Thousands of RFS volunteers kicked out over blue cards
A THIRD of the heroic Rural Fire Service volunteers who covered themselves in glory in Australia's recent bushfire crisis have been cast onto the scrap heap after refusing to comply with the Queensland Government's demand that they apply for Blue Cards.
After the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017 and a review of the Blue Card system, the Queensland Government legislated Blue Card checks to include government employees and volunteers who came into contact with children in their roles.
Looking at the trend for applications as of March 27, there was a greater compliance for those in paid positions within QFES with Fire & Rescue Service permanents (99 per cent applied) and auxiliary (96 per cent).
While 90 per cent of State Emergency Service volunteers had applied, only 65 per cent of RFS volunteers had applied with over 5,500 fireys set to be left out in the cold.
Looking at the state-wide distribution of RFS application compliance, it was highest in South East Queensland (74 per cent) and diminished the further away you got from Brisbane with 62 per cent in the Central region and 56 per cent in the Far Northern Queensland.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Greg Leach will now write to the management committees of brigades to recommend terminating the membership of those volunteers without blue cards.
"Those who decline to apply will be choosing not to continue in their role,'' a QFES spokesman said yesterday.
"There is no fine for individuals. However, they will not be tasked to incidents and will not be permitted to attend the fireground if they do not hold a current blue card.''
A QFES spokesperson said this diminished pool of volunteers would not affect QFES' ability to maintain an effective fire and emergency service response, including conducting hazard mitigation activities.
"Existing strategies are in place to support areas where the ability of local personnel to respond to incidents may be limited," the spokesperson said.
"This includes directing resources from neighbouring areas to assist and pre-deploying assets around the state, if required."
Rural Fire Brigades Association explains problem
Rural Fire Brigades Association general manager Justin Choveaux said thousands of volunteers had defied the order because they objected to the red tape, and felt that they were being portrayed as paedophiles.
He said there were a number of other reasons why the volunteers were unwilling to comply.
"The requirement for Blue Card is not for all brigades, just those with trucks and it extends beyond firefighters into all members of truck brigades," Mr Choveaux said.
"There are many reasons from members feeling that they have been threatened, not believing that a Rural Fire Brigade is now really a health care provider, pushing back against more red tape from Brisbane.
"Volunteers vote with their feet and the level of noncompliance and grudging acceptance shows that this whole process was run in a non-volunteer friendly way by a fire service that is centred and structured around command and control of paid staff."
He agreed that some RFS volunteers were withholding their applications due to their previous criminal histories but he believed that many volunteers being screened were being hit with negative notices for offences like drug charges that weren't child related.
"Saying everyone who has not applied has something to hide is precisely the sort of comment that gets people off-side and then they dig in and don't apply for a Blue Card," he said.
One of the core justifications used by QFES for making Blue Cards compulsory was that 16-year-old's are eligible to join crews and were vulnerable.
Mr Choveaux said juniors were in the SES and fire services of every state and territory yet these organisation meet child safety obligations without their version of Blue Card.
"All Rural Fire Brigades are the same in legislation and all brigades can have 16 year old's join, but only truck brigade members need a Blue Card. Why not all brigades?" he asked.
"This is because the government has drawn a line within Rural Fire saying those on this side of the line need it and those on the other side don't. Our position is that they have drawn the line in the wrong place."
The Rural Fire Brigades Association have asked in person and in writing on multiple occasions for an extension to the deadline to the point where the Premier had written to them requesting they stop writing to her.
Opposition Shadow Minister expresses concern over Blue Cards
LNP Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Lachlan Millarsaid he was concerned fire brigades across the state could have their numbers depleted and capacity to defend their local communities drastically reduced.
"A mass exodus of thousands of Rural Fire Brigade volunteers over paperwork mustn't be allowed to happen," Mr Millar said.
"Community safety must always come first, especially when it comes to children, but the Blue Card requirement process by Labor has been bungled from day one.
"Queensland can't afford to have thousands of rural fireys walk away from the job."
Mr Millar said that Labor Minister Craig Crawford needed to work with rural fireys to ensure they could continue to provide their incredible volunteer service to their communities.
"The LNP don't want to see yet another extension to the deadline, but this time a workable solution to the crisis facing our rural fire brigades," he said.
"Labor needs to urgently put in place a better process to ensure the Blue Card requirement is appropriately rolled out.
"It's time for Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Minister Craig Crawford to fix this mess before it's too late. The LNP will never unfairly sack our valuable and hardworking rural firefighters."
QFES addresses Blue Card issue
A spokesperson for QFES said almost 80 per cent of their personnel who were required to hold a blue card had applied to date.
"Approximately 5,542 RFS volunteers still need to apply. This number may change because of updates to QFES' volunteer database," the spokesperson said.
"Inactive members are being removed, so it is understandable to expect this may affect the final number of RFS volunteers who require a blue card.
"Those who require a blue card originally had until 1 December 2019 to complete their application. This deadline was extended to 31 March 2020 due to the exceptional bushfire situation which affected Queensland in late 2019."
QFES personnel who did not apply by March 31 will receive a letter in late April 2020 advising them that they would be unable to continue their duties without a blue card.
"Individuals can still apply for a blue card after they receive a letter, if they choose," they said.
"An individual's decision to apply for a blue card is a personal one. Those who decline to apply for a blue card will be choosing not to continue in their role and will not be able to respond to incidents.
"This is because QFES legally cannot allow a person to remain in their role without a current blue card."
Those required to hold a blue card must do so under the Working with Children (Risk Management and Screening) Act 2000, as the functions they perform were considered 'regulated employment' under the Act.
"This requirement applies to all aspects of a QFES staff or volunteer's role. There is no exemption for fire and emergency service personnel," they said.
"In the case of a RFS volunteer who declines to hold a blue card, the QFES Commissioner will write to the volunteer's brigade management committee recommending it terminate their membership."
Reduced number of RFS volunteers could impact on hazard reduction
Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland Rockhampton Representative Robert Lang said it remained to be seen what the consequences would be from a reduced number of RFS volunteers.
He was worried about a repeat of last year's fire season where conditions deteriorated after winter.
"There are huge fuel loads all over the state which will require considerable management if we have a frosty winter and a dry spring," Mr Lang said.
"If one third of our volunteers are no longer available I can certainly see huge problems with wildfire management later this year.
"Other options to manage in particular roadside fuel loads could include bare earth graded breaks to minimise the risk of wild fires escaping."
He said this would involve local and state government co-operation and significant financial input to construct adequate breaks.
"COVID-19 effects on planned burns are as yet completely unknown," he said.
"For example many of our volunteers may choose to not be part of hazard reduction burn programmes and this combined with a one third reduction in volunteer numbers could develop into an ugly situation in spring.
"Contingencies or 'Plan B' at this point are definitely not on any radar that I am aware of. As previously stated I think the next four or five months weather will be the decision maker for the Rural Fire Service."