It’s summer in Australia and in January this year South Australia experienced its worst bushfires for several decades.
What made these latest fires more frightening than usual was just how close they got to suburbia, with several outer suburbs being evacuated throughout the event.
Thankfully no lives were lost – and as is always the case, South Australia’s Country Fire Service (CFS) volunteers were front and centre in risking their lives to fight the fires. I experienced this first hand when I rode on a fire truck and did some mop up operations after the second black Wednesday fires in 1983. Memories of that night are still very vivid.
There is no doubt at all that all our volunteer ‘firies’ are indeed heroes.
During the recent event, what was of interest to me was a side story that emerged throughout the fires – and to explain that with any accuracy I’ll need to spend a sentence or two setting the political scene for readers who are not from this part of the world.
In 1999, the SA Liberal Party introduced a new tax called the Emergency Services Levy (ESL). At the time it was sold as being a ‘temporary’ tax to help fund emergency service operations across the state, but like most taxes, once they are in place governments of any persuasion are reluctant to remove them. Such has been the case with the ESL.
What’s more, in just the last few months, the current government has announced significant rises in the ESL, which had some CFS crews protesting and even threatening to not fight fires on SA government owned land. So needless to say its been a prickly topic for a little while.
So let’s jump back to the recent fires.
As the fires burned, the general public began to feel more and more indebted to the CFS crews. What emerged was a groundswell of public (and media) support to have volunteer firefighters to be excluded from having to pay the ESL – or at the very least, it was suggested they should be offered a significant discount.
This was countered by the SA Government, who took the position that while CFS volunteers did in fact deserve high praise, abolishing the ESL for this group alone had the potential to alienate the many other volunteer groups who were assisting with the fires in so many other different ways.
For the record, my position is that I for once sided with the politicians (be still my heart!). I believe that offering ELS discounts or exemptions would only cause a whole raft of additional problems, and in my opinion, would quite frankly open up a can of worms that no one would want to deal with.
Just a few examples:
- All the focus on ESL discounts appeared to be focused on those ‘visible’ volunteers fighting the fires. So where would back room operational volunteers fit into this scenario? It could be argued that these strategic roles are just as (or even more) important than those in the field, as I imagine they are often the ones directing the firefighters into the safest paths.
- While firefighters are the most visible and newsworthy volunteers in the event of a fire, where do other emergency service volunteers fit? The State Emergency Service? St John Ambulance? These volunteers are also in the fire grounds performing acts of heroism as are many others.
- In the same vein, where does this leave all those volunteers (and volunteer agencies) who months later, when the fire trucks are all packed up and the cameras gone, are still working with landowners, family members and wildlife in the effected zones?
- I also have concerns about how the introduction of any sort of ‘discount’ might effect the motivation of people joining the CFS. I’ve seen before how the introduction of volunteers who have a need to meet Centrelink requirements can disrupt an otherwise strong volunteering culture when this is not handled appropriately.
At the end of the day, it is my belief that the best outcome for our firefighters – and the best form of reward and recognition; is that we advocate that ALL money raised by the ESL be allocated back into emergency services where it belongs. In this way our firefighters and other emergency personnel arrive to tackle these god-awful events with all of the equipment and training that they require.
Anyway – let me get to the real point of this hot topic!!!
As the fires subsided, I was on one hand just plain ecstatic that volunteers were being talked about at all – but on the other hand I was disappointed that once again it takes a major event like a bushfire, to get the general public and the media to stand up and take notice of the fact that volunteers are out there making a difference day in and day out – and not just when there is a fire to fight!
This has been a bug-bear of mine since the Sydney Olympic Games, when (rightly so), the Sydney Olympic Volunteers were praised for the great contribution that they made to the Games. But to present them all with medals and give them a tickertape parade was always a little over the top for me.
How many times do we, as volunteer leaders, send good news stories about our regular volunteer teams to the media only to have them disregarded?
It seems it suits the media to praise volunteers when it benefits their ratings, and politicians are always happy to come and pat some volunteers on the head at election time – but otherwise the silence is deafening.
So my question to all of you is simply this
How can we create bushfire like conditions every day?
That is, how do we get the media, politicians and the general public to recognise the work of volunteers in our hospitals, those feeding the homeless, those protecting our environment and those sitting with palliative care clients at the end of their life?
You know (dare I say it), in some ways our emergency services have it good. At least the ESL is a bucket of money that is allocated to a purpose from which our emergency service teams can benefit.
For most of the rest of us, we are arriving at the well when it is already dry!
Let’s hear what you think?