CHANGES ARE afoot for our fire services, with paid members of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) to merge with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) to form Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV) as of July 1.
FRV brings together all career firefighters — MFB and CFA staff — to serve Melbourne and major regional centres.
Minister for Police and Emergency Services Lisa Neville said: “Our career and volunteer firefighters are the best in the world and our reforms are providing a more modern career firefighting organisation alongside a strengthened, community-based volunteer organisation.”
Member for Eastern Metropolitan, Sonja Terpstra told the Diary nothing is changing for Volunteer brigades, who will remain with the CFA.
She said the Government is “giving CFA the support it needs to continue to develop and build its proud and passionate volunteer base”.
FRV will cover the existing metropolitan fire area and has been expanded to include additional suburban areas and regional cities, until now, covered by the CFA’s 38 integrated stations.
Locally, South Warrandyte and Eltham are both integrated stations, who have both paid and volunteer firefighters, who work together with neighbouring CFA brigades to respond to emergencies.
Captain of Warrandyte Fire Brigade, Adrian Mullens told the Diary that at this stage, there has been little operational change information released.
“However, our members continue to remain positive and 100 per cent committed to our community.
“Our volunteers have been as active as ever with expanded efforts in online training, participating in community initiatives as well as maintaining station and vehicle maintenance schedules,” said Captain Mullens.
He said Warrandyte CFA have an “extremely successful working relationship with CFA career staff and MFB, we don’t believe this will change”.
Captain Mullens assured the Diary the Warrandyte community need not worry.
“In the event of an emergency, the community will still receive the same standards of excellence in response from Warrandyte CFA in conjunction with Fire Rescue Victoria.
“Our volunteers are ready and waiting to respond to the pager.”
Lieutenant Peter Cahill of Noth Warrandyte CFA said his brigade does not envisage any significant changes to the way they do business.
“We have always maintained a high level of community engagement, assistance and response and this will [continue to] be delivered,” he said.
Volunteers from the integrated station at South Warrandyte declined to comment on the changes, saying it is too early to tell what impact the largest changes in the history of the CFA will bring for volunteers, except to say that it will be operating as “business as usual” and to reassure the community that they will still be there when needed.
Member for Warrandyte, Ryan Smith called on the Government to guarantee that “volunteers at integrated stations are treated and valued as an integral part of the Brigade”.
However, Mr Smith said concerns were raised that the changes to the fire service would result in a reduction of volunteers.
“Over the past five years there has been a reduction of 5,000 in the number of CFA volunteers,” he said.
However, Government figures suggest that as at June 2019, CFA had over 54,000 volunteer members, encompassing operational and support.
More than 34,000 of these volunteers are operational, and the number of these that are active — available to turn out and fight fires — has remained stable at approximately 20,000 volunteers for any of the past five years
Lt Cahill said North Warrandyte is currently in the process of recruiting new members and says the enthusiastic response and applicant quality has been outstanding.
“In fact, this year will probably be the highest recruit intake for our Brigade in more than 10 years,” he said.
He said the brigade’s current surge capacity is strong, recently proven by a significant commitment of members deploying on Strike Teams both in regional Victoria and interstate.
“During the last fire season we were able to fill both deployment requirements and local commitments with excellent results,” Lt Cahill said.
This may not continue, as a CFA member told the Diary that processing recruits has been difficult during the COVID-19 restrictions.
Despite a surge in volunteer inquiries following the recent bushfires, applications are not being processed as head office staff work from home, and recruit training has been put on hold.
He said that could be “catastrophic” for the future of many volunteer brigades.
Ryan Smith is also concerned that the training for volunteers could be compromised.
“[Volunteer training] has been an issue for the last few years and, with control of the training passing to FRV, it is vitally important that all firefighters are trained to the highest standard,” he said.
Ms Neville stated the changes recognise the changing nature of population growth across Victoria.
FRV will cover existing MFB boundaries and serve metropolitan Melbourne, outer urban areas and larger regional centres across Victoria.
Boundaries will be altered to reflect population growth across the State — the current boundaries have been in place for more than 60 years.
Lt Cahill said FRV reforms will allow CFA to become a stand-alone, truly volunteer organisation.
“This will give us more autonomy, control and the direction of our service,” he said
Fire Service Levy changes
The Fire Services Property Levy rate will be reduced on residential properties across the state as part of an overhaul that will make the charge simpler and more consistent — and reflect the establishment of Fire Rescue Victoria.
As part of Coronavirus measures, the Victorian Government froze the Fire Services Property Levy (FSPL) collection levels.
The levy will be frozen at this year’s collection level for next financial year as a measure designed to support Victorians affected by the crisis.
The Government also announced it will create a consistent, state-wide FSPL.
Member for Eastern Metropolitan Melbourne, Sonja Terpstra said this is a common-sense change that recognises fire touches all Victorians — and that we all benefit from a well-resourced fire service.
“Longer and hotter summers and more intense fires are the new normal in Victoria.
“We’re making sure the men and women who keep us safe from these fires have the resources they need,” she said.
State Treasurer, Tim Pallas, said under the new streamlined system, property owners will no longer pay higher contributions depending on the location of their property.
From July, all residential properties in Victoria will see a fall in their FSPL rate, while all other properties — such as industrial or commercial properties — in the old CFA district will either see no increase, or a decrease in their rate.
The fixed levy will be indexed in accordance with the legislation.
Ms Terpstra said the vast majority of property owners will see a decrease in their rate, while for others, the change will be very modest.
The total FSPL levy charge will remain around $150 for a typical metropolitan residence, while a family home in regional Victoria will see a small fall in the FSPL, from around $141 to $137.
Non-residential properties in the old MFB area will see a modest increase in the levy — with an extra $1 per week for a typical small business, through to around an extra $15.50 per week ($806 per year) for a $10 million commercial property.
Mr Smith said many businesses are already struggling due to Coronavirus.
“With businesses largely and adversely impacted from the current pandemic, any additional cost will be very difficult to bear, including a rise in the Fire Services Levy”.
Prepare now to reduce bushfire risk
By DAVID HOGG
THE BRIDGE widening has been completed, but does that mean authorities think they have solved Warrandyte’s fire danger situation?
We hope not.
With winter approaching and all available resources consumed with tackling COVID-19, perhaps fire danger is not high on anybody’s radar.
But surly now is the time to be preparing in advance of the next fire season?
However, the Fire Danger Rating sign stands silently at the north end of the bridge, still out of operation, and if works are not commenced soon it will again fail to advise us of the danger levels come next fire season.
Meanwhile, the “No Burning Off” Fire Danger Period sign remains on display, even as we move into winter, a forgotten memento of summer.
After weeks of being told in November last year that Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) were awaiting a part to repair the electronic Fire Danger Rating sign, we were finally advised in January that the sign could not be repaired at its current location due to safety issues with an overhead high-voltage cable and that EMV were working with Nillumbik council to determine a new location for the sign.
The Diary has followed up with EMV and with Nillumbik to see what has been decided.
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp tells us “EMV is committed to operationalising the Fire Danger Rating sign at Warrandyte and continues to meet with Nillumbik Council and CFA to seek agreement on an alternative location before the next fire season.”
Carl Cowie, Chief Executive Officer Nillumbik Council, tells the Diary “Council, along with the CFA and Emergency Management Victoria are working to resolve this issue as a priority.
“At present contractors cannot access and fix the sign due to safety issues following the bridge widening but Council, the CFA and EMV are writing to the Department of Transport requesting a solution as soon as possible.”
So it is incumbent on us to ensure we have multiple sources of information.
The sign is a great resource when it works, so it is best for all that we agitate for its repair, but there are other ways to find out: use the Vic Emergency App, radio, or internet sources (the Diary’s website displays the current fire danger rating during fire season, as does Be Ready Warrandyte).
One of the criticisms that has been levelled at the current fire danger ratings system, both on social media and in letters to the Diary, is that the Central District is far too large and that these signs can often show a far higher rating than is applicable locally.
This has led to a few people leaving Warrandyte on Severe days in summer when in fact the conditions locally were at a much lower rating.
This could lead to complacency, and a lack of trust in the warnings, when local weather fails to live up to the forecasts.
We put this concern to EMV and Commissioner Crisp advised: “Victoria is supporting a review into the National Fire Danger Rating System along with the Commonwealth and all States and Territories.
“A key stage of the National Fire Danger Rating project has focused on reviewing the science and models behind fire danger ratings to help us to more accurately predict fire danger.
“To contribute to this review, a nation-wide community research piece was completed recently to help us to better understand how the community understands and responds to fire danger ratings and warnings provided by the emergency services.
“We will continue to work with our partner agencies across Australia to consider how we can use the evidence and models arising from this work in Victoria in due course; and are committed to using the best evidence and approaches available to keep Victorians safe.”
If there was consultation, we are yet to find anyone who has been consulted.
Dick Davies, chair of Be Ready Warrandyte (BRW) told the Diary: “we are not aware of any ‘nationwide community research’ and BRW has not made a submission.”
BRW have had a highly active community education program with forums and scenarios encouraging residents to be fire-aware and have a plan, so hopefully Warrandyte is better informed than other parts of the state.
A 2018 survey commissioned by the CFA, reported on by The Guardian in May 2020, found that before last year’s catastrophic fire season, some Victorians at ‘extreme’ risk had unrealistic expectations of help.
Residents in Victorian towns at highest risk of bushfire went into the most recent bushfire season — which was unprecedented in intensity and devastation — with many believing firefighting aircraft and vehicles would save them if their lives and property were under threat.
The emergency services will always do their utmost to protect lives and property, but when all worst-case scenarios are surpassed, there is no certainty they can be everywhere at once.
The best advice is to plan on not being there when the fire comes — leave early — and always, always, have a Plan B.
Even though it is now winter, this is the time to be planning for the next fire season and to be getting the necessary signage and advice in place.