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CFA volunteers feel double-crossed by state over re-structure

By Simon Ruppert

Structural changes to Victoria's fire brigades have left many CFA volunteers in Benalla and across the state feeling angry and ignored.

Victoria's Police and Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville officially announced the changes on June 18.

This came as a shock to many within CFA who, despite knowing changes were coming, thought a process of consultation would take place to offer insight and advice from those on the front-line regarding a new structure.

Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), the peak body representing CFA volunteers in the state, has gone so far as to accuse the Andrews Government of ignoring legislation which requires it to consult volunteers over any changes which impact them.

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Benalla CFA group officer Jim Renkin said he believed many would walk away from the organisation.

"When all of this happened, with the change of legislation, we were told that the volunteers would be consulted, as they must be according to the volunteer charter which is recognised by legislation," Mr Renkin said.

"That did not happen. It looks like we'll just be told what is going to happen.

"These changes will have an effect on people who might want to volunteer. We've already had some senior people resign.

"Some people who have been a member of Benalla CFA for 50 years are telling me they no longer want to be a part of it."

In a strongly worded email to volunteers earlier this month, VFBV chief executive Adam Barnett said the Victorian Government had broken its promises to volunteers.

“We have worked incredibly hard to honour our commitment to good faith discussions, and resisted provocation after provocation,” Mr Barnett said.

“For several months now we have been escalating our growing concerns and disappointment, all of which have been met by a wall of silence or indifference.”

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In announcing the structural changes Ms Neville's office confirmed that a new team of experienced fire and rescue executives would support Fire Rescue Victoria Commissioner Ken Block.

The newly appointed Deputy Commissioners bring together senior firefighters from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), CFA and fire agencies from other jurisdictions who, together with Commissioner Block, will provide FRV with executive leadership.

Australian Fire Service Medal recipient Kenneth Brown will join FRV as Deputy Commissioner in the Office of the Fire Rescue Commissioner.

Mr Brown is currently MFB's Acting Deputy Chief Officer of Operational Preparedness.

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The executive team will also include Michelle Young, who has been appointed Deputy Commissioner of Fire Safety; David Bruce, who has been appointed Deputy Commissioner, North-West Operations; Gavin Freeman, who will be Deputy Commissioner for South-East Operations; Brendan Angwin, who has been appointed Deputy Commissioner for Operational Training; and Martin Braid, who will lead operational communications, IT, policy and planning.

All appointees will begin in their new roles on July 1, upon the commencement of FRV as a new agency to bring together career firefighters and staff from CFA and MFB to lead fire and rescue services in Melbourne and major regional centres.

Ms Neville spoke highly of the new appointees.

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“We’ve chosen a highly experienced team of experts to lead FRV and work with emergency services colleagues to keep Victorians safe," Ms Neville said.

"I congratulate them all on their well-deserved appointments.

“Our career and volunteer firefighters are the best in the world, and as our population grows we’re making sure that they and the Victorian community have the modern fire service that they deserve.”

However these changes have been questioned by CFA volunteers, many of whom took their argument to State Member for Euroa Steph Ryan on Wednesday.

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Ms Ryan had already spent much of last week meeting with CFA volunteers to hear their concerns about the changes.

She said the volunteers were shocked about much of the new structure, partuicularly when they discovered the United Firefighters Union had the ultimate say over who the 229 assistant chief and commanders seconded to run the CFA would be.

Secondees will also wear Fire Rescue Victoria uniforms, which Ms Ryan said damaged the CFA’s culture and identity.

"After today (July 1), the CFA as we know it will be dead," Ms Ryan said.

"It will not be the standalone volunteer organisation the Andrews Government promised.

“Daniel Andrews has arrogantly handed control of the CFA to the UFU, including staffing and the allocation of resources.

“Over the weekend it emerged that the UFU has asked Labor to fund another 600 paid firefighters, which shows what’s really at the heart of this government’s arrogant decision to smash up the CFA.''

State Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell has taken the rhetoric one step further, calling on CFA volunteers to wear a black armband over their uniforms.

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Ms Maxwell said volunteers feared that the reforms would turn the CFA into a second-class service with budget concerns and a lack of access to future training.

“Volunteers feel let down and unappreciated by this entire process and it is heartbreaking. For many of them, this may be the last straw," Ms Maxwell said.

“Unfortunately, I fear the death of the volunteer fire service.”

District 23 VFBV Association spokesperson Mary-Anne Egan said many people were upset with the new structure.

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"On July 1 CFA, as everyone knows it, loves it and respects it is going to split into two parts," Ms Egan said.

"We are going the have the volunteer section who will remain with CFA and the career members will join the newly created FRV, along with MFB.

"So MFB will close down and the CFA career members will come together in FRV.

“A few short months ago, the CFA was being hailed for its efforts in protecting our communities; now we are being betrayed by the state government.

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“The pathway to the government’s Fire Services Reform is lined with broken promises regarding genuine consultation with CFA leadership and the volunteers affected by the changes wrought."

The VFBV, which represents the state’s 54,000 CFA volunteers, said the changes could be confusing for firefighters and the public.

“CFA’s Chief Officer is being forced to fill his senior management from a new agency, the recently created Fire Rescue Victoria,” Ms Egan said.

“These seconded FRV members may be wearing FRV uniforms and not those of CFA, causing confusion for the public.

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"This is contrary to previous commitments made that all seconded employees would wear CFA uniforms.

“CFA volunteers fear that this also leaves us in danger of dysfunctional reporting lines, fatal in any emergency situation.

“CFA volunteer representatives, as well as CFA management, have been sidelined by the state government in what was supposed to be a genuinely consultative process to implement the new structure.

"What was labelled as reform is increasingly turning into a return to the old division between the CFA and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

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"CFA’s unpaid volunteers will effectively once again be subject to the paid firefighters’ enterprise agreement and union interference over the CFA Chief Officer.

“We don’t want the chief officer to have his two hands tied behind his back again.

“We have been very patient with the government in waiting for advice on the impacts of fire services reform.

“Now, at the 11th hour, the government is revealing terrible decisions, ignoring their commitment and legal responsibility to effectively consult with CFA volunteers and staff.

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"The people most affected are being ignored again. They deserve to be heard.

“The government appears to be overlooking the people they appointed to manage the creation and implementation of reform, such as the CFA Chief Officer and our highly qualified volunteer firefighters who also provide critical local knowledge needed in emergencies.

“We call on the Minister for Emergency Services to listen to our CFA leadership, and CFA volunteers and our volunteer association to get the best possible outcomes for our communities as we rebuild the state’s crucial firefighting services.”

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