The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades (AVBFB) was invited to attend a meeting with the City of Bunbury CEO, several Councillors and the Bunbury Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade to help work through issues regarding a light tanker.

The meeting was called to resolve a disagreement that occurred after Emergency Services Levy (ESL) funding was withdrawn for the maintenance of a Nissan Patrol light tanker and the City was unable to overturn the decision to terminate the funding. As a result of the extra budget burden, the City – acting on what it believed was an existing agreement with the Brigade – wrote to the Brigade to inform it the vehicle would be withdrawn as of 31 March 2018.

The City argued that it had been working with DFES to replace the Light Tanker with a brand new large appliance in the future and that would mean no loss of total vehicle “seats” (or firefighter capacity). The Brigade acknowledged the plan but explained that one of the other vehicles it has is merely a “high season” loan vehicle that would be soon moved to another region and the unknown timeframe in the delivery of the new appliance would mean a reduction of troop capacity at least in the short term. Irrespective of that issue, the City’s Light Tanker was vital for mitigation, training and other important community work the Brigade undertakes on a weekly basis.

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The misunderstanding escalated to the point where local media became involved which resulted in the face-to-face meeting on Wednesday night to try to find common ground.

The meeting was opened by City of Bunbury CEO Mal Osborne who offered the floor to the Brigade Captain. As almost everyone present were Brigade members, the Captain suggested she had nothing to add to what the meeting already knew and asked Mr Osborne to provide his comments.

Mr Osborne expressed the City’s gratitude to the work of the Brigade and assured all present that the volunteers were highly regarded.

He then outlined his understanding of the history of the situation and explained why the City felt justified in taking the action it had regarding the plan to dispose of the Light Tanker.

From the AVBFB’s perspective, it quickly became evident that a number of errors, misunderstandings and oversights, combined with very strong emotional responses to some of the recent local media reports had created a situation that made it difficult to address the core issue.

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At the request of a Councillor present, the AVBFB stepped in to help the meeting re-focus on the core issue.

We are proud to report that we were able to point out that there was more common ground than might have been visible to both parties at the time. We were able to break the discussion down in the following ways:

  • The catalyst for this whole issue was that the DFES did not agree to reverse its decision to withdraw ESL funding for the ongoing maintenance of the appliance
  • That meant the City had to find an extra $6,000 or so to cover costs of the vehicle and consequently decided to dispose of it – as it believed had been agreed with the Brigade some time before
  • The Brigade had agreed to fundraise the money required to maintain the vehicle if necessary

We had therefore demonstrated that the money issue was a moot point and not a reason for disagreement.

  • The City had concerns about the age of the vehicle and the CEO had been given information about previous faults it had that the Brigade did not believe was accurate
  • Clarification was sought and the CEO explained he had a duty to ensure the vehicle was safe and suitable for use by the Brigade
  • The Brigade was asked and agreed to allow the vehicle to be inspected for safety and compliance every year

We then demonstrated that both parties agree that the safety of appliances is paramount and both are willing to have the vehicle inspected, making this a moot point also.

  • The CEO had been assured that the Brigade would be receiving a new large appliance to enhance regional capacity in the future, thus not reducing the number of “seats” available to Brigade members.
  • The CEO had been told that 85% of the work the Light Tanker had done in the past year was not in the City of Bunbury, meaning local residents were effectively paying for other Local Government resources
  • The CEO had been told the Light Tanker was therefore surplus to the requirements of the Brigade and an unnecessary cost to the City
  • The Brigade explained:
    • the 85% usage figure was based on DFES “response” only statistics and the appliance had spent a large majority of its time working in the City of Bunbury on other areas of a Bush Fire Brigade’s remit including training, mitigation and community education – details of which are not captured by DFES
    • that the other vehicle currently in its fleet is a “high season” appliance and would soon be moved to another region with no commitment from DFES for it to return ever, let alone when needed by the Brigade
    • although promises had been made about a new large appliance, the current ESL manual clearly says no funding will be allocated for appliances this year
    • even if DFES ignored its own statement in its funding manual and was able to build and deliver a new appliance this year, it does not suit the needs of the Brigade in terms of critically important work like training, mitigation and other prevention, preparedness, response and recovery works the Brigade undertakes within the City of Bunbury, even in the colder months

We then demonstrated that as a result of miscommunication and a lack of accurate information being provided to the CEO, the decision to dispose of the appliance was based on an incomplete picture of the situation and to the credit of the CEO, he reversed the decision pending confirmation the appliance is safe to use.

There were some robust discussions that have undoubtedly weakened the relationship between many in the Brigade and the City administration, especially those of a personal nature. However, we believe that sometimes pressure needs to be allowed to escape before everyone involved can see through the smoke and work on the core issues.

Of course, there is more work to be done, especially on building a more supportive relationship, but we are very pleased to have been trusted by both the Local Government and amazing volunteers at the Bunbury Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade to help and even more happy that we were able to deliver a mutually acceptable outcome.

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