Volunteer Firefighters Should Be Compensated So They Don't Fall Behind On Bills, Experts Say
It is "the right time" to talk about paying or compensating volunteer firefighters battling bushfires, Victoria's Premier said, as debate ramps up over how to look after those on the frontlines of the national crisis.
Stories have emerged of volunteer firefighters using their annual leave entitlements so they can remain on the frontlines of blazes.
Mick Holton, an RFS volunteer and president of the NSW-based Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, said he wanted to see firefighters at least get their "reasonable expenses" -- such as petrol to drive their cars to and from fires -- covered in exchange for their time, but would like to see some kind of payment as well.
"If volunteers are rocking up to give their time at no charge, we should at least make sure it's not impacting on them. If you're missing out on an income, that should be an expense we need to consider," he told 10 daily.
"The bank isn't going to say 'don't worry about paying your mortgage,' the power companies won't let your power bills go. You've got to pay your bills, but how do we make it work? That's the challenge."
Almost all of the firefighters battling blazes nationwide are volunteers, putting themselves in danger for no extra pay. People working in public sector jobs -- such as for government or councils -- may be eligible for paid 'community service leave' from their employer to volunteer with the Rural Fire Service (RFS) or other authorities. But those working for private companies may not have access to such a scheme.
In recent days, Labor leader Anthony Albanese catapulted a social media discussion topic into a national debate, proposing that volunteer firies should be compensated for their time.
"They are providing support for their fellow Australians. The Australian Government should be providing them with more support in return," he said on Monday.
"There are taxation measures, there's one-off payments, there is leave payments. This could be done as occurs for various members of the Defence Force, for example."
Albanese said the federal government should work out exact details with state governments, which have jurisdiction over fire services.
"The principle should be that people shouldn't be in a circumstance whereby they can't pay their mortgage, they can't pay their rent, they can't put food on the table of their families. They should not continue to be in that position," he said.
10 daily understands a campaign from some of Australia's biggest trade unions will soon launch, planning to push for large companies to provide paid leave to workers who want to volunteer to fight fires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison resisted calls to back the proposal in recent days, saying state premiers "are very comfortable with the arrangements we have" but that compensation ideas for volunteers "are things that I think can be contemplated."
Morrison rebuffed calls from Albanese to bring forward the Council of Australia Governments (COAG) meeting, scheduled for May, to consider the compensation idea more quickly, saying "it's important to properly consult with the state premiers and chief ministers and that's what I'm doing right now and have been."
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said on Sunday that discussions were ongoing about "what other things can be done to support and incentivise employers and small business and volunteers."
On Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews admitted there may be merit in paying fire volunteers.
"Given the length of fire seasons, given the nature of fire, the intensity we're dealing with, maybe it is the right time to at least think about this," he said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said her government would "leave that door open and we want to make sure the men and women who are saving lives and properties feel supported."
"If there is more we need to do, we will," she said on Monday.
Holton said volunteers working in high-risk areas might fight fires for up to 50 percent of their waking hours, for days or weeks straight. He said he was aware of volunteers who would fight fires for a week straight, return home for a few weeks, then volunteer for another week; while others might do a cycle of one day on, one day off.
"Some people keep backing up to the point where we have to send them home, when we're worried about burnout," Holton said.
Tim Lyons is a former senior official with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. He said the change in fire seasons, increasing the length of the danger period and also making fires more ferocious, meant previous arrangements for workplaces managing volunteer firies were now outdated.
"Traditionally, volunteers have been called out for short periods. The difference now with the terrifying things like 'mega fires' is you need volunteers for extended periods, and the community has an obligation to support them," Lyons told 10 daily.
"There's an urgent need to design a scheme for people who are out on fire grounds for two, three or four weeks at a time. They shouldn't have to worry about paying the bills. That seems fundamentally unfair."
Holton said he'd like to see a system where volunteers are at least reimbursed for basic expenses, like petrol for their cars to travel to fire zones. He claimed firefighters in his area can drive up to 90 minutes each way from their home to RFS centres.
Holton said many firefighters also purchased protective gear -- such as helmets, gloves or masks -- out of their own pocket, to "upgrade" the equipment provided by the RFS.
"We need to at least say it's a no-brainer to cover people's reasonable expenses," he said.
Holton runs a small business of his own, and said he sympathised with some employers who couldn't afford to offer their employees a paid community service leave entitlement. But he said the government had a role to play in addressing that situation.
"It's not right for us to expect employers to foot the bill for firefighting. Some businesses do, and I take my hat off to them. If I had an employee duck out for a few hours to fight fires, I'd pay them of course, but I couldn't afford it day after day," he said.
"We also shouldn't expect our volunteers to use their annual leave. Some do, and that's commitment we should thank them for, but it's not sustainable.
"People will burn out."
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