This interesting question comes from a NSW Fire and Rescue station officer in charge of a station with both employed and retained fire fighters. The question arises as what to do if there is not enough retained fire fighters to maintain a response?

First let me say that some of this answer involves assumptions about the way the process works, if those are wrong, the answer may be wrong. Secondly as I understand it retained fire fighters are part time fire fighters. They are not strictly volunteers as they do get paid but they are in the sense that they are there part time and can indicate if they are not available for call outs whether that’s due to work, ill health or other commitments. Further, as I understand it, some stations are staffed entirely by retained fire fighters, some entirely by full time employed fire fighters and some by both where the employed fire fighters work during business hours and retained fire fighters respond ‘after hours’. My correspondent is a station officer at a mixed fire station.

I am told that there is a standing order, Orders 2008/22 that:

“was specifically written to deal with retained firefighter response coverage and crewing levels. Within the document it states the following;

Where insufficient staff are available, the following actions will be taken provided that the use of firefighters from other stations does not compromise safe and effective minimum staffing at those other stations

(a) The officer in charge will immediately advise the ComCen, Duty Commander and Zone Commander, so that alternative response arrangements can be made while steps (b) to (g) below are taken to restore safe and effective minimum crewing levels at the station…

My correspondent goes on to say:

At all mixed stations the most senior FRNSW officer on duty would be the Station Officer… I have had various managers inform me that in regards to this In Order the “officer in charge” is the officer in charge of the retained ranks which would be the most senior retained member present, which ideally would be the Capt or in their absence the Deputy Captain.

Generally the notification process that starts with step (a) occurs after a retained crewing shortage has been identified and when the permanent crew have returned to station with the Station Officer on station.

In this scenario is the Station Officer the OIC who should comply with the In Order or is the interpretation of an OIC of the retained ranks correct? My main concern being that if the sequential actions aren’t followed by the Station Officer (OIC) but are done or not done by the OIC of the retained ranks is the Station Officer potentially exposing themselves for not carrying out the In Order. In my experiences management have verbally informed the station that the OIC of the retained ranks is to carry out the implementation of the In Order. The authority isn’t being delegated by the Station Officer but assigned by a Insp rank or above to a retained member.”

If the advice of the senior officers is that it is up to the Captain of the retained fire fighters, and only the Captain of the retained fire fighters, to give notice of the shortage of staff, it is both wrong and dangerous.

First there is more to the order. I have been sent a copy of the order and it also says:

It is the duty of the Station Commander of a brigade to ensure that sufficient retained staff will be available at all times to ensure that a safe and effective minimum crew of four firefighters will respond to calls.

Although the order refers to ‘Station Commander’ I infer that the relevant rank is now ‘Station Officer’ (see http://www.fire.nsw.gov.au/page.php?id=172). It that is correct it is the duty of the Station Officer to ensure that there are sufficient fire fighters and it must follow that it is also his or her duty to notify the higher command if that is not the case so steps can be taken to find other fire fighters to fill the gap.

The Order goes onto say “The officer in charge will immediately advise the ComCen, Duty Commander and Zone Commander…” when he or she is aware that there will be insufficient retained fire fighters to allow an appropriate response.

Officer in charge means:

“in relation to a place at which a fire brigade is present, means the Commissioner or, if the Commissioner is absent:
(a) the person for the time being in charge of any members of a permanent fire brigade present at that place, or
(b) if no members of a permanent fire brigade are present, the person for the time being in charge of any members of a volunteer fire brigade present at that place.”
(Fire Brigades Act 1989 (NSW) s 3).

It is not open to Fire and Rescue NSW to change that definition for the purpose of the Order. If the order was intended to require the retained Captain, and only the retained Captain to give the appropriate notification, it would have to say that and not use the term ‘officer in charge’.

If it is correct that, for the purpose of the order ‘officer in charge’ means the most senior retained fire fighter, it would mean that permanent fire fighters who become aware that there will be insufficient fire fighters for a particular shift, should not advice the ComCen and senior officers. For example, assume that during the day a number of retained fire fighters ring in sick or saying that for whatever reason they won’t be available that night. If, for the purpose of this order, officer in charge meant the Captain of the retained fire fighters, the Station Officer or senior permanent fire fighter would need to ring the Captain and tell him or her of the situation and then he or she would have to make the necessary contact, even though as a retained fire fighter the Captain may be at work whilst the permanent fire fighters are on station and can easily communicate with the relevant people.

Given the purpose of the order is to “ensure that sufficient retained staff will be available at all times” it makes no sense at all not to expect the Station Officer to notify “the ComCen, Duty Commander and Zone Commander…” as soon as he or she is aware that there will be a problem.

Equally if there are no permanent fire fighters are at the station then the officer in charge is the senior retained fire fighter. For example assume that a number of retained fire fighters are struck down with food poisoning on Saturday night and advise the captain that they will not be available for calls on Sunday. At that time it is the senior retained fire fighter who is the officer in charge and who must, therefore comply with the order.

To test whether this interpretation is right, ask yourself this – what would the Daily Telegraph or the Coroner make of this story: “There was no fire brigade response due to a shortage of retained fire fighters, which the Station Officer was aware of, but he or she did not notify ComCen or other senior officers, abecause he or she had been told that it was not his or her job to notify ComCen, but the volunteer captain, even though the order says “It is the duty of the Station Commander of a brigade to ensure that sufficient retained staff will be available at all times…”

Michael Eburn
2 September 2013