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What’s the Deal with Firefighters?

 

There is no doubt that you would have heard about the current dispute between the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and the Country Fire Authority (CFA). It seems unlikely, though, that you have been given a true account of the dispute, as the media and public discourse has been marred by misinformation, distortion and an aversion to simple fact.

Prevalent have been the claims of an unsubstantiated, ‘ghoulish’ union takeover of the CFA, as well as the unfounded mischaracterisations of a ‘war’ on volunteer firefighters. The main peddlers of these anti-union sentiments have been the Liberal party and the Murdoch-owned press. In June of 2016 alone, The Herald Sun published more than 70 articles that in no uncertain terms condemned the UFU. Somewhat shockingly, however, inaccurate reporting of this dispute has not been confined to the Murdoch papers.

The whole dispute arose from attempts to renegotiate an EBA (Enterprise Bargaining Agreement) for CFA career firefighters. Rather than secure the same terms on which past EBA’s had been established, the UFU rightfully sought to demand more of the CFA management. A crucial aspect of the UFU’s negotiations was the demand to make it official policy for seven firefighters – career or volunteer – to be dispatched to a fire. In the current firefighting climate, it is common for four or even three firefighters to attend a fire. This is a woefully inadequate number that only imperils the individual safety of the firefighters, as well as posing a danger to rural communities at large – as low firefighter numbers at a fire will decrease the likelihood of containment or extinguishment.

The UFU’s stance is supported by the advice of firefighting experts – as seven firefighters is widely held to be the minimum number in order for fires to be properly dealt with. It is indubitably within the interests of UFU members and the wider community for the CFA to mandate this policy requirement. Nevertheless, right-wing commentators such as Andrew Bolt are deploring the union for their proactivity, attempting to divide career and volunteer firefighters by spreading mistruths about the union’s proposal. The main misnomer disseminated is that seven career firefighters must be at a fire before a volunteer can be dispatched. This is a patent lie, because there are many CFA stations with only volunteer firefighters.

Similarly, part of the alleged ‘union takeover’ is the fact that the UFU is pushing for quicker response rates in rural areas. Currently, firefighters are able to respond significantly quicker to call-outs in metropolitan and some suburban spaces compared to rural and country areas. From an economic standpoint, this reality does not make a whole lot of sense. Victorians from all across the state pay the same for the fire service levy, yet those in more urban areas receive a better service. In some cases, residents in CFA territory actually pay more. For example, a resident in CFA territory pays approximately $181.80 per annum on property with a capital improved value of $600,000. A resident in MFB territory with the same capital improved value pays about $140.40 per annum for a more efficient, effective service.

In general, it seems pretty uncontroversial to say that acting to increase the speed of firefighter response time is a good thing – it will mean that fires can be more effectively contained and extinguished. Lives and homes will be saved as a consequence.

Those who are unreservedly ‘anti-UFU’ in their sentiments do not only display an absence of critical thought, but also an embarrassing moral indifference. A constant criticism made of the UFU and career firefighters is their ‘under-appreciation’ of the work of volunteer firefighters. Make no mistake: the UFU and career firefighters recognise the importance of volunteer firefighters in rural areas. They put their lives on the line for their community in the same way that career firefighters do.

In a purely logical world, it would be the Liberals and conservatives who would be seen as unsupportive of volunteer firefighters. They see no problem, and in fact encourage, the exploitation and overwork of volunteers, who have other jobs and personal matters to which to attend. Rather than recognise and celebrate the valued contributions of volunteers, the Liberals and right-wing commentators wish to throw the total and unmitigated responsibility of protecting whole communities from bushfires – all the while without pay.

Not only is this ultimately detrimental to volunteer firefighters, but also to the community at large. Intrinsically, volunteers are not able to respond in the same capacity and with the same consistency as career firefighters, who are stationed at their CFA station in anticipation of a fire or emergency situation. By no means are the UFU advocating divisions between career and volunteer firefighters, but rather a harmonious and well-balanced allocation of career and volunteer firefighters in CFA areas to combat the ever-increasing dangers of fires, bushfires and emergencies.  

It seems a pertinent question to ask: why is the right-wing so ardently against the UFU and career firefighters?

An obvious answer to that is because conservatives blindly despise unions. The UFU to them represents a counter-productive and ‘thuggish’ body trying to deny CFA management their holy right to exercise autocratic power over its workers. Indeed, any piece published by the Herald Sun on the UFU seems to descend into ad hominem and unedifying character assassination – compelling us to resent the UFU on the sole basis of it being a union.

What the whole media circus surrounding the UFU exposes is the worst of conservative ideology: its myopia, its obstinacy, and its tendency to encourage ill-feeling and loathing. Rather than adopting a balanced, nuanced view of the dispute, conservatives have lambasted the UFU for putting its members and the community first.  

Another reason for conservative castigation of the UFU and its members is because of their power as activists. In the 2014 state election, career firefighters ran a successful campaign to throw the Napthine Liberal government out of office. This was in response to unremitting attempts by the Napthine government to cut fire services and cut the number of firefighting jobs available. The campaign was entitled ‘Put the Liberals Last’, as firefighters across the state actively doorknocked, made calls and distributed flyers to make the community aware of the dangerous consequences of not respecting our state’s firefighters. The hard work and societal standing of Victorian firefighters meant that there was an overwhelming swing away from the Liberal party. Expectedly, this prompted a knee-jerk response from the Liberal party and conservative commentators – characterised by lie-laden attempts to delegitimise the UFU and career firefighters.

The inaccuracy with which the UFU and CFA dispute has been reported is genuinely saddening. It represents a new low for the Liberal party and conservatives at large. Firefighters are altruistic and great people who contribute so much to our community – not only fighting fires, but responding to tragic emergency situations such as car wrecks and drug overdoses. It is about time that we start to laud firefighters and their representatives as heroes in our community.

 

Nick Bugeja

The author Nick Bugeja

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