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?
Great article and you have my full agreement. I saw a rather big aricle in one of the national newspapers today about the Cricket World Cup Volunteers. Thousands have signed up and that’s great. But you’ll see no articles about the millions of other volunteers around the country who are volunteering every week and every year. Awhile back I wrote an article with similar themes about Olympic volunteers.
Great Hot Topic Andy. One that I think will be hotly debated. Pardon the pun. Well I thought that I had a response in total agreement with you Andy and then I discussed the issue with my daughter, who recently travelled from SA up to Brisbane, having lived in the River Lands area for a few months and saw the fire devastation first hand. What she argued was “do other volunteers put their lives on the line when they volunteer?” I believe she makes a very salient point. Other volunteer organisations provide their volunteers with benefits such as free lunches, car parking, gifts at Christmas and recognition events etc. Perhaps this is where the idea of abolishing the ESL for this group is coming from. It is an extra benefit for CSF volunteers who are putting their lives at risk to help others. I believe that it is a very emotive issue which, while I understand the sentiment, I am not sure that I totally agree with the idea. I do believe however that money raised through ESL should all go to funding Emergency Services, whether it be for equipment, training or providing resources of skilled, experienced, professional volunteer managers.
Thanks for throwing your comments into the ring and for the kind comments about the HT.
Just to respond to the question about perhaps firefighting vols being the only ones to put themselves in harms way via volunteering. A part of what I tried to explain in the HT (perhaps not as well as I could have) is the very fact that vol firefighters are NOT the only ones to do this – hence the argument, why should they get special treatment with the ESL?
By way of example, there are many other volunteers working in the fire ground in and around the CFS who, while not directly fighting the fires are still putting their lives at risk by even being there. One week after the Adelaide fires, there were reports of flooding in the far north of the state – and in this case it was State Emergency Service volunteers throwing themselves into flooded rivers to rescue others – and yet there was no mention of ESL levy reductions for this group?
More broadly, there are groups like surf life savers who put themselves at risk every day as well as volunteers who work with those in society who are deemed volatile and high risk (e.g. in high level mental health care and with others whose behaviour can be unpredictable). In many places volunteers are also involved in policing actions and performing security functions. There are also many other volunteers working in third world countries, performing acts of civil disobedience by way of protesting and even assisting in war zones – all of which also come with an element of personal risk. How about those people volunteering to tackle the ebola crisis?
I know this gets a little beyond the boundaries of my article about SA but I hope it helps readers to understand that the firefights, as much as they do amazing work, are not alone in putting themselves in harms way.
Thanks for raising the question