Climate change and firefighting: a voice from the front line – by FBEU State Secretary, Jim Casey
As a firefighter, I can tell you things are not the way they used to be.
The natural environment is changing. In 2009, we witnessed the devastating Black Saturday fires in Victoria. In 2010, incredible and unexpected flooding in Queensland. Rainfall is up in parts of the country, down in others.
Temperatures are rising, wind patterns changing, storm and tempest activity becoming unpredictable – and all of this leads to more frequent and more extreme natural disasters.
The recent Blue Mountains fires are a case in point: there have always been fires in that part of NSW, but in October?
It’s time we lifted the debate above political point scoring on climate change.
Be it bushfire, flood or storm, you will find firefighters doing what we do best. We’re proud of our job. But it is a dangerous profession, and we want to make sure we can minimise the risks we face.
The vast majority of scientists and a majority of the general population agree the planet is getting warmer, as a direct result of how we interact with the natural world.
It is the impact this has on the weather that is of particular concern to firefighters, and other first responders. We are now seeing more extreme weather events. We’re seeing an unstable, unpredictable climate.
In 2010, the NSW Department of the Environment released a paper titled NSW Climate Impact Profile, which says between now and 2050 we can expect: “Higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns will more likely than not lead to increased fire frequency. Very high to extreme fire danger days are projected to increase and the conditions conducive to large and intense fires (such as prolonged drought, low humidity, number of days with high temperature and high wind speeds) may increase.”
Which is where we come in. Professional firefighters are among the most heavily unionised industries in the country. There’s a reason for that. The nature of our job is dangerous. The personal protective equipment we have, the breathing apparatus, safe and effective minimum crew levels – all of these basic workplace safety matters were won by firefighters demanding it from the employer.
But on the issue of climate change, our industrial muscle won’t cut it. This isn’t a dispute over safe working conditions, a reasonable wage, or dignity in the workplace. This is about the way our society is organised. It is about how we all live, and it is about the conditions under which firefighters work.
We need action on climate change. Firefighters will continue to go to work, as we have always done, helping people in emergencies. But we’re treating the symptoms of the problem, not the disease itself. It will require a mass movement, prepared to be bold and imaginative, to do that.
Jim Casey from the Fire Brigade Employees Union spoke at the National Day of Climate Action in Prince Alfred Park on Sunday.