local government websites.
However Mr Martin said it was not good enough that DFES was "in the process of" when some farmers were already in the middle of harvest.
"That should have happened in advance of this, so it's not a great response when they are scrambling to catch up," Mr Martin said.
"The people at risk of doing the wrong thing, inadvertently, are our volunteers because as we know, if the neighbour's header is on fire, people just turn up - that's what is appropriate and what's been happening for decades.
"It would be unfortunate if this is over regulated to the extent that people are nervous about doing what they've always done, which is going to help their neighbours.
"There are no professional DFES staff often within hundreds of kilometres from what is the vast bulk of the task in many parts of our State - those are farm fires, they're either header fires, lightning strikes or accidental fires and they are almost always attended to by the locals."
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