24 March 2023

Lack of firefighters ignites pre-poll action

| John Thistleton and Chris Roe
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Wagga’s Justin Bently is one of the dozens of firefighters handing out flyers at polling booths. Photo: Chris Roe.

Firefighters across NSW have taken the extraordinary step of calling on voters to “put the Liberals and Nationals last” as they protest a lack of investment in the NSW Fire Service.

Members of the Fire Brigade Employees Union have been campaigning outside pre-polling booths across NSW calling for additional firefighters and station upgrades.

“They would rather be at home with their families or trying to come off their shift work and have some rest,” Fire Brigade Employees Union secretary Leighton Drury said.

“Instead they are trying to make changes to highlight in the communities they protect there are problems in the fire service.

“In regional NSW we live in the communities that we protect, we know the people walking down the street and at the calls that we go to. So we think it’s important that the community hears our message on these things.”

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Fire and Rescue NSW is the fourth largest urban fire service in the world, with 335 fire stations crewed by 3579 permanent firefighters, 3243 on-call firefighters, 515 admin staff and 4666 Community Fire Unit volunteers to serve the state’s rapidly expanding population.

The union is calling for investment in 600 additional firefighters and $350 million to upgrade stations that they say have not been keeping pace with modern-day facilities.

“It’s got to the point now where if we don’t have the wages cap removed and have our budgets reinstated, we believe very strongly that our ability to provide service to the state of NSW is severely impacted,” said the union’s country representative Tim Anderson.

“The population of NSW has grown by about a million since the Liberal/National Government’s been in power and we actually have less permanent firefighters now than we did back in 2008 when they came to government.”

three firefighters

Professional firefighters hand out leaflets at Goulburn’s pre-polling booth. Photo: John Thistleton.

Mr Drury said that the state’s demographics had changed as a result of COVID-19, with more people leaving metropolitan areas and moving to rural centres.

“We have 500,000 new homes being built in the last 10 years,” Mr Drury said, adding that in addition to protecting homes, firefighters were called on for many other types of emergency work.

“We do rescue, road crash rescue, industrial rescue, high angle, swift water, hazardous materials, bushfires, floods and our day-to-day business as well.”

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The annual overtime bill pre-COVID-19 for firefighters is normally around $20 million, but this year it is likely to be more than four times that.

“That’s how short we are across the state at the moment, especially regional NSW,” the union secretary said.

He also suggested that fire trucks and stations were not fit for purpose. Despite a push to recruit more women, most of the stations did not have separate facilities or enough showers.

Mr Anderson said firefighters were fed up and were taking a stand.

“We’ve taken a position that we’re not going to tell people how to vote,” he said, explaining the flyers calling for voters to number the Coalition last.

“But given the fact that other political parties and independents have made commitments to us while the Coalition has refused to even engage with us, we need to address that or it’s going to be broken forever.”

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Minister for Emergency Services and Resilience Steph Cooke rejected the claims, highlighting that in the 2022-23 Budget, the NSW Liberal and Nationals Government invested more than $4.2 billion in emergency services, including a record $970.2 million for Fire and Rescue NSW, which is a $122.2 million increase on the previous year.

Ms Cooke said in the past year alone, 415 permanent and on-call firefighters had joined the ranks of Fire and Rescue NSW.

“The NSW Liberal and Nationals Government will continue to ensure our emergency services organisations have the resources and staff they need to keep communities safer and stronger,” she said.

Original article published by John Thistleton on About Regional.

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