Too big to fight over – give fire reforms a go

8 September

Earlier this year – following my retirement after 14 years as commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW, 39 years as a career firefighter and 10 years as a volunteer – I received a call asking if I would advise the Victorian government on a draft model for a new fire service structure. Knowing the level of controversy involved, I said I would think about it. 

As I considered the request my mind went back to January 2013. Close to midnight after a hot and windy day, NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and I were reflecting on the previous day’s events, that had seen 206 homes destroyed by raging bushfires on the Blue Mountains and Central Coast. Forecasters were predicting a day of catastrophic fire danger for the following Thursday. Two massive Blue Mountains fires were tipped to merge, with the likelihood of property losses in the hundreds or thousands, and the likelihood of deaths. There were other fires burning and a certainty of new outbreaks.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons and I realised we needed urgent help, and thus started a massive mobilisation of firefighting resources from across the nation. As we knew from experience, our “Mexican” mates from Victoria would do everything they could to help us. Hundreds of men and women from the CFA, MFB and DELWP, some of the world’s most experienced, skilled firefighters, with dozens of trucks, were on the ground waiting that fateful Thursday. Luckily, early rain prevented fires from running as predicted. Still, the Victorians insisted on staying for days, relieving exhausted NSW firefighters.

The firefighting fraternity is often referred to as a family – a family of more than 300,000 men and women nationally, career and volunteer, who have answered the call. This nationwide family has watched events unfold in Victoria over the last 18 months or so with mounting concern and sadness. The sadness comes from seeing our brothers and sisters on the frontline in Victoria sometimes pitched against each other, interventions from governments, an inevitable sapping of morale and the loss of some good people.

In my former role as president of our peak body, the Australasian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities Council, I was well aware of the diversity of opinion. On one point however, nearly everybody was agreed – SOMETHING had to be done, and the situation could not continue heading into another potentially serious bushfire season. 

So, when the government rang back for my decision, I agreed to help. I did so in the hope that I might be able to assist my brothers and sisters, the people who had so selflessly and readily helped NSW in times of need, in a situation that seemed deadlocked.

Firefighters are passionate about what they do, and their organisations. Because of this, there are a variety of opinions about the model that has been put forward. The opinions are as diverse as the membership, and while this can be healthy, it can also lead to impasse and, at worst, stagnation. Victoria can’t afford for this to happen. 

The time for maintaining the status quo has passed. What is needed right now to start the journey and the healing? To give this model a chance. Of course there is uncertainty, even residual resentment and anger among some. I suspect the majority of firefighters however – volunteer and career – just want to get on with what they do best.

Is it a perfect solution? Only time will tell. For the sake of those who serve and protect Victorian families, homes and infrastructure, please give the changes a chance and let authorities get on with the job.

Greg Mullins is chair of the state government’s operational implementation committee.