THE VICTORIAN Government has announced sweeping changes to the fire services which will split the CFA, and while it fundamentally will have no impact on the business of putting out fires, there will be a big change in the way CFA brigades operate behind the scenes.
A joint statement issued by Premier Daniel Andrews and Emergency Services Minister, James Merlino, said Victoria has some of the best firefighters in the world, however they currently operate under systems and structures that have not changed since the 1950s.
“These important changes will deliver more modern fire services for a growing Victoria, making our state even safer”, said Mr Merlino.
Emergency Services commissioner, Craig Lapsley spoke to the Diary to reassure local residents and CFA volunteers the change for the community would be seamless.
“We have 1220 CFA stations now, and we will have 1220 when this is implemented,” he said.
CFA staff such as those at South Warrandyte will combine with MFB firefighters to form the newly created Fire Rescue Victoria, while CFA volunteers will remain with the CFA, which will return to being a volunteer focused organisation.
“It will still be local people going to local incidents… the same vehicles will be in the same stations, it is just that the signs out the front will be different” he said.
South Warrandyte Station as an integrated station will remain the same, but will have two signs, one representing the FRV staff and the other representing the CFA volunteers.
The situation for other roles within CFA — such as regional managers and staff, community education, trainers, mechanics, fire investigators — is a slightly more complicated issue.
“Operational staff at a Regional level will be employed by FRV but will be tasked to the CFA, however certain administration and technical staff will remain covered by the CFA’s [Professional Technical & Administrative] PTA employment agreement,” Mr Laspley said.
The Commissioner assured the Diary the boundaries between metropolitan and country areas will remain the same, however the Andrews Government has flagged the establishment of a Fire District Review Panel which will conduct future reviews of the boundary between fire services, based on population growth, urban development and the volume of Triple Zero calls.
When the Diary asked about the rumours generated by a photograph published in the Herald Sun showing Warrandyte was being considered for inclusion in FRV, Commissioner Lapsley said there were “no immediate plans to put staff into Warrandyte”.
He said that the position paid fire fighters in South Warrandyte, Eltham and Templestowe gave enough coverage to support the retention of a volunteer-only station at Warrandyte.
“South Warrandyte are getting into Yarra Street in 8-10 minutes”, he said.
Commissioner Lapsley said one of the most important consideration is to ensure surge capacity in times of major incident is protected, and that means ensuring we retain the State’s 50,000 volunteers.
Local member for Warrandyte, Ryan Smith is not so optimistic, and said volunteer retention at integrated stations may not be so easy.
“Sooner or later if you have 20 or so career firefighters there, volunteers aren’t going to get there for a call out and it’ll get to the point that they don’t want to be there to wash the trucks once a week”, Mr Smith said.
Mr Smith is concerned that if volunteers are not given respect they will not be there in times of calamity to provide the needed surge capacity.
“I can’t see anyone but the die-hard volunteers committing to the training just for the sake of three or four callouts a year in those extreme circumstances.”
Peter De Maria, a career firefighter at South Warrandyte, said the feeling at the station was positive and the change was little more than a change of badge.
“It’s no different — really it is not going to change, we will still train with [the volunteers], it is just modernising the service for career staff… but for the community it is a win because they will get a better service,” he said.
Captain at North Warrandyte CFA, Mick Keating hopes the CFA will continue to support volunteer training and skills development.
“As long as they don’t make us a second rate service and say ‘you don’t need these courses, these trucks, this equipment’, we still have houses and big buildings to look after, we still have road accidents, none of that is going to change I just hope there is no change to any of the the training regime or the opportunities that are available to volunteers,” he said.
Captain of the Warrandyte brigade, Adrian Mullens said it was still too early to comment and would like to wait until the dust had settled on the announcement, but wanted to reassure the community that it would be “business as usual”.
“We are still going to service the community as we have for the last 79 years,” Mr Mullens said.
These reforms are currently before Parliament, and if passed, are expected to take two years to be fully implemented.
Ryan Smith is not convinced that the reforms have the community’s interests at heart.
“If it was driven for efficiencies or driven because the system was broken or to save money or whatever you could argue it was good for the community, but what you are going to be doing is basically breaking a community organisation that everyone rallies around…this is just a fix because every other way they wanted to support the UFU was blocked for various reasons — is it a win for the community? No – I think we will just end up missing something that we had,” he said.
The government has confirmed that, until June 2019, the funding for the changes will not impact on the Fire Services Property Levy, which is charged to property owners via council rates.
With this comes a promise that the existing Metropolitan Fire District Boundary will remain in place for the next two years — for the purpose of determining whether Metropolitan or CFA levy rates apply.