Volunteer firefighters are leaving the ranks in NSW and Victoria due to disrespect from city-based professional emergency managers, the bushfire royal commission has heard.

Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of NSW vice-president Brian Williams said fire control plans overlooked input from local volunteers, which they feared put them at increased risk of harm.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has heard volunteer firefighters are dissatisfied with professional fire managers. Photo: NICK MOIR/SMH

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has heard volunteer firefighters are dissatisfied with professional fire managers. Photo: NICK MOIR/SMH

“The Rural Fire Service has become quite a city centric organisation and there has been a considerable loss of control at the local level,” Mr Williams said. “Their [volunteer] input isn’t valued like it used to be when we were under local government and they’re tending to walk away and that’s very unfortunate.”

Volunteers do a “a very difficult, dangerous job” and the bureaucracy should “give them respect”, Mr Williams said in a hearing of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Friday.

He said a “growing feeling that we’re no longer important” had been felt across the Rural Fire Service volunteer ranks for a number of years and as a result “really experienced people are becoming disenchanted and they’re leaving the service”.

Volunteer numbers had also taken a “worrying” drop in Victoria due to a lack of respect for their ranks, according to Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria chief executive Adam Barnett.

“We’ve still got a healthy culture in Australia for volunteering, and the healthy recruiting numbers I think lend themselves to say people want to volunteer,” he said.

“But when you start looking into the reasons why volunteers are leaving and certainly those reasons from an association point of view, the dissatisfaction about how they are treated, it’s dissatisfaction about how they are respected and recognised.”

There were 65,992 volunteers in 1998 in Victoria but that number had dropped to 53,311 in 2020, he said.

“Unfortunately we have experienced a significant, I guess, downward trend in the last five years and looking at the figures we’ve probably lost roughly around the same amount of volunteers in the last five years as we had in the 15 years prior to that. So it’s certainly a worrying trend in the short term,” Mr Barnett said.

Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades president Dave Gossage, from Western Australia, said volunteers had been “bullied” since local input had been diminished and administration of firefighting funding and regulations had been consolidated under the Department of Fires and Emergency Services.

“The department said to us that ‘oh, you can have it so long as you come under our command and control’,” Mr Gossage said. “That is just blatant bullying and abuse of power to actually use that, you know, control of the money to get people to come under their command and control.”

Mr Gossage said the state bureaucracy created an “insulting” firefighting training system that ignored volunteers.

“In WA a system was brought in that created pathways for the paid people and then they said ‘oh shivers, we forgot about the volunteers’ and shoved them on,” he said.

“But the way it was structured volunteers would always be subservient to the paid officers and that’s insulting when we have volunteers who are running multi million dollar corporations and businesses and mines and all that being treated like fodder.”


Mike Foley