House debates

Monday, 27 May 2013

Private Members' Business

Belmont and Tingira Heights Fire Stations

1:05 pm

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to place on the record of this House my thanks to the firefighters throughout my community and for that matter throughout Australia who keep our communities safe. No matter where you live in Australia your community is protected by firefighters—be they full-time professional firefighters employed by state governments, part-time or more commonly known as retained firefighters, or volunteer firefighters. Each kind of firefighter has a very specific role to play in protecting our communities. On Sunday 19 May I attended the Volunteer Appreciation Day at Doyalson in my electorate on the Central Coast, which included the blessing of the Rural Fire Service fleet and the recognition of the service of volunteers that work for the Rural Fire Service. It was a really appropriate way to end volunteer week and I thank those rural firefighters for the service that they have given to their community, just as I thank the professional firefighters who work each and every day protecting our communities.

Firefighters provide a vital service, a service that saves lives and property. That can only happen if fire crews are located in communities to protect those communities. In recent times, unfortunately, firefighters from the Belmont and Tingira fire stations within my electorate have been taken offline—their stations have been taken offline. And, for a combined loss of greater than 70 hours, those two fire stations have been closed and taken offline whilst the crews go to Swansea Fire Station. There are two issues here: one, there are not enough retained firefighters at Swansea to maintain that station and two, our professional firefighters are being taken across the bridge at Swansea—which has a history of becoming stuck—and leaving those communities unprotected. If the Belmont crew is down at Swansea, it would mean that a fire crew would have to come to Belmont from Tingira Heights, and if that fire crew was fighting a fire at one of the local shopping centres, then fire crews would have to be brought from a lot further away—and we all know that the response time is vitally important. Response time is everything when a fire takes hold. If you cannot get a fire crew there quickly, then that means that your community is at risk. That means that lives are lost.

This cost-cutting practice that is taking place in New South Wales is very foolhardy. It is not the right approach. There are some things that you can cut at a bureaucratic level, but when it comes to the actual services on the ground it really is not good enough. I would like to condemn the New South Wales government for this practice and I do that in the strongest possible terms. By closing these stations, it really is placing at risk the communities that I represent in this parliament. I have had a number of people sign petitions and come and see me about this issue. I believe that the government is putting our communities at risk, simply in order to save a little bit of money on overtime or by not employing more retained or other firefighters.

Even last week both Belmont and Tingira Heights fire stations were taken offline, so whilst I said 70 hours, since then it is well up over the 80 hours. This is not good enough. The people of New South Wales deserve better than that. The people of the electorate of Shortland deserve better than this and the firefighters deserve better than this. They need to know that their government, their employer, is prepared to look after and protect them and employ them in the way that they are trained and qualified to be employed.

1:10 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Far from being condemnatory, the mover of this motion should be applauding the O'Farrell Stoner Liberal Nationals coalition government for its ongoing commitment to funding and prioritising firefighting services in that state. Indeed, under this New South Wales government, total expense allocations to Fire and Rescue New South Wales have increased by 11.4 per cent. Two country communities in the Riverina in particular are enormously thankful for the new fire stations opened on Friday 12 April with New South Wales Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons in attendance. These will prove much needed bases when the inevitable future bush fires take hold in the areas where they have been constructed—Mandamah near Ariah Park and Tara-Bectric near Temora.

In the past volunteer bush fire fighters struggled to battle blazes because of old trucks and often outdated equipment. They do not anymore, thanks to the coalition state government. The two state-of-the-art stations will each house the respective brigades' two funded tankers and associated firefighting equipment which were previously stored in farm sheds. The two new stations each boast two truck bays, a kitchenette, toilet, shower and 50,000 litre water tanks. As well, both stations are solar powered. Each was built at a cost of just over $101,000 with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service providing nearly $89,500 and the local councils of Bland and Temora shires the remainder. As you can see, this is a really good and significant investment by the New South Wales coalition. Tara-Bectric brigade was established in 1939 and Mandamah was formed in 1948. The new stations are a really welcome boost to the hardworking and dedicated volunteer firefighters in those districts who have persevered with too little in the way of tankers and equipment for far too long.

Whilst referring to those marvellous volunteers, I would also like to pay tribute to the 30 recipients of long service medals presented on 16 March to members of the Humula, Oberne Creek and Tarcutta fire brigades who between them tallied 1,187 years of service. William Belling and Mark Ball of Tarcutta have served for 72 and 67 years respectively. At Mandamah, 33 long service medal recipients totalled 1,165 years including Max Gordon who has contributed 56 years including a remarkable 48 years as deputy captain. Tara-Bectric's 24 long service members recently honoured accumulated 1,137 years with Ray Perry having 69 years of sterling work and Bill Haddrill 61 years.

Another tremendous state funded addition to Riverina's firefighting capabilities is Griffith's new rural fire service control centre on city council land in Wakaden Street. This facility which cost just under $3 million was opened on 19 April by Commissioner Fitzsimmons and the member for Murrumbidgee, Adrian Piccoli. Ironically, recent fires and floods delayed the opening but now that the official ceremony has taken place the centre will serve as the home of the Rural Fire Service and emergency control centre in times of crisis and as a training centre for services across the district.

During the past summer some of the hottest temperatures and fiercest fire conditions experienced caused havoc and widespread damage across the state and elsewhere and certainly in the Riverina. It is vital that New South Wales has the very best stations and resources available when disaster strikes to complement the outstanding efforts of those magnificent people who go to douse the flames whether they are in paid or voluntary roles. The present New South Wales government is doing just that and I commend it for its efforts to improve on what the previous Labor administration provided in its 16 years of debt and deficiency.

Fire and Rescue New South Wales employs a number of strategies to respond to planned and unplanned absences of firefighters and this is very relevant to this motion. This can include using overtime or relieving firefighters to staff a station. It has been standard practice for Fire and Rescue New South Wales to take fire stations offline when firefighters attend training, undertake hazard reduction burns or participate in other non-operational activities. This has been occurring for more than 100 years on a routine basis, so there is nothing new there, Member for Shortland. It has been occurring for more than a century. Under temporary offline arrangements, when nearby stations are able to provide adequate coverage, an understaffed station can be made temporarily unavailable for operational activities. The available firefighters at the station can be reassigned to other stations which are short-staffed due to unplanned absences in order to maintain minimum staffing levels for rostered shifts.

Ms Hall interjecting

I can hear the member for Shortland arguing and carrying on, but she knows full well the commitment being made by the New South Wales coalition government, which is very admirable. (Time expired)

1:15 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the member for Shortland's motion. In doing so, I must say I greatly regret that it is still necessary to have this resolution before this house. Late last year, on 26 November, I spoke on the same issue, which concerns the threat to vital emergency services in my community in Parramatta and in New South Wales more broadly. I must add that the issue is not confined to the electorate of Shortland but is statewide. Firefighting is not just about property; it is literally a matter of life and death, for the community and for the firefighters themselves. It is an essential front-line service. The responsibility of every government is to protect and fund essential services in their jurisdiction. The state government of New South Wales has failed in this duty.

I say that I regret that this resolution is necessary because the danger—of which I warned in November of 2012—of taking fire stations offline persists. In fact, it has spread, and it has become much more noticeable in my electorate of Parramatta. The practice involves standing down and closing a fire station when a firefighter is unexpectedly unable to come to work, for reasons such as illness or family emergency. The obvious alternative is to call back or call in replacement firefighters to staff the shift. However, under current New South Wales policy, to save money the whole shift is taken offline—so that overtime, or call back costs, are not paid.

What disturbs me greatly is that this practice has now been extended from covering only unpredictable absences to covering absences which are not only predictable but programmed, such as firefighters taking annual leave and long service leave. The original idea of not replacing staff in the case of unplanned absence was bad enough, but the spread, from November last year, to all types of absences is simply gambling with property and with lives. When it comes to the fire brigade, response times matter, and the location of stations matters. Issues such as density, factories and types of industries must be taken into account. When a station is offline, another station, further away, with other obligations, has to step in. Such a station will not be able to match the response times of the closer station.

I am also disturbed that stations are being shut down or taken offline more frequently in some areas than in others. Since I spoke to this house in November 2012, there have been, at the fire station in Merrylands, within my electorate, no less than 56 occasions when the shift has been taken off line, or 'TOLed', as they call it. That means they were unable to be responsive to fires and emergencies in the Merrylands area. Those occasions meant that the station was closed for a range of times, for between two hours and a total 12-hour shift. That meant hundreds of hours of the lack of an emergency service which is needed 24 hours a day and relies upon a call response time measured in minutes—that is the time limit they need to meet if they are to save property and lives. No other suburb in my electorate has such a poor service availability record.

The Rydalmere station, almost in my electorate, has faced it from the other side. It has been a relief station. It has been required to move up on quite a few occasions for stations as far away as Cranebrook in Penrith and Macquarie Fields when they have had units taken offline. This happened to Rydalmere 23 times between November last year and 18 May this year. We had Darlinghurst Station in King's Cross providing relief, or a move up, to the Parramatta station in November last year. That was for a whole day, and I should say that Darlinghurst station is 45 minutes to an hour away from Parramatta, through incredible traffic.

We have sirens on fire trucks because response times matter. If you need a fire station in Merrylands, for example, you need it full time. Fires do not take a break when a fireman gets sick and a station is shut down, and it is madness to bring a fire truck under siren from Darlinghurst to Parramatta to respond to a fire. Travelling under siren is dangerous in its own right.

I speak for every elector and citizen in the federal seat of Parramatta serviced and protected by stations such as Rydalmere, Parramatta and Merrylands when I say: this practice of station closure, of stations being taken offline, is simply dangerous and we are fearful that one day our luck will run out. My local dedicated firefighters cannot speak for themselves; the government that employs them has forbidden that they comment publicly. So I am speaking for them. One day they will not make it in time. A fire that could have been contained will spread to a neighbouring property, and someone who could have been saved will be injured or killed. One day they will be sent to an unfamiliar urban or factory environment where they lack local knowledge and cannot respond as appropriately as they might in their own environment. They will drive far too many kilometres under siren, a dangerous process in itself. Safety is a community issue, and it works best when our local emergency services and our local councils, factory owners and residents work together to reduce risks and when firefighters know where the greatest local risks are. I strongly support the motion of the member for Shortland and I hope that other members in this House also stand up to support their local firefighters and their community.

1:20 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Roads and Regional Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I accept the invitation of the member for Parramatta to stand up in support of the CFA volunteers and professional firefighters in my electorate of Gippsland, and I acknowledge the very first point of the member for Shortland's motion, where she encourages the House to acknowledge the outstanding contribution made by both full-time retained firefighters and volunteer firefighters within our community. I take this opportunity, particularly in the wake of the extreme conditions that the people of Gippsland endured over the past summer season, to recognise the volunteers from right across Victoria who rallied to support my community in a time of great need, particularly in relation to the Seaton and Heyfield bushfires, where tragically one life was lost. Extensive property damage was sustained across the region, and the impact on wildlife and stock throughout the Heyfield, Seaton and Glenmaggie area was very significant. So I take this opportunity to thank the volunteers who travelled from right across Victoria to support our local crews in our time of need.

The role of our CFA volunteers, in particular, in rural communities is something that deserves recognition in this place. I appreciate the words of the member for Riverina, who spoke about the important investments being made by the New South Wales state government in supporting volunteer services in his community. There has been a similar situation in Victoria, where the state coalition government has increased the investment in new services, in terms of vehicles, and in physical infrastructure, in terms of new sheds for our volunteers.

At the start of this year, I encouraged Gippslanders to consider what contribution they could make to the community and whether they would be prepared to volunteer some of their time to join a community organisation. I can think of no better organisation to recommend to people in my community than the CFA. Right across Victoria, we already have about 60,000 CFA volunteers. The Country Fire Authority hierarchy would be the first to acknowledge that their workforce is quite an ageing workforce. A lot of their volunteers are getting towards the more mature stage of their volunteer life, and they are trying to encourage more younger people to participate.

There is only one thing that it costs you to become a CFA volunteer, and that is your time. The CFA itself provides all the training and equipment, and that is obviously very important for the proper conduct of its roles. I would argue that your time is the most generous gift that you can give. If a millionaire came to a local CFA station and provided them with $10,000, it would be a warmly received gift, but the millionaire knows he has still got $990,000 left. When you give your time, you do not know exactly how much time you have got left. It is a great contribution that many country people make in donating their time to the CFA and to other community service organisations in my electorate.

The CFA is one of the most highly respected and iconic community service organisations in our nation, and I encourage Gippslanders who have thought about perhaps donating their time to any community service to consider what role they might play within the Country Fire Authority. There are roles within the Country Fire Authority which go beyond the most obvious operational ones of firefighting, accident rescue missions, crew leadership, communications, all forms of emergency response, incident controller, pump operator and so on. They are the active roles within the CFA, but there are also non-operational roles, where perhaps people who might not necessarily have originally thought of themselves as a CFA volunteer can play a very important part behind the scenes, whether it is delivering education throughout our communities, fundraising, public relations, catering for the people on the ground at times of emergency or working in the areas of management and recruitment. There really is a job for everyone in the Country Fire Authority in Victoria.

But the benefits that I mentioned before, of helping to keep our community safe and protecting our region, extend beyond the feeling of doing something worthwhile for your community. Being a CFA volunteer allows the individual to also develop a range of skills which will serve them well in life.

They learn leadership and other professional development skills. They receive accredited training which is recognised throughout the world. Australia's volunteer fire services are very highly regarded throughout the world and are often called upon to serve in the United States or New Zealand or in other fire grounds. It is also an opportunity for them to work as part of a team and to meet new people in regional communities, which is often very important.

I commend them to point (1) of the motion which acknowledges the outstanding contribution made by full-time, retained firefighters and by the volunteer firefighters in our community. In doing so, I encourage people who are listening today, whether they be in Gippsland or throughout our nation, to consider whether they could take on a volunteer role in our firefighting services to make their own contribution, to make a difference in their local community. It is an outstanding service. It is something we should be very proud of in Australia and I know that members of this place on both sides of the House value the contribution our firefighters make. I congratulate the state governments for investing in these services. I encourage them to continue to do so in the interests of community safety.

1:25 pm

Photo of Daryl MelhamDaryl Melham (Banks, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seconded the motion moved today by the member for Shortland and I did so because this is an issue which we, at a federal level, should look at for a number of reasons, not just in relation to the impact on New South Wales but as a guide to what is going to happen if there is a change of government on 14 September. The motion is specific to the member's electorate, but I want to read those parts of the motion that are generic:

That this House:

(1) acknowledges the outstanding contribution made by both full time, retained fire fighters and volunteer fire fighters within our community;

(2) notes with deep concern that:

…   …   …

(b) the practice of taking fire stations off line is wide spread throughout NSW as a result of cost cutting measures and staffing reallocations conducted by the NSW Government;

On 16 May 2013, I made a speech in this House in relation to this matter. I talked about a visit that the New South Wales opposition leader John Robertson made on 6 April to the Revesby fire station in my electorate of Banks. On that day the station was closed. I also noticed on 26 April that the fire station was closed and I have posted a photo of the sign on my Facebook page. To date, this has received the largest number of hits on anything I have posted a on my Facebook page. At the moment I think there are 7,000-plus interactions, which indicates that there is concern in the community about what the state government is doing. I also visited the Mortdale fire station on their open day on 18 May 2013. I have been doing that for a number of years. Mortdale fire station is also staffed by volunteers, among others. They all have a good reputation. The great tragedy is that that they should not be put in this position in terms of fire stations going off line with a question mark in relation to their jobs. The irony is that, in his first budget, the state Treasurer, Mr Baird, got his figures wrong, according to the Auditor-General, by a billion dollars. In other words, there was a billion dollars more in his budget than he thought. Sadly, that was the genesis of some of the cuts which have been foisted upon the state departments.

Unfortunately, the budget cuts have a disproportionate effect on our emergency services. Firefighting, like policing and ambulance services, is very labour-intensive. While across-the-board cuts to the public sector wages bill were to be 1.2 per cent, for some reason Fire and Rescue New South Wales was set at a 1.75 per cent target in relation to budget cuts. So employee related expenses were to be slashed by 7.6 million in 2012-13 and by a cumulative 64 million over the next four years. I know that members on the other side feel the same as us in relation to a lot of this. Let us be fair dinkum. At times we are putting in a position where we have to defend the governments which are on the same political persuasion as ourselves. I attacked some cuts that were made to the library and other services two budgets ago in relation to savings, because I believe some areas should be off-limits—and I believe our emergency services should be off-limits. These are essential services. They are vital to our community. And, in relation to the Rural Fire Service, there is no chance without volunteers. So it is a partnership between government and the local community, and that is true of a lot of other things. Cuts have already been made to the Rural Fire Service. In late 2012, it was revealed they were to be slashed by $12 million. Now, I argue, because it is a philosophy I hold, that these sorts of services should be quarantined; they should be protected. They should not be cut. If anything, the worst you should do is pause them, not cut them, and then you bring them back with growth figures in the good years.

That is why I lend my support to this motion. I know that on both sides of the House there is enormous warmth and support for the firies, as there should be, because they do a terrific job in our community. I commend the motion to the House.

1:30 pm

Photo of Bruce BillsonBruce Billson (Dunkley, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Small Business, Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to acknowledge the motion from the member for Shortland and thanked the member for Riverina for drawing out some of the operational facts and realities that respond to much of the motion, which is quite specific to an area of New South Wales. I will focus my remarks primarily on the opening point of the motion:

That the House:

… acknowledges the outstanding contribution made by both full time, retained fire fighters and volunteer fire fighters within our community …

My electorate of Dunkley is one of those 'interface' communities, where the urban sprawl starts and the magnificent Mornington Peninsula begins. It is where we have both firefighting expertise that is at its best in an urban and industrial environment, and firefighting expertise, skills and capability that are ideally suited to the rural fire and bushfire fighting task. It is great to see the MFB and the CFA interact with each other, and I want to put on the record my ongoing admiration and support for their efforts, and encourage all of our community to get behind their work.

It is in that spirit that I think we should set about thinking what else we can do to get behind the work of these two great organisations. We see, from the opposition leader's fine personal example, the commitment he displays in volunteering with the Rural Fire Service. And what a magnificent example that is to all of us about staying engaged in and involved with the communities we seek to lead through our civic service. He not only talks about that; he walks that talk, and I have great admiration for that commitment.

Another example I would like to draw to the House's attention comes from the Rotary Club of Frankston. Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, you may not be aware—as many are not aware—that there are actually some indigenous Australian plants that have fire-retardant properties. This is a fact that is not well known, not well appreciated and, I think, underembraced in terms of what our fire risk response strategy should be. Alan Soderlund, who has a leading and lifelong involvement in the nursery and garden industry, along with Keith Kimpton and the dedicated crew at the Rotary Club of Frankston, have approached me about a fantastic initiative called 'Fire smart plants'. Their vision is to see the fire-retardant properties of some Australian indigenous plants embraced and promoted in nurseries and at points-of-sale right across our country so that people, like members of my family, who wish to enhance their living environment can choose thoughtfully—particularly in areas where there is a heightened fire risk—between plant species that would act as an accelerant in the event of a fire and plant species that have fire-retardant properties. This could make quite a useful contribution alongside the fire response and prevention plans that are implemented throughout the municipalities on the edge of the urban sprawl like mine, and well beyond, and also support the work of our firefighters. It would help to save lives and property from bushfires, and it is a good initiative.

Their idea is to have these plants tagged in such a way that they are recognised and promoted as fire smart and see some of that revenue come back to Rotary to support its important work but also back to the fire services as a way of saying, 'Thank you for your work; we are doing our bit as a property owner or homeowner by choosing plants with these fire-retardant properties uppermost in our minds.' I commend Alan and the team at the Rotary Club of Frankston for that initiative. I will continue to do what I can—maybe a bit of a shout-out to Wesfarmers and others that are known to be heavily involved in the hardware and garden supply area; they might want to embrace this as part of their engagement with the broader community and get the message about fire smart plants out more widely.

Another area where I think we can do some work is around the coalition's Green Army commitment. Fifteen thousand strong, this Green Army will work in partnership with communities, with land management and Landcare groups, with friends groups and with others that have an important role in caring for our natural systems. Again in my area, we have communities that are blessed by wonderful natural bushland surrounds. But that is also a fuel source that needs to be carefully managed. I see the Green Army playing an important role in working alongside the friends groups and local councils, to work through those natural bushland reserves that are the neighbours of so many of the citizens in my community to make sure we reduce the fuel load. We have a skilled team that can be mindful of the important environmental values and the flora and fauna objectives that are part of the reason we have these reserves, and actually make that contribution to reducing the fire risk and the fuel load, improving access to those areas so our firefighters can respond if called upon. That is the kind of collaboration I would like to see more in our community—a couple of practical initiatives to support the magnificent work of our firefighters.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 13 : 36 to 15:29