As your High School History teacher probably told you when big hair and skinny ties were all the rage, looking back every now and then can provide valuable illumination of where you have come from, where you are now and perhaps most importantly, the path that lay ahead.

It’s been a busy – and we don’t mind saying, tough – couple of months for the AVBFB, so we thought we would pause and see what we might learn from looking back a bit.

A couple of months ago after doing a lot of research, consultation and hard work, the small group of AVBFB volunteer committee members called a Special General Meeting in Bridgetown to consider a major re-write of the Association’s constitution, primarily to enable it to attract Corporate Donations with Federal Government DGR Status but also to make it compliant with the new Legislation and tidy up some typos and outdated procedures. The lead up to that SGM saw some members make assertions against the Committee that changes were being made for something other than proper reasons. The consultant who donated his time to research and re-write the Constitution spent hundreds of hours answering calls and emails from many members who had legitimate concerns based on what, by the end of it, started to look like a bit of a campaign of misinformation.

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Nevertheless, the team of elected volunteers faced their critics, answered the questions and after a long meeting where both genuine improvements were made and conspiracy theories dispelled, the Association now has a constitution that complies with the law and enables application for DGR status.

Then there was the WAFES Conference.

Not many would know that for the last 9 months, volunteers from the AVBFB and all the other services (VFRS, SES, VMRS, VES) have regularly travelled to Cockburn during office hours to meet, discuss and plan all aspects of the conference in absolute collaboration with the DFES marketing and events team. Although the lion share of heavy lifting is done by DFES staff, an awful lot of work has to happen behind the scenes of each Association to deliver the event. Like every year for the past few, the conference did proceed and by all accounts was another successful opportunity for volunteers from all over the state to get together to discuss, learn and teach all things emergency services.

We won’t dwell on it for too long, but an important fact in the recent journey of the AVBFB is that during his opening speech to hundreds of volunteers, former Commissioner Wayne Gregson used his last public address to confirm a personal view that the independent, government commissioned report into the Waroona fires was flawed in its recommendation to create a Rural Fire Service. Mr Gregson went on to tell the audience that he believed cultural, rather than structural, change was required and explicitly said the volunteers operating the AVBFB had stymied his attempts to make the changes required and consequently let down the Volunteer Bush Fire Service.

In one sense, we were pleased that the Commissioner had openly admitted that cultural change was required because the AVBFB has been formally and informally trying to work with DFES to change the culture for years. Indeed, as part of tonight’s little look back in history, we re-read a 20,000 word submission the AVBFB wrote and sent to DFES on 31 July 2014. As part of our open and transparent approach to what we do for members, we shared the full submission on that day – and it can still be viewed here for those who are interested. While the whole thing is pretty interesting, we didn’t have to look back very far to hear the words of our old History teacher ringing in our ears. Here’s just one of many references the submission contained begging DFES to make small changes from the covering letter written by then President, Mr Terry Hunter:

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“While there is broad acceptance within the volunteer community that there is a legitimate need for strong command and control protocols in any emergency service, a great deal of angst and mistrust could be avoided if more DFES communication demonstrated a better understanding of the unique needs of Western Australia’s proud emergency service volunteers.”

Needless to say, the hard working, democratically elected unpaid AVBFB Committee were shocked and dismayed that such aggressive, factually incorrect allegations were thrown at them in such a public and unnecessarily antagonistic way last Saturday. It was no state secret that the Association’s preparedness to stand up for what it thought was right had not been well received by the former Commissioner, but the suggestion that the AVBFB had not worked with DFES to resolve many issues and stymie DFES’ efforts to fix the culture was absolute nonsense and very hurtful.

Later that day, the AVBFB AGM took place and after every Brigade had been invited to nominate Committee Members and vote, all Committee positions were filled unopposed.

The week before the conference, the Board had been wrestling with the invitation to formally attend a Transfer of Command ceremony to mark the end of Commissioner Gregson’s reign. While there were good arguments both for and against, consensus was reached that partly because the Association did not support spending staff time and tax-payer’s money and partly because the day, time and style of parade highlighted the very cultural differences the AVBFB had been trying to fix for many years, it would be best if the Association did not attend. The decision was made to not draw attention to the issues or our choice to not attend.

Early this week, the ceremony was raised in the electronic media and again, the Board considered its options carefully. It was decided that the most open and transparent thing to do would be explain the decision to not attend to our stakeholders in the form of a written statement to minimise the potential for the message to be misread or dragged out.

The Government then announced Mr Gregson’s replacement and the AVBFB immediately published a media statement congratulating Mr Klemm on his appointment and the Government for their decision. Since then, there have been a number of very productive discussions with Mr Klemm and other key stakeholders. The President (as the Association’s spokesperson) made several public comments in support of Mr Klemm and recognised the effort new Minister Fran Logan has put into consulting and working toward a solution. Indeed, one of the comments made ‘on the record’ to ABC radio just today about the appointment was:

“if this week has been any indication of what he’s going to be doing, we are very excited about the future.”

The bottom line here is that different opinions are welcome and unlike many other organisations, encourage public discussion about them. We also know that no association, Member of Parliament or Union ever has 100% agreement on anything. And we know that the AVBFB runs on a tiny budget and the good will of a few very good people working their butts off to try to help – with no personal gain and in fact, often at significant personal loss. All that they ask in return is for people to get the facts before passing judgement and not to be personally attacked for trying their hardest.

To conclude, we sincerely hope this information helps demonstrate the commitment of the AVBFB volunteers and makes some just a little more supportive of the effort they put in (even if we don’t always get it right) as we all head into a new and hopefully much improved era for West Australian volunteer emergency services.

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