At more than three and a half times the size of Texas and almost 50% bigger than the second largest Australian State, Western Australia is heavily reliant on its 26,000 emergency services workers. Like their colleagues in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and other parts of the country, Western Australia’s firefighters work tirelessly to prevent, prepare for, and respond to, thousands of fires and other dangerous incidents each year.
However, Western Australia is quite unique in that the vast majority (>80%) of its firefighting personnel are not managed by the state government. In Western Australia, the most populous emergency service by a factor of almost 10 is the Bush Fire Service – which is the collective name for 560 volunteer brigades ‘owned and managed’ by more than 110 individual Local Government Authorities, or Shire Councils. Indeed, this unique feature of WA’s emergency services model was never more succinctly explained than in 2016 when the then Minister for Emergency Services told Parliament that the 20,000 volunteers of the Bush Fire Service, ‘do not belong to the [state] Department of Fire and Emergency Services.’
While his successor oversaw the creation of the so-called Rural Fire Division of DFES in 2018, the sub-department does not have any operational responsibility, role or capability – leaving the WA Government the only among its peers to not have direct management of the majority of the emergency services personnel it relies on.
The WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) employs around 1,200 career (paid) firefighters, 3,400 fire service volunteers, 3,600 other volunteers (SES and Marine Rescue) and 500 paid admin staff. The United Firefighters Union (UFU) is an effective advocate for paid staff and as the direct responsibility of the Department, DFES-managed volunteer services are also typically well supported and funded, each with their own peak body.
Although the WA Bush Fire Service delivers the strong advantages of local decision-making and consequently a stronger sense of self-determination in small regional communities, its disparate nature has led to a ‘many silo’ approach to problem solving, public relations and most significantly, lobbying. Given the ever-increasing number of competitors for government attention and funding, the lack of a unified and coherent ‘voice’ has resulted in the state’s largest emergency service being overlooked and relatively unsupported by both the government and the wider public.
Thus, the need for the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades of Western Australia – or ‘Bushfire Volunteers’ as we began trading after our first major rebrand in 2019.
Bushfire Volunteers was formally registered in June 1991 but existed for many years prior to official incorporation. By default, the association’s membership is comprised of all Local Government Bush Fire Brigades in Western Australia. Our mission is to advocate for the optimum health, welfare, safety and recognition of Bush Fire Brigade volunteers by being knowledgeable of and responsive to their needs, delivering transparent and accountable processes, developing relationships and alliances with stakeholders and being proactive and influential in decision-making and policy development. The association is non-partisan but as one of the very few organizations that has been prepared to challenge bad policy publicly irrespective of its origin, unapologetically political.
Unfortunately, our commitment to frank and fearless advocacy has not always been received well, or evidently even understood. As a relatively immature organization with many senior appointments having been influenced by industrial agreements, DFES often lacks the wisdom other bureaucracies demonstrate by embracing contrary views as opportunities for improvement and developing support from a broader group of otherwise hostile stakeholders.
As one with a much deeper understanding of politics than operational firefighting, I have learned that this ongoing challenge may be reflective of the different ways water is used by urban versus rural firefighters rather than any particular malice. In short, those trained to fight fires in areas where water is freely available via endlessly flowing high-pressure hydrants might be inclined to adopt a strategy of pouring as much water as required to completely eradicate the threat. However, in rural and regional areas where water is much more scarce, those managing unpredictable fires are trained to be more selective about where to apply the remedy – or in more political parlance, pick their battles.
Clearly both approaches have a place in literal and metaphoric firefighting but are almost always mutually exclusive. It is simply impossible to walk on two sides of a fence simultaneously. In Western Australia, there are a number of ongoing challenges that in the same way, might remain irreconcilable without significant structural changes to the ‘fence’ that currently divides us.
Mentioned earlier, WA’s long-standing emergency services model comes with strengths and weaknesses. Bushfire Volunteers is strongly supportive of the very significant positive benefits the current structure delivers to small, regional communities. The widely dispersed network of 560 relatively small volunteer Bush Fire Brigades throughout the state has two very clear upsides:
- Even though small brigades may not have all the specialist equipment and skills available 24/7 to manage every risk, they are often able to get to emergency incidents quickly and minimize the spread until reinforcements arrive, and
- Small regional towns are more resilient and confident because of the mere presence of trained and equipped personnel – even if they don’t have all the specialist resources required to fully eliminate risks without backup.
The most significant downside is what government officials sitting behind desks in capital cities tend to call ‘inefficiency’. While it is accepted that bigger services almost always deliver economic efficiency, evaluating the efficiency of emergency services through a purely financial lens is deeply problematic for the two most compelling arguments in support of the status quo above.
Unfortunately, the other sizeable downside to WA’s current dispersed model of emergency services is the historical lack of coordinated advocacy – and subsequent outcomes for smaller communities. As discussed above, the absence of a well-resourced, strong and unified voice for the Bush Fire Service has resulted in inadequate funding and support. For example, in the last financial year, the Department collected $405m from Western Australian landowners via the specifically hypothecated Emergency Services Levy (ESL). Of that, only around $16m (4%) was allocated to Local Governments to fund their Bush Fire Brigades.
The association is very careful to not be seen to be advocating for an arbitrary increase to that number, rather calling for a change to the funding process to ensure Bush Fire Brigades are funded for all the resources they need to appropriately manage their local risks.
The core of the problem lies in the lack of transparency in the way the ESL is managed. Unlike other government departments, the annual operating budget of DFES is almost entirely derived from this fund. Over successive governments, the amount allocated from Consolidated Revenue to pay for the department’s corporate services has been decreased, forcing it to pay for standard government obligations such as artwork, HR and office cleaning from the special levy.
This combined with the fact that DFES is both the ultimate decision-maker of how the ESL is spent and the single biggest recipient of its decisions has created the very reasonable view that the department has an unavoidable – and unacceptable – conflict of interest.
Over the years, the association has identified, advocated for and succeeded in straightening out many issues of inadequate funding and equipment for its bush fire brigade members. Notwithstanding these many acute ‘victories’, the chronic and most serious issue remains the opaque decision-making process and lack of detail in reporting of the use of the ESL.
Evidently, there are still a vast number of changes that need to happen to ensure that bush fire volunteers are appropriately resourced and supported in their efforts to protect their local communities. Bushfire Volunteers is proud to be increasing its focus on consultation and representation of our incredible members to strengthen our advocacy and avoid the potential for multi-generational consequences in many of WA’s most vulnerable small communities.
For more information, go to bushfire.org.au