Is paying volunteer firefighters worth the long-term price?

 

Whether it was the heat, the smoke, or an imminent threat, most Australian households would have discussed bushfires, and how to deal with them, as we gathered together for Christmas.

And there wouldn't have been too many relatively young and fit people, living in bushfire prone areas, that didn't think of joining their local brigade.

Or think about how else they might be able to help.

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Along with the ongoing drought, the fact that so many communities are battling fires made for a reflective time at my Mum's house where we appreciated our blessings more than usual and sent our thoughts and prayers to those doing it tough. Indeed, it meant a more modest round of present giving too as extravagance felt out of kilter with the national mood, and instead of things we might 'want', money was donated to people with real 'need'.

Talking to others, we weren't alone, because that's the Australian spirit or, at least, I think it still is.

When we see a problem, our inclination is to think of others and want to help, to roll up our sleeves and deal with it.

We're renowned the world over as a nation of volunteers. We take it as a commonplace thing that volunteers patrol our vast coastline to save lives, put out fires and patch up storm damage but overseas, that's not how it's done. And we're better for it as a country.

We’re a better country for our volunteering spirit. Picture: Gary Ramage
We’re a better country for our volunteering spirit. Picture: Gary Ramage

Over the past few days, there's been a debate under way with our political leaders about whether, given the length of this fire season, we start paying our volunteer firefighters. It's a debate worth having with valid arguments for and against change, but it's not a decision we should rush, and here's why. Paying volunteers will change what they do and how they do it, forever. It will also change who they are.

The person who fronts their local fire brigade to sign up with no other motive than community spirit is different than someone who sees it as second paid job.

As a long-time volunteer firefighter said to me when I asked him about paying volunteers, 'the one thing that knits all of us together - and we're from all walks of life, different occupations, ages and backgrounds - is our desire to get in and help."

It's a common purpose and a level of selflessness that we disrupt at our peril. Of course once volunteers are paid, we will never be able to not pay them. Once we pay one class of volunteers too - firefighters in this immediate debate - there will be calls for others undertaking similar life or death risk to also be remunerated; lifesavers and SES volunteers immediately come to mind. How long will it be before using a public beach in Australia then attracts a $10 fee to cover the cost of lifesavers?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks with CFS staff as he visits the Mt Barker CFS HQ in South Australia. Picture: AAP/Kelly Barnes
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks with CFS staff as he visits the Mt Barker CFS HQ in South Australia. Picture: AAP/Kelly Barnes

While government might be gung-ho now and say paying them is a good idea, you can bet the cost will inevitably come back to us sooner rather than later in a 'cost-recovery' manoeuvre.

Once paid, unions will get involved and demand the same rights as other paid workers - fair enough. So there will be leave for this and leave for that and each time the pay deal is up for negotiation, be ready for union threats about strikes over the fire season unless demands are met.

Like all other workplaces too, there will be the usual PC rubbish and the current egalitarian brigade shed will be no more. But on the other hand, why should volunteers do all the heavy-lifting when the rest of us don't?

Where I grew up, everyone was a volunteer member of something; many for more than one organisation; Apex, Rotary, CWA, the rural fire brigade and Lions. Today, particularly in our capital cities, we're quick to protest, holding up a placard demanding someone does something, rather than get in and do it ourselves. How much volunteering do you do? I know I could do more but let it slide with the usual excuse that I'm busy, but so too is the mechanic who has left his business behind to fight fires.

The PM said he would ensure public servants got up to four weeks paid leave annually to fight fires. Picture: AAP/Kelly Barnes
The PM said he would ensure public servants got up to four weeks paid leave annually to fight fires. Picture: AAP/Kelly Barnes

The PM said he would ensure public servants got up to four weeks paid leave annually to fight fires. The banks, quick to grab the PR opportunity after a horror year of bad behaviour, have said the same too. And Woolworths, as well. Already, that now means some volunteers will be immune from loss of income while others, working for someone other than these big players, or self-employed, will not. The risk, of course, is that it ends up creating two classes of volunteer - those who can get by and those, who for every hour on the truck, means a potential hit to their ability to make ends meet.

Fire-fighters have told me that much of this financial impact is mitigated by the ability to take annual leave over the worst of our summer fire season. But as the PM has recognised, this season, particularly in NSW, has been long and arduous, and much of the leave usually used would now be gone. Of course, the reason why that's a problem is that firefighters are going out again and again, but if there were more of them the call on individuals would be shared. I guess this is where more of us need to step up and spread the load.

We might not all be up to wearing the gear and standing in front of a fierce blaze but visiting plenty of emergency setups as I have with Tony Abbott, there's a broad spread of fire brigade jobs that need doing - in the communications team, logistics, catering and more. Once the worst of it passes, there's the mammoth clean-up effort too and that's where our aid organisations like the Salvos and the Red Cross are always willing to accept help.

Volunteers are essential for our fire fighting to continue. Picture: Zak Simmonds
Volunteers are essential for our fire fighting to continue. Picture: Zak Simmonds

In the end, part of the reason our politicians are busy talking about what more we can do to help our volunteers is that in times of national emergency - be it fire, drought or flood - they take a back seat to the experts and end up in the role of 'commisserator-in-chief'. Most of them find this hard because they'd rather be making decisions but we need to be very careful here when talking about paying volunteers, that we understand it means ending volunteerism forever, and that we don't make that decision lightly, or to get a quick hit in the news-cycle.

Right now, the government has the ability to make special arrangements - like one-off payments or tax-breaks for volunteers (because let's not forget, because they are not paid, the current tax rules don't let volunteers claim any out of pocket costs for equipment or fuel). These are the sort of things that should be explored at a special meeting of state and federal leaders and emergency chiefs, so that we add sensibly to what we do, in our land of 'droughts and flooding rains', rather than risk what makes it so special.

As many of our volunteers make clear, it is the stuff we do for love that defines us, not the stuff for which we are paid.



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