Glenwood Rural Fire Brigade officers try to control a bush Fire at Bauple.
Glenwood Rural Fire Brigade officers try to control a bush Fire at Bauple.

Region could lose 1000 volunteer firies over red tape

AS MANY as 1000 volunteers from the Rural Fire Brigade Association of Queensland, North Coast Region, have been issued with registered letters ordering them to obtain a Blue Card by the end of the month or hand back their uniforms.

North Coast Region, to which Gympie belongs, covers the coastal areas of Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and the Sunshine Coast and inland to the North and South Burnett.

The move comes as the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service struggles to incorporate the RFBAQ under legal guidelines drawn up in 2015. The association's general manager Justin Choveaux said the whole situation had been poorly handled and described it as a "complete balls-up".

 

Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland general manager Justin Choveaux.
Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland general manager Justin Choveaux.

 

"Everyone forgot that we're part of the QFES. A Blue Card is necessary for anyone providing a health directive, but that's not us. We're not trained to provide first aid so the health directive doesn't apply. They still don't understand who we are," he said.

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By not complying and signing up for a Blue Card by May 30, volunteers face criminal prosecution by the Department of Justice and Attorney-General. Volunteers who are not compliant could be fned $6600, something Mr Choveaux said could end up costing in excess of $90 million.

 

Ken Cross of the Chatsworth Rural Fire Brigade
Ken Cross of the Chatsworth Rural Fire Brigade

 

He said many volunteers object to getting a Blue Card because they have little if any contact with children and resent having to deal with the additional bureaucracy.

"Other Rural Fire Services in the country are not required to have a Working With Children Card (Blue Card equivalent), just Queensland," he said.

Mr Choveaux said volunteers were "voting with their feet" and leaving the service and the situation appears to be worse the further away from Brisbane you go.

"In areas like Brisbane, the uptake has been quite high but in Far North Queensland they stand to lose nearly 50 per cent of their volunteers," he said.

The timing couldn't be worse as Mr Choveaux predicts a big fire season.

"We need them now to start hazard reduction burns or we're in for a disastrous season," he said.

Ken Cross of the Chatsworth Rural Fire Brigade
Ken Cross of the Chatsworth Rural Fire Brigade

A controversial Plan B to cover the shortfall of volunteers in some areas by moving active members between neighbouring regions and "pre-deploying'' has been shot down by Mr Choveaux.

"How do you pre-deploy a volunteer, and what happens if the areas you want to pre-deploy from are having fires of their own?'' he said.

"I'm not saying having a Blue Card is a bad idea, I'm simply saying they should have handled this better and looked at those in charge as someone who might need it, but not make everyone get it," Mr Choveaux said.

 

Ken Cross of the Chatsworth Rural Fire Brigade
Ken Cross of the Chatsworth Rural Fire Brigade

 

Ken Cross has been a RFBAQ volunteer for more than 40 years. He followed his father into the service, and it's something he has enjoyed.

But now he's considering whether or not to apply for the Blue Card as required.

"We've got a 70-year celebration next year.

"If I don't apply I won't be able to go to that,'' he said.

"We have to have a police check done, and that's fair enough, no one's kicking up about that. But when you're backburning or fighting fires, you never see any children. A Blue Card does absolutely nothing for you when you're fighting a fire," he said.

 

Ripley Rural Fire Fighter George Ganzenmuller attempts to put out a grass fire. File image from 2007.
Ripley Rural Fire Fighter George Ganzenmuller attempts to put out a grass fire. File image from 2007.

 

Mr Cross is the Fire Warden for Chatsworth and was First Officer (officer in charge of the Chatsworth Brigade) for 32 years.

"It's nearly an insult. It's almost like they don't trust us," he said.

He also said the additional criteria to join might be viewed as an obstruction to new volunteers.

At present volunteers are accepted or denied admittance depending on the views of the committee and in small communities like Chatsworth everyone pretty much knows everyone else.

But even if this latest move doesn't deter applicants, having new members will not be much good if the older members are leaving, Mr Cross said.

"You've got to have hands-on experience, and that's something the older members can share."

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