State ‘against’ fire service merger

THE state government opposes merging all its fire services into one agency, partly because of problems with a hostile firefighters union, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
The stance was announced by Penny Armytage, secretary of the Department of Justice, in evidence that effectively silenced fire chiefs who had been asked by the inquiry to comment on the issue.
In her witness statement, Ms Armytage said amalgamation would be unlikely to bring great benefits and instead would disrupt the system, leaving its members more focused on their own futures than the need to plan for bushfires. She said it would probably cause:
■Despondency, loss of confidence and resignations.
■Loss of experience, as many senior staff would not find a place in the new entity.
■A long period of looking inward as staff jostled for position rather than focused on work benefiting the community.
She said that given “the present context” and climate change, “the state simply cannot afford to break in a new system, that is, suffer a loss — even temporarily — of operational effectiveness and continuity.”
The CFA, Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Department of Sustainability and Environment had been asked to comment on amalgamation, but Ms Armytage told the inquiry that she was giving the “state-endorsed view from a whole-of-government perspective”.
In 2003, the CFA told the Esplin bushfire inquiry that it should take over the firefighting functions of the DSE, which manages forest fires.
Ms Armytage dodged questions from Rachel Doyle, SC, about whether the CFA had changed its stance on this, and about whether any of the fire chiefs had alternative proposals.
Ms Armytage said the agencies “have acknowledged the state’s position”.
The fact that the United Firefighters Union’s relationship with the management of the CFA and the MFB “could be characterised at times as being quite hostile and acrimonious” was a factor in the state’s decision, she said.
The government was also concerned that volunteers might be sidelined or disaffected by any structural changes.
The chief executive of the CFA, Mick Bourke, agreed under questioning that the CFA had asked last July for funding for another 684 career firefighters to cope with growing populations on the urban fringe.
He said he wrote to the UFU last month saying that he had written to Ms Armytage at the board’s request, telling her that the funding was a priority.
Ms Armytage said no decision would be made about the funding until after the commission’s final report, due in July.
Mr Bourke said the CFA’s current position on amalgamation was that the government should decide. In regard to union problems, he said the CFA had “some strong monopoly traits” and he hoped to work out good outcomes for all parties over time.