Hot under the collar … the RFS is inviting 120 fire fighters to apply for voluntary redundancy. Photo: Nick Moir
For 50 of his 71 years, Brian McKinlay has been fighting bushfires or doing his utmost to prevent them. He was a brigade captain at Hornsby in 1970 and has been a group captain overseeing several brigades (mostly in the Hawkesbury) for the past 30 years.
A man not given to hysterical outbursts, right now he’s hot under the collar. And the brushfire he’s helping to fan as president of the Rural Fire Service Association – covering the 70,000 volunteers who make the RFS not only the world’s biggest fire service but also one of its higher-rated emergency services – threatens to spread on fronts across NSW.
In the process, firies hope to shake the O’Farrell government from the slumber of a cost-cutting policy that looks, when stripped bare, like penny-pinching, but which would burn more than political fingers if predictions of a horror bushfire summer are realised.
“We’re trying to make the state government aware a global approach to budget savings will have an unfair and unjust impact on bushfire fighting,” says McKinlay, a semi-retired registered surveyor. “The effects long term on the RFS will be quite profound and will hit morale.”Advertisement
But why such anxiety? First, some recent history.
State government revenues are in a pickle because receding consumer confidence and other factors have driven down goods and services tax (GST) receipts, and because other state sources such as property taxes are weak. The government’s labour bill is judged to be too high and a 1.1 per cent haircut was ordered across departments and agencies, with police the one exemption.
At the RFS, that converted to the fire chief, Shane Fitzsimmons, this month inviting staff to apply for voluntary redundancy. He’s said to want 120 departures from the 900 RFS staff – about one in eight.
“While the NSW RFS is committed to delivering on its cumulative savings target of $11.7 million over four years,” Fitzsimmons said in a media statement this week, “this process would not affect front-line and key support service areas, especially in relation to supporting and serving the community.”
Well, that’s that, then. We can all sleep soundly. But not quite. Assurances about not affecting “front-line” services are par for the course in such announcements. But the RFS is all about front-line services; they are its purpose for existence. If any job at the RFS was not directed at bolstering the bushfire fighting capacity and effort, what was it doing there in the first place?
“Seventy per cent of RFS staff are also volunteers or have been volunteers,” McKinlay says. “They have a great understanding of the system. They’re not in there just for the job.
”RFS staff are about 1 per cent of the total and some are on dedicated programs, like work crews and management support for things like hazard reduction.”
If this was an efficiency drive targeting waste and inadequacy, let the government say so. Instead, it’s dressed up as fiscal imperative.
And that’s where we find the big sting. The RFS and other emergency services – the Fire and Rescue Service (the metropolitan fire brigades) and the State Emergency Services – are not funded like other government agencies. Their budgets comprise mandated contributions: 14.6 per cent from the state, 11.7 per cent from local government and 73.7 per cent from insurance companies.
In other words, when the RFS talks about labour savings of $11.7 million over four years, the state government benefits by just $1.7 million, or about $427,000 a year.
McKinlay says: “One needs to appreciate the government predicament with revenue reduction but this brings about a harsh outcome with no real savings to the Treasury.”
So a one-size-fits-all policy, projected to the public as budget trimming, delivers to that purpose just a seventh of the promised pot. Most of the saving goes to insurance companies, which are under no promise to pass any savings to policy holders.
Indeed, the insurance lobby – now joined by the Shires Association – has been pressing for at least a decade to have the emergency services funding formula scrapped and replaced by a levy on properties, despite 6 per cent of NSW ratepayers already defaulting on rate demands they claim they cannot afford.
The NSW Treasury has hinted at sympathy for this switch and has begun formal talks on options. One emergency services insider told the Herald this week “the smoke and mirrors” artificial saving to government was regularly pointed out to ministers and backbenchers but this had not shifted government sentiment.
The Rural Fire Fighting Fund – the RFS budget – dropped this year from $271 million to $263 million. The government share was $38.5 million. It was the first time in 14 years that RFS funding fell. In that time, funding nearly quadrupled and rose on average by about 13 per cent a year.
That’s because nothing quite focuses government minds like disaster and the prospect of it. To be caught fiddling while the state burns is political folly of extraordinary arrogance or stupidity, akin to driving an unregistered car with dodgy brakes.
“The unprecedented rain we’ve had in recent years has led to an increase in fuel growth, particularly grass growth west of the Divide,” the RFS said in a written reply this week to questions from the Herald. “In some parts of western NSW, there has been more growth than we’ve seen in 30 or 40 years.”
And here’s a spooky thought. For the past 70 years, these conditions prevail about every 10 years. The last two occasions were in 1994-5 and 2001-02.
In the former, four people died and 225 homes were damaged or destroyed. The senior deputy state coroner, John Hiatt, investigated for 1½ years. His report became the basis for the 1997 Rural Fires Act and the modern RFS, with its single command and control structure replacing the disjointed previous regime of local governments effectively running their own brigades with all that meant for under-resourcing, incompatible communication systems and lack of clarity about who called the shots.
Some brigade tankers were built around 1930s flat top trucks, lacking speed, protection and cross-country endurance. What followed was a massive re-equipment program – involving 2500 new tankers and communication upgrades – as well as volunteer retraining and the professionalisation of RFS management.
By the summer of 2001-02, Sydney again was under fire. This time, however, we were better prepared. One hundred and 20 homes were lost or damaged but no lives were lost and the city’s outer defences were not breached, as they were six years earlier and as they would be with Canberra in 2003.
These aren’t improbable scenarios for Australia’s biggest city. With national parks to the south, west and north, much of Sydney is built on sandstone shelves that keep bushland root systems shallow and thus vulnerable to intense burning.
“Volunteers are concerned because they don’t know what’s going to happen to the RFS,” Brian McKinlay says. He concedes they are not likely to stop volunteering – an outcome that would give the Treasury a real financial headache – but warns that morale is a delicate fig leaf that would reveal unpleasant consequences if left to wither.