Firefighters Told They Can't Crowdfund For Resources To Get The Job Done
Australia’s exhausted firefighters say they feel forced to ask for donations so they can buy protective face masks and food, as the spotlight has turned to funding for adequate resources and support for brigades.
"We’re on the bones of our arse," Fire Brigade Employees Union secretary Leighton Drury told a climate change rally in Sydney on Wednesday, as NSW crews battle the bushfire crisis.
"Professional firefighters are spread thin, and our volunteers are exhausted".
In recent days, multiple Rural Fire Service units across the state have pleaded for donations of money, food and water, using online social media campaigns to spread the message that they need help too.
The MacMasters Beach RFS on the Central Coast sent thanks on Facebook to locals who had donated food and water, and asked for more, while the Cawdor unit in Wollondilly Shire also expressed gratitude for donations of biscuits, fruit and lollies.
"We usually get looked after by the RFS and the catering brigade who do an excellent job of keeping us well watered and fed," the MacMasters Beach unit claimed, adding the extra supplies "will come in extra handy to keep up morale and keep us full of energy."
The RFS said it works hard to supply whatever food, water and equipment that brigades need to get the job done.
But other units such as the "completely exhausted" brigade at Copacabana on the Central Coast said they were unimpressed when they were issued dust masks to protect their airways instead of protection that provided full-face covering.
“These are unprecedented conditions, on a scale no one could have anticipated, but we have no choice but to go out and fight fire with what we have," the brigade's treasurer Joe Arena said.
Arena has asked for donations on Facebook so his crew can purchase full-face respirator masks.
A blog post written by the wife of a RFS volunteer, which has gone viral on Facebook, dismissed the protection provided as a "flimsy disposable face mask".
She claimed that her husband was only supplied one set of protective clothing during the bushfire fight.
"My husband does NOT want to be fighting fires," she wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Mick Holton, president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, claimed the state government had "dropped the ball" on resourcing brigades.
"Volunteers give up their time at no charge. The last thing they should have to do is run down the local pub and run a chook raffle and do crowdfunding to raise money for essentials," he told 10 daily.
"They shouldn't have to do this. It's not right. All that should be supplied."
Deputy RFS commissioner Rob Rogers sent a memo to all units statewide on Wednesday, saying he was "concerned" brigades were crowdfunding "without the appropriate authority".
The memo, verified by 10 daily, said the P2 masks that have been provided to firefighters are adequate to use when at the scene of a bushfire.
It detailed a process that was approved by Safe Work NSW and the Australian Fire and Emergency Services Council which backed the mask as the better option than the P3 type requested by the Copacabana service.
Brian McDonough, president of the NSW Rural Fire Services Association, also said the P3 masks could be harder to carry, less comfortable, and required firefighters to breathe harder through the filters.
10 daily understands the RFS prefers people to donate funds through the service's website, where donations can be made directly to a specific local brigade.
The service cannot verify crowdfunding pages set up on external websites -- sparking fears of scammers exploiting the fires for personal gain.
Central Coast police issued a warning on Tuesday of doorknocking and phone scams in the area, where people were allegedly posing as RFS members and asking for donations.
The RFS memo said firefighters "are provided all necessary tools and equipment to undertake their work" -- a claim Mick Holton disputed.
"This business on social media has certainly highlighted some problems. The government is spending a lot of money on very large aircraft, but I'm frustrated that firies can't even get the basic essentials," he claimed.
"The government is in a bit of hot water now, I think they've dropped the ball with resourcing. It's crunch time. We're relying so heavily on volunteers, and resourcing will be a problem if this continues."
10 daily contacted the Copacabana RFS unit for a response to Rogers' memo on Thursday, but was told there was "no comment".
Instead the unit referred to a Facebook post which read: "We have achieved our original objective and will use any excess funds to purchase masks for neighbouring brigades."
FBEU secretary Leighton Drury told the thousands gathered at Wednesday's climate rally that responders -- both professional and volunteer -- were stretched thin by the ongoing fire season.
He claimed some firefighters had already been fighting blazes for four months.
"Are we getting properly funded? Absolutely not," he told 10 daily.
"Feeding and making sure people have protective equipment, that is absolutely a job for government to be paying for this, and if not, why not? I don't have an answer."
He claimed the long fire season, as well as a decline in volunteerism, was affecting the RFS ability to respond.
"People don't have time and effort to put into volunteering, because families need two wages, and businesses are getting tighter. Bosses will let you go for a few days or a week, but they won't suffer losing an employee for months," Drury said.
"The RFS volunteers do a great job, but can we expect them to do this for free for four months at a time?"
Drury and Holton both suggested that the government do more to support firefighters financially -- to enable them to continue to respond quickly to emergencies and to carry out essential hazard reduction burns, mapping, strategy and planning ahead of fire seasons.
"Some people are saying they can't keep doing this at the fires because they're going to lose their job and have to put their family first. They should look at some kind of allowance system, or reimbursing firefighters," Holton said.