Retained firefighters at Bowral Fire Station are still unavailable for calls after they took informal action over the Easter weekend.
Staff from the station advised Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) they would be unavailable to respond from 8am on Thursday, April 13 through to midnight on Tuesday, April 18 amid claims of “insufficient” staffing levels.
FRNSW deployed several Sydney crews to man the Bowral station over the Easter weekend, including Campbelltown, Horningsea Park, Macquarie Fields, Newtown and Smithfield.
A FRNSW spokeswoman has since confirmed additional retained staff would soon join the Bowral team.
“FRNSW recently undertook a recruitment campaign in the region. Two applicants were successful and will commence training shortly,” she said.
A Southern Highlands FRNSW member told the Southern Highland News the informal action at the station aimed to draw attention to Bowral’s staffing levels, and the introduction of risk based response protocols across the brigade.
“Bowral’s first concern was staffing, but risk based response protocols will affect a significant number of retained and permanent stations,” he said.
Risk based response protocols proposed by FRNSW would change the way teams respond to incidents, by applying a risk assessment to certain incidents to decide which teams and stations would respond, and the number of firefighters and trucks to be sent.
The protocols would look at three key areas: the use of crews and trucks already mobile and ready to respond; selective calling at stations with both permanent and retained staff and adjustments to responses for Automatic Fire Alarm (AFA) calls.
In a letter to the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) state secretary Leighton Drury on October 18, 2016, then FRNSW commissioner Greg Mullins said about 97 per cent of calls to AFAs in the previous financial year were false alarms.
Proposed changes would send one truck to low-risk premises, rather than the current default practice of sending two trucks from two locations.
The FRNSW spokeswoman said FRNSW was in negotiations with the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) regarding the proposed protocols. She said the protocols would have no bearing on current staffing levels at Bowral fire station.
“In fact, the purpose of the protocols is to better enable FRNSW to manage the issue of fatigue levels or “burn out,” which has been raised by the retained firefighters,” she said.
However, the Southern Highlands FRNSW member said while that could be the case, retained firefighters would still need to be on call.
“We’re not paid for the hours we’re marked available, we’re only paid if there’s a call. That means being ready to respond, staying at under 0.02 blood alcohol as per our award and often needing to leave our homes and jobs at a moment’s notice. That comes at a cost to families and other employment,” he said.
Although the industry award only requires base-level retained staff to be on call for 24 hours each week, the Southern Highlands FRNSW member said many Bowral firefighters gave significantly more to ensure the team kept the station operational.
“Almost half of the station’s team has consistently, for years on end, been giving more than 150 hours of availability each week,” he said.
However, the FRNSW spokeswoman said on-shift permanent crews were often re-deployed to other stations to ensure staffing levels were maintained at stations across NSW, as had been the case when Bowral’s team was unavailable.
As Bowral team members are specially trained in hazardous materials, two retained firefighters from Bowral were available during the team’s “down” period to ensure the HAZMAT truck could respond if required.
A FBEU spokesman said the union would not comment on availability at Bowral prior to the Easter break.
FRNSW said it needed the community’s support to increase its retained firefighter numbers.
Those interested in becoming a retained firefighter can apply online at http://www.fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=11