I’m looking for some assistance with a question which I have been asked many times and that is “why should I join?”

An issue we are facing in my area is that people are attending incidents, wearing RFS PPE, utilising RFS equipment and are not registered members of the Service. They see no reason to join as they have access to the equipment they require and are covered by Workers Compensation through us if/when they are injured.

The only thing I can find which assists me in convincing people to become a bona fide member is RURAL FIRES ACT 1997 – SECT 128 Protection from liability, although they would have protection under the Civil Liabilities Act being ‘good Samaritans’, wouldn’t they?

The second part to my question; if a Brigade considers a person a member of their Brigade, then are they considered a member of the NSWRFS under law?

i.e. if a Brigade Secretary has the name of a person listed on their internal membership list, then is that person actually required to complete a Membership Application form to be added to the register kept by Head Office?

We have had issues here in the past where people consider themselves a member of their Brigade… and therefore are entitled to PPE, to be on a truck and receive training, but they are not listed on the database to which I have access (SAPHR). I can understand where they are coming from but cannot argue for or against without some further information and advice. I see the section in the act which seems to support their argument. Does this leave the RFS open to some scrutiny?

RURAL FIRES ACT 1997 – SECT 20

Members of rural fire brigades

20 Members of rural fire brigades

(1) The body or person that forms a rural fire brigade is required to keep a register of members of the brigade in accordance with the Service Standards.

(2) The members of a rural fire brigade are the persons listed on the register for the brigade kept under this section.

What don’t understand is why are people ‘attending incidents, wearing RFS PPE, utilising RFS equipment’ if they ‘are not registered members of the Service’?  But let us look at the law.

The RFS consists of the commissioner and staff and volunteer fire fighters (Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) s 8).  Volunteer firefighters are:

(a) officers and other members of rural fire brigades, and

(b) any person other than a member of a rural fire brigade who, without remuneration or reward, voluntarily and without obligation engages in fighting (or in activities associated with fighting) a fire with the consent of or under the authority and supervision of an officer of a rural fire brigade. (s 8(2)).

There’s the answer, clearly one can be a volunteer fire fighter and a member of the RFS without being a member of a brigade.  As my correspondent has noted, members of a rural fire brigade are ‘the persons listed on the register for the brigade kept under this section’ (s 20(2)).

So why join?  Section 39 says ‘Any function conferred or imposed on the Commissioner by this Act may be exercised by any officer or member of a rural fire brigade or group of rural fire brigades authorised for the purpose by the Commissioner’.  Section 40 also allows the OIC to authorise members to exercise various functions.  A volunteer firefighter who is not a member cannot be authorised to exercise these functions.  They doesn’t mean they can’t fight fires or do things they are directed or asked to do, but it does mean they can’t make the decision to enter premises, close roads etc.  In short it means a firefighter who is not a member is not going to be ‘in charge’ so they need to join if they want to be in a command position.

Section 128 does provide legal protection for a protected person which includes ‘any member of the service’ and ‘any person acting under the authority of the Commissioner’.  If the Commissioner has delegated certain authority to a brigade officer and the non-member is engaged ‘in fighting (or in activities associated with fighting) a fire with the consent of or under the authority and supervision of’ that officer then he or she is acting under the authority of the commissioner.

In any event if the person were negligent, any prudent plaintiff would sue the RFS either because the person was acting on behalf of the RFS or the RFS was negligent in allowing the person to be doing whatever it is they were doing when not a member.

I would suggest, however, that both ss 8 and 128 are intended to deal with casual volunteers, people who turn up at an event, perhaps they have useful skills or equipment which the make available to the RFS and which the relevant IC choses to use.  They’re not intended to protect people who regularly attend RFS meetings and training nights but who refuse to join their local Brigade. A person who has not joined has not committed to the RFS service standards, including the code of Ethics, they would not be eligible for ‘Legal Assistance for Volunteers and members of the Staff of the Service’.   A non-member would, presumably not have the necessary qualifications for fire fighting roles (though they may have if they have been a member or have relevant prior learning).

An officer of a brigade, and the RFS, has obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) to protect all workers and that includes volunteers (s 7).  A volunteer is ‘a person who is acting on a voluntary basis’ (s 4).  A person ‘who, without remuneration or reward, voluntarily and without obligation engages in fighting (or in activities associated with fighting) a fire with the consent of or under the authority and supervision of an officer of a rural fire brigade’ is a volunteer and is owed duties under the Act.  The way to manage their risk, if they are intending to regularly partake in RFS activities, is to make sure they are trained, equipped and supervised in accordance with the Act and Service Standards.   That may not be the appropriate response to a casual volunteer who is at a fire event in which case the brigade may issue some PPE and give some direction to the person to contribute what they can usefully contribute but it’s quite different if the person wants to be a regular participant.

That comes back to my question, why are these people ‘attending incidents, wearing RFS PPE, utilising RFS equipment’?  If they want to be trained to use the equipment, to be issued with PPE and attend incidents the officers of the brigade should insist that they join and receive the appropriate training, undergo the appropriate probity checks and commit to the service standards.  If they are not willing to do that they should not be ‘attending incidents, wearing RFS PPE, utilising RFS equipment’ because the very risks that all those things – training, probity checks, commitment to service discipline – are meant to manage are not being managed.  If it turns out they are using their involvement to access private property for nefarious means or they are injured then the consequences for the Service and for those managing the brigade could be severe.

Section 8 and section 128 may well envisage that casual volunteers can and do provide a useful contribution and their risk can be managed in the particular case it does not justify allowing someone to behave as if they are a member when they are not.  So why should someone join? Because they should be told, in no uncertain terms, that they are not allowed to attend incidents, wear RFS PPE, or utilise RFS equipment if they do not.

As for membership a member is a member if there name is on the Brigade Register.  The Register must be maintained in accordance with Service Standard 2.1.3 Brigade Registers. Paragraph 2.2 says “It is each rural fire brigade’s responsibility to provide updated membership details to the Rural Fire Service’s human resource data base, via the Fire Control Centre or the MyRFS website.”  Membership is determined by entering one’s name on the brigade register, not the human resource database.  If the person’s name appears in the register but not the ‘human resource data base’ it does not mean that they are not a member; rather it means the brigade is not performing its duties properly.