The web page of the Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland Inc. is reporting that the Queensland State Government has accepted legal advice to the effect that Queensland’s rural fire brigades are not part of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service. They have posted four issues that they ‘demand’ the QFES Commissioner respond to. I’m not the QFES Commissioner and do not purport to speak on his behalf, but I’ll have a go.
1. Clear legal definition of what is a Rural Fire Brigade, who constitutes it and what powers and responsibilities it exercises.
A rural fire brigade is ‘a group of persons’ who have been registered with the QFES Commissioner (Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990 (Qld) s 79). Who constitutes it is the people that seek registration of the Brigade. The Brigade would remain constituted by the operation of its rules. A Brigade could be constituted by a group of individuals, an incorporated entity, a local council or anyone else who wants to seek registration.
What responsibilities or powers it exercises are those responsibilities determined by the Commissioner (s 82). One of the things the Commissioner must do is identify the area where the brigade is in charge of fire fighting operations (s 82). When working in that area, the first officer of a rural brigade has all the same powers as an authorised officer of the QFES even though the first officer is not a member of the QFES. The power of the first officer may be exercised by anyone acting under that officer’s direction and where the brigade first officer is not present, the first officer’s powers may be exercised by the senior brigade member (s 83).
2. Clear legal definition of the relationship between QFES, Rural Fire Brigades and the SES.
According to the Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990 (Qld) the QFES is made up of the Commissioner and Fire Service Officers (s 8A). Fire Service Officers are persons employed by the Commissioner pursuant to s 25 of the Act (see s 3 and Schedule 6). It is axiomatic that volunteer fire fighters are not employed so they are not part of the QFES.
Notwithstanding that a rural fire brigade and its members are not part of QFES they are subject to significant direction and control. The Commissioner of QFES is ‘The commissioner is responsible for the efficiency of rural fire brigades and may provide training and other assistance to them’ (s 85). A brigade may make rules but the rules must not be inconsistent with the Act and must be approved by the Commissioner (s 80). A rural fire brigade must elect a first officer and such other officers as the brigade thinks necessary but the elections must be held in accordance with the Commissioner’s directions (s 81). Despite being elected a person only holds office for the period specified by the Commissioner and he or she can be removed by the Commissioner and the Commissioner may disqualify a person from holding office (s 81). A rural fire brigade has such functions as the Commissioner may determine (s 82). The Commissioner may, but is not required to, provide equipment to a rural fire brigade or provide a subsidy to purchase equipment. Any equipment provided or subsidised by the Commissioner remains the property of the State (s 84).
So can we answer the question? Yes I think we can. The Act begins by providing for the appointment of a Commissioner (s 5). The Commissioner is to manage QFES, the SES and to perform any other function given under the Act (s 7A). So the Commissioner, an individual appointed by the Governor-in-Council has a number of functions. Along with fire service officers he or she forms the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service and he or she is to manage that service. He or she is also to manage the SES and ES Units (ss 129-147D) and he or she is to exercise the authority described, above, with respect to rural fire brigades.
The fact that rural fire brigades is subject to the direction and control of the Commissioner does not mean they are part of the QFES. We can describe the relationship as three services, all lead by the same Commissioner, but not the same service.
I make not comment on this.
4. Amendments to the Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990, current as at 01/07/2014 to incorporate Rural Fire Volunteers and truly reflect the role that Rural Fire Brigades and Volunteers undertake.
Be careful what you wish for. As it is the Volunteer brigades are their own entity albeit subject to direction and control from the QFES Commissioner. If the Act was changed, if for example they became part of QFES they may lose much of their local identity that has been the hallmark of volunteer brigades throughout their history. Being part of QFES may create a more responsive ‘all hazards’ agency and breakdown barriers between volunteers and paid staff and may open ‘volunteer to career’ channels but it does not necessarily come without a cost. As QFES brigades may be expected to respond outside their own area and may be under more control. Do all brigades, or their members, think moves such as the move from the Bush Fires Act 1949 (NSW) to the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) was a universal benefit? Maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t I’m not sure but if I was advising the Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland Inc. I would want them to consider what actually is the problem, because their powers are pretty clear (s 83) so how do they want to be incorporated more into the QFES, and why? There may be very good reasons to want changes to the Act, but they’re not obvious.
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