This query comes from a volunteer with the ACT RFS. My correspondent asks:

I’ve been told that service is voluntary, but once you have agreed to attend — that is, jumped into the truck, or deployed interstate (the example I was given was a section 44 fire) — you’re required by law to remain on deployment. To put it another way, you can’t just call it quits: it’s like the military where you can be charged with desertion.
I’ve heard this from a couple of former NSW RFS members, so perhaps that helps? How much truth is there to the above paragraph?

The question is: Are you required by law to remain on deployment?
The short answer is: No. You’re a volunteer so you can stop volunteering whenever you want, however…

Under the Commissioner’s Guidelines Relating to Suspension and Disciplinary Arrangements for Volunteer Members of the ACT Emergency Services Agency (made under the Emergencies Act 2004 (ACT ) s 11 see also ss 59B and 59C) a volunteer can be subject to internal disciplinary procedures if:

… the volunteer has behaved in a manner that:
i. is guilty of misconduct; or
ii. has brought the Service or the ESA into disrepute; or
iii. displays behaviour that is contrary to the effective management and good order of the Service or the Agency; or
iv. it is in the interests of the respective Service or the Agency to do so. (Commissioner’s Guidelines Relating to Suspension and Disciplinary Arrangements for Volunteer Members of the ACT Emergency Services Agency [3.2])

Those terms are not defined in either the Act, the Legislation Act 2001 (ACT), the Emergencies Regulation 2004 or the Guidelines so, ultimately will be up to the Commissioner or Chief Officer to determine. We can think of infinite examples where volunteers stop volunteering. That may range from being part of a large deployment where the member says that he or she has to go home early as they are not coping with the deployment or there is a family emergency that requires their attendance. The service for which they volunteer has obligations to its own members and would need to release them in those circumstances and assist them to get home.

At the other extreme is the volunteer who has taken on a key role, undergone training in that role and when they were accepted for that training, made a commitment to be available for long deployments and who, in the middle of the deployment and the middle of their shift, decides they don’t like the person they’re working with, or they disagree with the direction of the incident controller’s intent, so they just get up and go without telling anyone. Depending on the circumstances that could put the service to expense in trying to find out where they are – even deploying resources on a search, when the member is sitting at home with a beer complaining about the conduct of the operations he or she has just walked away from. I can imagine in those circumstances the Chief Officer or Commissioner may well be persuaded that such conduct is ‘misconduct’ and/or ‘brought the service into disrepute’ (if it affected the service’s ability to perform its tasks), and/or was ‘behaviour that is contrary to the effective management and good order of the Service…’ and/or it is in the Service’s interests to deal with that behaviour.

If any of these are established, a penalty may be imposed. Penalties range from:

i. formal counselling or written admonition;
ii. suspension for a maximum period of six months as determined by the Chief Officer or the Commissioner; and/or
iii. demotion within the ranks applicable to the respective Service or the ESA; or
iv. termination as a volunteer from the respective Service or the ESA. (Commissioner’s Guidelines Relating to Suspension and Disciplinary Arrangements for Volunteer Members of the ACT Emergency Services Agency [3.3]).

Before a penalty can be imposed ‘natural justice’ must be afforded to the volunteer which means they must be made aware of the details of the allegations, be given an opportunity to address the decision maker on whether he or she can or should find that misconduct has occurred and what the appropriate penalty should be. All the circumstances need to be taken into account and ‘the weight of punishment decided for a volunteer [must be] … proportional to any disciplinary offence that the volunteer has committed’ [3.3(b)]. Once a decision has been made the volunteer can ask for an independent panel to review the final decision. That panel can make a recommendation to the Commissioner or Chief Officer recommending an alternate finding or penalty but that is just a recommendation; the ultimate decision remains with the Commissioner or Chief Officer ([3.2]).

The situation in NSW (given that my correspondent ‘heard this from a couple of former NSW RFS members’) is much the same. In NSW the disciplinary procedures are in the Rural Fires Regulation (2013) regs 7-10. The effect is the same, even if the language is slightly different, so in NSW disciplinary action can be taken

… if the officer or member:
(a) contravenes the Act or a provision of this Regulation, or
(b) is negligent, careless, inefficient or incompetent in the discharge of his or her duties, or
(c) fails to comply with the Service Standards.

Again my example of a person simply walking away may be ‘negligent, careless, inefficient or incompetent’.

The “appropriate disciplinary authority” (that is, either ‘(a) an officer of or above the rank of Superintendent appointed by the Commissioner in relation to the disciplinary action, or (b) if an officer has not been appointed-a district disciplinary panel constituted in accordance with the procedure set out in the Service Standards’ (Regulation 3)) must follow the procedures set out in the relevant service standard (made by the Commissioner under the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) s 13).

Service Standard 1.1.2 Discipline creates a further ‘offence’ of ‘breach of discipline’ which might also apply if a member on deployment refused to carry out the duties they had volunteered for. Service Standards 1.1.2-1 to 1.1.2-4 set out the procedures for disciplinary hearings and appeals (see also Service Standard 1.1.21 Stand Down/Removal from Membership & Notification of Criminal Charges & Convictions).

So there’s no criminal offence associated with a decision to withdraw one’s volunteer labour, but If you like to equate disciplinary proceedings with being ‘charged with desertion’ then yes that could happen but ultimately it would all depend on the circumstances.