This question comes from a member of the NSW Rural Fire Service, that is someone who is clearly a firefighter, but he’s concerned about others.

I recently attended a Group Captains forum where it was said that the RFS would only cover people who were current members of a brigade that may be injured at a fire or callout.  Therefore any person not a member of a brigade, who is injured on a callout is not covered unless they have their own personal insurance or can claim workers compensation from their employer.

In my experience at a larger fire there would be quite a few people who didn’t fall into any of these categories and under the commissioner’s interpretation I would assume that they are not covered in the event of being injured.

I find it difficult to accept this is the case and would appreciate if you could clarify the situation.  I have always been of the understanding that if a person was acting under the guidance of the officer in charge of the incident and dressed appropriately they would be covered.

The answer is that it is not up to the RFS to decide who is, or is not covered, that decision lies with the WorkCover Authority.  But before I get to that let’s look at who is a member of the RFS.  According to the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) s 8(2), the RFS is made up of

(a) the Commissioner and other staff of the Service,

(c) volunteer rural fire fighters.

(That’s not a typo, there is no paragraph (b); presumably there was one once but it’s now been removed so we have paragraph (a) and (c)).  Who are the volunteer rural firefighters?  They are, according to s 8(3):

(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.

So it cannot be true that the RFS would only cover (if the RFS covered anyone) ‘current members of a brigade’ because those people who fit the definition in s 8(3)(b), above, are also part of the Rural Fire Service.

We can now turn to the really substantial Act and that is the Workers Compensation (Bush Fire, Emergency and Rescue Services) Act 1987 (NSW).  That Act requires the WorkCover Authority of NSW to provide workers compensation type remedies for volunteer fire firefighters, and others, injured in the course of their duties.  For the purposes of that Act, a fire fighter is:

(a) an official fire fighter, being the captain, deputy captain or any member of a rural fire brigade or the group captain or deputy group captain of any rural fire brigades,

(b) any person who, without remuneration or reward, voluntarily and without obligation engages in fighting a bush fire:

(i) with the consent of or under the authority and supervision of the captain, or deputy captain of a rural fire brigade or the group captain or deputy group captain of any rural fire brigades, or

(ii) in conjunction with any civil authority, and

(c) any person who, without remuneration or reward, voluntarily and without obligation engages in fighting a bush fire and who, in the opinion of the Authority having regard to all the circumstances, should be deemed to be a fire fighter. (Workers Compensation (Bush Fire, Emergency and Rescue Services) Act 1987 (NSW) s 5, definition of ‘fire fighter’).

Neither the Rural Fires Act nor the Workers Compensation (Bush Fire, Emergency and Rescue Services) Act makes any reference to the person being dressed ‘appropriately’.    There standard of dress is irrelevant to the issue of workers type compensation  (though it may not be in relation to duties and obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW)).

Conclusion

It follows that the assertion that ‘the RFS would only cover people who were current members of a brigade that may be injured at a fire’ must be wrong.   A person acting under the direction of the RFS officer in charge is part of the RFS (even if they are not a recognized member of a Brigade) and it is the WorkCover Authority (not the RFS) that must provide the workers compensation remedies should they be injured in the course of their duties.