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Growing calls for volunteer firefighters to be paid

Lucy Dean
Volunteer firefighters battle Australian bushfires, Australian cash. Images: Getty
Should volunteers be paid? Images: Getty

As Australia’s bushfire crisis continues to descend into unprecedented territory, several politicians and employee groups have called for volunteer firefighters to receive compensation.

New South Wales’ catastrophic bushfire season has already seen more than 5,000 firefighters from interstate and overseas locations like Canada flown in to help battle the monstrous blazes.

“The reality is we’ve got a scale and magnitude of operation unfolding this season that has necessitated assistance and support well beyond local capabilities,” NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Noting the magnitude and duration of the blazes, Labor leader Anthony Albanese on Friday said volunteers should receive some form of payment to compensate for time spent off work, warning that many will be unable to continue to volunteer without any compensation.

“Those who, many of them, aren’t being compensated at all, they still had to put food on the table, they still have to pay their mortgage,” Albanese said on Sunrise.

Albanese also said this compensation could come in the form of tax breaks, one-off payments and special leave entitlements.

“We need to do more to make sure that people aren’t out of pocket, that they’re not in the position of choosing whether to go out on another run, or whether to have to go to work and provide for their family.”

Volunteer firefighters are entitled to compensation if they become injured while volunteering, but receive little other financial assistance, with some entitled to up to five days special leave that can be extended in emergencies.

However, for self-employed volunteers and small-business owners who employ volunteers, the matter of paying staff while they fight fires is an expensive problem and difficult question to answer.

Firefighters split

President of the Volunteer Firefighters Association Mick Holton said firies themselves are split on the topic.

“You get a lot of volunteers… who say they don’t feel remuneration is appropriate because it would damage the volunteer ethos. But there are many others who say ‘I can only do this for so long’,” he told 2GB earlier this month.

Holton also noted the difficulty employers may have in paying staff during this leave.

“It’s a little unrealistic for us to expect employers to pick up the tab… [but] many employers do,” Holton said.

“We need to really start thinking about out-of-pocket expenses at the very least.”

More professionals needed: Fire Brigade Employees Union

The Fire Brigade Employees Union’s head of the Sydney outer-west sub-branch said the government also needs to fund more paid position with the fire brigade, noting progressive cuts to funding.

He said volunteer firefighters are “brave and dedicated”, but are tired.

“They’d been working for over five weeks on these fires, they’re running their full-time jobs and then having to go and work day and night to save the situation in the state,” he said in a press conference.

“The way to fix this is we need more professional firefighters. We’re 400 professional firefighters short in the state and the demand is there for them. The government needs to fund these 400 more positions.

“We can’t constantly rely on the good-heartedness and bravery of volunteers.”

Scott Morrison rejects calls for more funding

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously rejected calls for more funding for volunteer firefighters.

The prime minister said volunteers “want to be there”.

“The volunteer effort is a big part of our natural disaster response and it is a big part of how Australia has always dealt with these issues,” Morrison said.

“We are constantly looking at ways to better facilitate the volunteer effort, but to professionalise that at that scale is not a matter that has previously been accepted and it’s not currently under consideration by the government.”

The prime minister and former marketing manager recently apologised for his decision to take an international holiday to Hawaii while the country battles the huge bushfires.

Morrison is expected to return to Australia on Saturday.

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