IN a stoush that has claimed the heads of the emergency services minister, and both the CFA’s chief executive officer and chief fire officer, and dampened Labor’s Victorian swing in the federal election and possibly costing them government, the very public dispute over fire fighters pay and conditions has been well and truly felt in Warrandyte.
About 50 volunteer fire fighters from the area met at Warrandyte fire station on the morning of the election before setting off in convoy as a “show of strength” to pro- test over the lack of consultation with volunteer fire fighters.
Ken Reed, group officer of the CFA’s Maroondah group of brigades, which includes Warrandyte, Wonga Park, Yarra Glen, Lilydale and Coldstream, said despite the politics, they also want to demonstrate they are still there to support the community.
“Our main aim is to make people aware we are still here for the community, but the way we have been getting screwed is very unfair and the worst part about it is the volunteers have had no say in the EBA at all, and that’s what we are disappointed about,” he said.
Head of the United Firefighters Union (UFU), Peter Marshall, addressed volunteers in an open letter.
“Fire fighters need to fight fires, not each other,” he wrote.
Volunteers involved in the convoy did not want the protest to be a sign of disrespect for the career fire fighters they work with, but saw it as sending a message to the State Labor government. “We have to send a message to Labor that certain things are sacrosanct and CFA is one of them,” said one volunteer from Cold- stream.
“I’ve got no problem with the paid staff, all we want to do is fight fires,” said another.
The timing of the dispute, which has lasted over 1000 days, is seen as unfortunate by outgoing South Warrandyte captain Greg Kennedy.
In a recent interview with the Diary, Mr Kennedy said politics would not affect the operation of the station.
“The guys who work there are going to be paid in accordance with their EBA, they will do their duties in accordance with their EBA, which will be exactly the same way they do their duties at the other 31 CFA career staff stations,” he said.
“Poor old South Warrandyte just happens to be the poor buggers that are trying to open a fire station when all this is going on.”
Jamie Hansen, new officer-in-charge at South Warrandyte, did not want to comment on the dispute while the EBA was still being negotiated.
“What I can assure the community is that the volunteers and career staff at South Warrandyte Fire Brigade will maintain their commitment to providing the highest level of emergency response and there will certainly be no reduction of service from any of the surrounding brigades as a result of this ongoing dispute,” he said.
Current captains of Warrandyte and North Warrandyte also declined to comment on the dispute, but former North Warrandyte captain, Rohan Thornton, says the issue is not about fire fighters’ pay.
“I think most volunteers, and I have never found an exception, believe that all our emergency service workers, police, ambos, nurses are underpaid and deserve everything they get – this is not about the conditions and the pay,” he said.
He believes there will be positive benefits from the EBA for all fire fighters, including the contentious clause to have seven fire fighters dispatched before starting to fight a fire.
“I don’t see that and never did see that as an issue, I just see it as a union providing a safe workplace for their members which is fine – yes please,” said Mr Thornton.
Both staff and volunteer alike have made claims about lies and misinformation, and Mr Thornton can see why that is confusing the public.
“There is truth and lies on both sides and that’s what’s confusing everyone, certainly the community who I’ve had feedback from, they are worried they are concerned and they don’t understand it: it is hard to understand,” Mr Thornton said.
He says for those not in the CFA many aspects of the organisation are confusing, least of which is why people volunteer, and Mr Thornton is concerned the EBA dispute will hurt the volunteer spirit in the organisation.
“It is hard to understand the culture, what makes people, you know, get out of bed at four o’clock in the morning and hold someone’s hand until the ambulance arrives, it takes a special person to have that commitment and it’s just getting harder and harder to maintain that commitment,” he said.