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Issue #1429      23 September 2009

Community rally for fire protection – more firefighters not less

More than 1,000 Victorian fire fighters and the community rallied last week outside state parliament today for an urgent increase in fire protection – only 43 days before the official start of Victoria’s fire season.

There has been no action since the Independent Board of Reference ruled on April 7, 2009, that 24 CFA (Country Fire Association) fire stations need upgrading - either by becoming a 24/7 professional CFA operation, or by adding extra fire fighters on shifts.

These rulings – which are mandatory, but without a time line for implementation – affect CFA fire stations at Ballarat, Dandenong, Eltham, Geelong West, Hastings, Hoppers Crossing, Lara, Lorne, MeHon, Mildura, Mooroopna, Mornington, Narre Warren, Ocean Grove, Pakenham, Phillip Island, Portland, Rowville, Sale, South Morang, Springvale, Sunbury, Warragul and Warrandyte.

These fire stations service 34 of Victoria’s 52 “hot spots” identified on August 18 by the Premier. At the same time, the MFB (Metropolitan Fire Brigade) is seeking permission to scrap Melbourne’s minimum level of staffing, so that some areas of Melbourne may have reduced cover and longer response times.

United Fire Fighters (UFU)national secretary Peter Marshall said the community welcomes plans to upgrade warnings for the coming fire season but words must be matched by action.

“Many Victorians are unaware that Melbourne’s outer suburbs and growth corridors, as well as growing regional centres, don’t have the same level of protection as their neighbours,” he said.

“Homeowners and landlords pay fire levies with their house insurance but aren’t getting the same level of fire protection. “Suburbs like Werribee, Rowville, Noble Park and Lilydale still rely on CFA volunteers for their first response to an emergency, and there have been a number of incidents when these crews have been delayed or not turned out at all.

“All Victorians salute the courage and commitment of our CFA volunteers – this state could not operate without them – but areas of growing population need full-time firefighter protection with a maximum response time of 7.7 minutes.

“This is the internationally recognised standard that allows fire fighters the maximum chance of rescuing people from burning structures, and preventing fire spreading beyond its room of origin.”

While the CFA and its volunteers organisation criticised last Tuesday’s rally for more fire fighters, the CFA has applied to the State Government for an extra 684 professional fire fighters as Victoria enters what is expected to be the worst fire season on record.

Funding for the new CFA positions is unlikely before the 2010 state budget.

Referring to the April 7 ruling, CFA deputy chief Steve Warrington told media: “It’s not just a matter of a decision’s been made we can put on another couple of hundred fire officers. The reality is we need to recruit them, train them and equip them.”

Allan Monti acting CEO, of Volunteer Fire Brigades Association, – a government- funded body, based at CFA headquarters – also told media that the CFA needs more professional fire fighters, to support volunteer firefighters.

Both would be aware that a CFA request for a big lift in career fire fighters is in the pipeline.

Peter Marshall said the extra CFA members are needed now, not after the next budget, but he agrees with Mr Warrington that it will take time to phase in an extra 684 staff.

“Currently the CFA’s training program at Fiskville is a 16-week course, servicing up to 125 recruits a year the proposed new recruits would take six years to come on line. That’s why the UFU has proposed a modified training program to speed up resourcing in the current fire crisis.

“We propose an eight-week course at CFA’s Fiskville facility followed by a further 8 weeks ‘on the job’.

“This would fast-track the deployment of more CFA fire fighters to outer suburbs, Melbourne’s growth corridors and regional centres where population growth means they have second class fire protection compared to other parts of the state.

“Fire protection is a community right, not a privilege. We all pay the fire levy on our house insurance, and for rural areas worst hit last February insurance premiums are set to soar.”

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