BUSHFIRE volunteers are red-hot against any suggestions they could be handed over to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).
A Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) discussion paper is considering whether or not the volunteer bushfire organisations should be under the umbrella of DFES.
The consequences of a move underneath DFES is vast, as volunteers believe response times will be affected, community identity will be lost and the number of bushfire volunteers will decrease.
Southern Mallee bushfire brigade secretary/treasurer and Bushfire Volunteers vice president Dan Sanderson was concerned that operating under the DFES "top-down approach" could result in more catastrophic results like the Esperance bushfires in 2015.
Four people died in the Esperance bushfires due to slow response times and the inability for volunteer firefighters to get access to the equipment and personnel they needed.
"We couldn't get decisions made quickly back then, that's why we ended up with such a big fire with four deaths," Mr Sanderson said.
"The problem was, we could not get the resources here in time to control those fires.
"That would just happen more."
By centralising under DFES, longtime bushfire volunteer John Kargotich believes it will take longer for volunteers to respond to fires as they will have to wait for dispatch numbers and directions from DFES.
"Small fires grow into big fires, how quick you get to a fire is very important, and volunteer brigades are very good at doing that because they know their district, they know their geography, they know how long it takes to get somewhere and there are eyes everywhere in a district," Mr Kargotich said.
"Under a DFES system it is much more centralised and much less agile.
"Their management approach to emergency response in local areas will be quite centralised.
"Instead of calling in and saying we've got a fire on Brook Road, we've got to get out there and put it out, you'll have to wait for a dispatch number and a couple of other bureaucratic processes."
It is believed the costs associated with a centralised system will over time reduce the number of brigades in regional districts with the capacity to respond to emergencies.
"The day it becomes DFES operated it's all going to fall down," said Ravensthorpe chief bushfire control officer Rod Daw.
"Absolutely we will lose volunteers."
The proposal brought forward by WALGA is based on a survey which brought back an overwhelming response of people wanting to transfer the responsibility of emergency bushfire volunteers to DFES.
However, in the survey WALGA only consulted 36 chief executive officers,18 community services managers and 50 local government officers.
As Association of Volunteer Bushfire Brigades WA president Dave Gossage pointed out, this survey is fundamentally flawed and it doesn't represent the volunteer community.
"The stats they are saying are based on paid bureaucrat positions and DFES staff, rather than the volunteers themselves," Mr Gossage said.
"The data is so skewed towards paid employees and DFES friendlies that they should be embarrassed.
"They never should have put something out like that, because it's on the public record and shows their incompetence.
"It's very disappointing."
Mr Kargotich said if they were going to consult on such a broad issue, "they should consult more broadly than just the people who are outlined in their survey".
"It's not just a WALGA issue, it's a community issue," he said.
WALGA president Karen Chapple said it wasn't WALGA's responsibility to represent bushfire volunteers.
"It is a matter for each local government that manages bushfire brigades to determine how they undertake consultation with their brigades and volunteers," Ms Chapple said.
Volunteers are concerned that under a DFES-run volunteer fire brigade, the distinct difference between metro and regional firefighting mentality will result in a loss of identity for regional firefighters.
"We've seen it where areas have gone over to DFES up in the Pilbara and Kimberley area, the first thing they do is they lose their identity," Mr Gossage said.
"They are put in a metro-centric uniform.
"They are put out of their gold uniforms into the lime green.
"The sense of locality and sense of belonging is lost straight away."
This distinct difference in methodology and approach between bush fire brigades and career Fire and Rescue is covered in the Ferguson Report into the Waroona/Yarloop fires.
The report states that leaders elected from the community are based on demonstrated competence and experience, whereas career staff attain their rank based on formal competency assessments and experience in urban fire.
The report said there was also a difference in mentality between the two groups, with career firefighters often centering around a "do what I am told" approach, while volunteer firefighters "do what works".
"Once you become under their command, you do as you are told, you're not allowed to do what is right anymore," Mr Gossage said.
Under DFES, volunteer firefighters will have to undergo mandatory training to maintain their volunteer status, which is extremely offensive to veteran volunteers, he said.
"They've been doing it all their life, training, going to fires, managing fires on their property," he said.
"They've got more knowledge than a person who has come out of the city and has no life experiences.
"It's very offensive to guys who have been in it for 20, 30 or 40 years, to have to go back to school to have some young inexperienced person who's never been to a real fire but they know a rubbish bin fire or a square metre road verge fire telling them how to fight fires.
"They've been fighting fires that are hundreds of acres in size every year, it's quite degrading and demoralising, but that's the bureaucracy's square box, square hole thinking and there is nothing you can do about it.
"That's all they know, they are academic, they don't understand reality."
However, Mr Sanderson believes this training will be beneficial for newer members as long as it is applicable to the area in which the volunteers are situated.
"With younger people coming along, and people who haven't had fires on their farms, training is a great thing and needs to be done," he said.
"Talking to the volunteer bush brigades I talk to, they all say 'yep, bring the training on, let's do it.'
"But it's got to be relevant training for what we need.
"Out here in the broadacre farming areas our training is different to fighting a fire in Manjimup or in forested areas."
Many volunteers say the real problem that isn't being addressed in any of the WALGA discussions is how the emergency services levy (ESL) is distributed.
"Local governments and bushfire brigades are not getting enough money from the ESL, simple as that, to have the level of readiness, equipment and training they should be having," Mr Kargotich said.
"We know that ESL is not an unlimited resource, but we need to have adequate funding from the ESL and the people that should be making their mind up about that are the chief bushfire control officers, the captains and the local governments, not DFES," Mr Sanderson said.
"I'm concerned that DFES are making a major push to be in control of all the volunteer bush fire brigades and remove the local governments, and they are doing their best to influence WALGA to their way of thinking."
In response, DFES said it had no intention of taking over management of volunteer bush fire brigades without the explicit endorsement of both the local government and the brigade volunteers.
"It is logical that individual local governments should continue to manage the volunteer brigades which give up their time to respond to bushfires on behalf of their community," said a DFES media spokesperson.
"There are some examples in Western Australia where DFES has developed a memorandum of understanding with individual local governments to manage volunteer bush fire brigades.
"However, the department will only consider such an arrangement when it has the full support of local volunteer firefighters and the broader community."
WALGA said it did not have a predetermined position on the future management of bushfire brigades, and the paper provided a number of options for management.
"We are keen to understand the sector's views so we are best able to advocate on our members' behalf to State government during the development of the new Consolidated Emergency Services Act," Ms Chapple said.
"WALGA welcomes feedback from all our members, even alternative models, so we can formulate any number of positions relevant to our diverse sector."
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