PLANS to axe 120 jobs from the Rural Fire Service do not go far enough claim the organisation’s lifeblood, its volunteers.
A ground swell of volunteers are calling for a wholesale purge of salaried staff including the Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons himself after years of gross financial waste, empire building and nepotism within the “Warringah mafia” – so called because of the number of salaried staff who began their careers as volunteers with brigades on the Northern Beaches.
The final straw for thousands of volunteers who have joined a splinter group to air their grievances – the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association – was the formation of essentially an army of paid fire fighters to do the work traditionally performed by volunteers.
The RFS has reportedly spent $120 million in hiring 121 staff, purchasing 17 trucks and setting up 15 depots across NSW to house the State Mitigation and Support Service (SMSS).
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The SMSS, nicknamed Shane’s Mowing and Slashing Service, involves paid crews undertaking hazard reduction work in remote areas or for the elderly.
VFFA president and veteran RFS volunteer Peter Cannon, of Peak Hill, said there were 113 staff in 2003 when the RFS was formed and taken out local government control.
In last year’s RFS budget $93.3 million was spent on salaries and staff expenses _ more than a third of its total government funding of $257 million.
“Now we have more than 900 staff and the service to volunteers has faded rapidly to the point that volunteers now feel they are the lowest common denominator in the organisational picture,” Mr Cannon said.
Opposition Leader John Robertson criticised the government for the planned staff cuts leading into a “horror fire season”.
But volunteers argue the RFS has been run “by a few for the benefit of the few” with money wasted needlessly gilding its head office when rural brigades were struggling with a lack of equipment.
Mr Cannon said last year the Commissioner spent about $1 million on the biggest television in the southern hemisphere so staff could monitor fires from Homebush and almost another $1 million on a 15-year-old French Squirrel helicopter from NSW State Forests.
“All this while brigades across NSW still wait for equipment,” Mr Cannon said.
“There are still brigades in far outlying areas of NSW that don’t have an actual fire station building let alone a tanker.
“We are calling for massive reductions in staff levels … the RFS needs to focus every taxpayer and insurance policy dollar on making sure that the troops on the front line – the Volunteers – have the tools to do the job before he wastes any more of our money on big boy’s toys.”
Former Nationals MP for Monaro and RFS volunteer of 40 years Peter Cochran said the organisation had become a “grossly bloated bureaucracy’.
“Over rated salaries, bullying and nepotism are rampant amongst the paid staff,” he said.
He said a recent example was a hazard reduction plan for Eucumbene Cove, north west of Cooma, by the SMSS cost a reported $1 million which could have been undertaken by volunteers for “less than $5000”.
An RFS spokeswoman said SMSS crews were expanded as a result of the Victorian Black Saturday bush fires and had increased the amount of hazard reduction done from 48 per cent to 75 per cent.
She said the Eucumbene Cove area was the most “extreme risk” area and mitigation crews only did a small part of the incredibly complex work.
“In regards to the cost, the figure quoted is wildly inaccurate,” she said.
“In fact, the crew cost for this work was approximately $60,000.”
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said “it is time that some people realised we no longer fight fires from horseback with a wet sack”.
“Advancements in technology, particularly in relation to our communications and equipment, have enabled us to help keep our volunteers and the community as safe as possible when threatened by bush fires,” he said.