‘Cheap labour’: Rural fireys expose bitter rift


FURIOUS volunteer firies have blown the whistle on a bitter stoush with government-run firefighting authorities, saying they feel disrespected, undervalued and ignored despite their heroic efforts saving scores of homes during the state's bushfire crisis.

Rural firefighters have told a Royal Commission they are being used as "cheap labour" and delays in making crucial decisions led to small fires becoming destructive infernos.

Queensland's 36,000 Rural Fire Service volunteers make up the backbone of the state's bushfire response, but they believe their advice on the ground is being brushed aside as authorities value rank over local knowledge.

Ravensbourne And Perseverance Rural Fire Brigade volunteer Geoff Udy said there was a "total lack of respect" paid to rural firies by QFES.

"It's a shocking situation," he told the Courier-Mail.

"The QFES should have maximum respect for the local brigades and they should listen to their advice first, don't just step all over them.

"They value us about as much as they pay us, it's a nasty cliche but it's so true."

Volunteer firefighters Peter Ralph and Geoff Udy. Picture: Liam Kidston
Volunteer firefighters Peter Ralph and Geoff Udy. Picture: Liam Kidston

Mr Udy believes a failure of QFES to heed the advice of local firefighters on how to contain the Pechey bushfire in November saw it escalate from a one hectare blaze into a destructive inferno.

"It's not a game for us, we want to minimise it as quickly as we can because we live here," he said.

"I've been doing it for 25 years, and it's been very rewarding until the bloody bureaucrats step in. I believe they range from incompetent to downright dangerous."

A QFES spokesman disputed this saying weather conditions influenced the spread and behaviour of the fire which made it difficult to control.

"Specialist response equipment was promptly deployed to the fire at the request of Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers, including heavy machinery during the night and waterbombing aircraft at first light," he said. "Local RFS volunteers supported the operation of the fire at all levels, including strategic command roles, divisional command positions and in the position of Incident Controller."

Ravensbourne And Perseverance Rural Fire Brigade's First Officer Peter Ralph, who penned a frank submission to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, said despite decades spent fighting fires his advice has been brushed aside.

"When it comes to local knowledge the respect is just not there. I've been a volunteer for over 55 years and my advice or knowledge seems to be ignored," he said.

"What we need is people on the ground with the knowledge of how to manage fires."

The discontent isn't isolated to his brigade, with other volunteers talking of a strained relationship with QFES.

"There is some tension there. There are systems in place that don't favour volunteers," a senior firefighter, who asked not to be identified, said. "There is respect for volunteers but it's not there in some places. It's a cultural thing within the organisation."

The man said there was a lack of appreciation for the breadth of knowledge and experience that existed in the volunteer group.

"Volunteers are from a phenomenally wide range of backgrounds, we've got pilots, doctors, journalists, farmers, people from all walks of life," he said.

However QFES said it strongly believed volunteers were imperative to the success of the organisation and provide a vital emergency service to Queensland communities.

"QFES values and respects the level of commitment, dedication and knowledge demonstrated by all staff and volunteers during incidents," a spokesman said.

"All operational decisions made on the fire ground prioritise life, property and the environment. Where appropriate, local knowledge is applied prior to making operational decisions."

Queensland Rural Fire Brigades Association First Officer Ian Pike said the lack of respect and trust made fighting bushfires a lot harder.

"Rank over local ability and knowledge led to bad decisions putting crews at risk many times," he said. "There needs to be improved consultation between RFS staff and volunteers leading to retrieving of trust and halting the loss of volunteer numbers."

The Samford Rural Fire Brigade has also raised concerns with the Royal Commission about the various agencies involved in bushfire mitigation operating across several different communication systems.

The lack of a common communication platform among the agencies has long been a problem in Queensland and interstate.

"Our concern is that the safety of our communities and fire responders is being placed at increased risk due to bureaucratic inertia," the brigade's submission said.

"Volunteer rural firefighters are extremely frustrated that Emergency Service Organisations have not been able to get their acts together.

"The loss of so many lives during Black Summer was tragic and governments and communities must take all action necessary to mitigate against such devastating loss in the future."

QFES said it had deployed capability for remote or isolated areas away from fixed network infrastructure to assist with maintaining communications.

"The effectiveness of these technologies when operating at the margins of coverage across Queensland is a key issue that QFES is constantly working to address."

Originally published as 'Cheap labour': Rural fireys expose bitter rift