This question comes from a volunteer with NSW RFS.  In answering this question I make no comment as to whether the RFS is intending to act as suggested.  I just answer the question as asked.

In response to the coronial inquiry into the Wambelong fires the NSW RFS recently announced that they would be hiring more state mitigation crews and increasing their role to include conducting mid week burns in areas with low mid week volunteer availability. When state mitigation crews were first introduced volunteers were promised that they would be used for hazard reduction preparation only and not actual burning. Given this increase in duties it seems like a small logical jump for state mitigation crews to go from conducting HR burns in areas with low midweek availability to being “strategically” deployed to respond to incidents in areas with poor mid week volunteer availability. To this end I was wondering if you could provide your perspective on the following questions:

  1. Does the RFS act allow the RFS to employ paid firefighters in what is meant to be a volunteer based firefighting force?
  2. What changes if any would be required to RFS service standards to facilitate the use of state mitigation crews as front line firefighters?
  3. Is there any requirement for the RFS to consult with volunteers or volunteer representative groups such as the RFSA or VFFA?
  4. If used for active firefighting would state mitigation members then be represented by the fire brigades employee union (FBEU) from a union perspective?
  1. Does the RFS act allow the RFS to employ paid firefighters in what is meant to be a volunteer based firefighting force?

The RFS Act says nothing about employing paid firefighters. The RFS is made up of ‘the Commissioner and other staff of the Service’ and ‘volunteer rural fire fighters’ (Rural Fires Act 1987 (NSW) s 8).  The reference to volunteer fire fighters doesn’t say that fire fighters can only be volunteers, just that those that are volunteers are members of the RFS.  There is nothing in the Act to suggest that the service cannot have employed firefighters.

There is also nothing in the RFS Act to say that it is, or is intended to be, a ‘volunteer based firefighting force’.  Compare this to the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (Vic) s 6F which says ‘The Parliament recognises that the Authority is first and foremost a volunteer-based organisation, in which volunteer officers and members are supported by employees in a fully integrated manner’. Even though that provision is there, the CFA does employ career firefighters (see http://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/volunteer-careers/career-firefighting/).

The NSW Rural Fire Service is an executive agency within the Department of Justice (Government Sector Employment Act 2013 (NSW) s 22 and Schedule 1). People may be employed to allow the service to perform its functions (s 21).   It follows that the RFS could employ people as fire fighters should it choose to do so.

  1. What changes if any would be required to RFS service standards to facilitate the use of state mitigation crews as front line firefighters?

There are many service standards and they are not readily searchable.  In any event I can’t find one that appears to deal with state mitigation crews.  If changes were required, the Commissioner could make the necessary changes.

  1. Is there any requirement for the RFS to consult with volunteers or volunteer representative groups such as the RFSA or VFFA?

The RFS Commissioner ‘… is responsible for managing and controlling the activities of the Service’ and ‘may determine the various duties that members of the staff of the Service are required to perform and allocate the duties to be carried out by each member of the staff’ (Rural Fires Act 1987 (NSW) s 12).  There is no legislated obligation to consult with volunteers (compare the Rural Fires Act to the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (Vic) ss 6F-6I (see also The role of volunteer associations in Victoria’s SES and CFA (March 2, 2016)).

Even so the Commissioner makes use of consultative committees (Service Standard 1.1.8 NSW RFS Consultative Committees) and the RFS and RFS Volunteers Association have entered into a Membership Charter where:

As an organisation, the Rural Fire Service agrees to consider the impact of policy and development on its members.  We also recognise the role of the Rural Fire Service Association and acknowledge that they represent the collective membership of the Service.  As such, as an organisation we will endeavour to ensure appropriate consultation with the Rural Fire Service Association on matters that may impact on membership.

  1. If used for active firefighting would state mitigation members then be represented by the fire brigades employee union (FBEU) from a union perspective?

I cannot make informed comment on that.  I imagine it would be a matter for firefighters and the union that currently represents RFS employees (which as far as I can tell is the Public Service Association and Professional Officers’ Association Amalgamated Union of New South Wales).  This is however a matter of industrial law, an area outside my field.