While firefighting is (and should remain) primarily the responsibility of individual states and territories, it is clear that Australia would benefit from a professional national firefighting team which can be deployed to assist firefighting efforts locally.
In recent months, the defence strategic review and a separate parliamentary inquiry have both warned that Australia must break its reliance on using the defence force as a workforce to respond to natural disasters and return to using them as a last resort. The proposal for a national community service, an idea championed by crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie, is the “sort of option is under consideration” through a home affairs department review according to Murray Watt, the Minister for Emergency Management. FoE opposes forcing individuals to take part in disaster relief community service but we welcome opportunities for individuals to become involved if they wish to do so.
One option which has been proposed for some time has been a plan for a ‘semi-professional’ firefighting service, as exists in California.
As Minister Watt says of this proposal, “I think there would be young people out there who would be more interested in providing that kind of community service than they might be for enlisting in the army reserves or things like that".
We welcome these comments from the Minister: we believe that many urban based people would step up to become involved in firefighting if they have the opportunity.
We already share resources through sending resources like aircraft and strike teams to assist local efforts across state and territory borders. As fire seasons get longer, there will be ever greater demands on career and volunteer firefighters to travel to different regions, states and territories to assist local efforts. With fires now starting in Queensland in winter, and seasons burning into the end of March, considerable thinking will need to be done to ensure volunteering can remain viable for individuals when they are being asked to allocate more than half of every year to firefighting.
One practical thing the federal government can do is to have an additional, deployable firefighting teams who can be allocated to assist local firefighting efforts. Such teams could be allocated interstate ahead of volunteer strike teams, taking some burden off them, especially in the fire season shoulder period of winter/ early spring and autumn.
If a national semi professional firefighting service is established, it would make sense to include an element that is trained in remote area firefighting.
1/ We propose the creation of a national remote area firefighting team.
As fire increasingly threatens World Heritage Areas and high conservation areas within national parks across the country, it is time to establish a national remote area firefighting team, which would be tasked with supporting existing crews in the states and territories.
Long fire seasons stretch local resources, and sometimes remote areas need to be abandoned in order to focus on defending human assets. Having an additional, mobile national team that could be deployed quickly to areas of greatest need would help us protect the wonderful legacy of national parks and World Heritage Areas that exist across the country.
We know that increasingly remote area crews are being used to protect fire sensitive vegetation (for instance the Wollemi Pines in the Blue Mountains or Gondwanic vegetation in lutruwita/ Tasmania). During the 2020 fires, firefighters were deployed on the ground to defend the only known natural grove of the world-famous Wollemi pines, in a remote part of the Blue Mountains. Fire crews were dropped into the area to operate an irrigation system that was set up to protect the trees. Recently prominent researchers in lutruwita/ Tasmania argued that as wildfires increase in severity and frequency as a result of climate change, that Australian authorities will need to adopt a landscape scale plan to protect old trees in the way that land managers are doing in the USA. They note that fires in 2003, 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2019, mostly ‘ignited by lightning storms under drought conditions, destroyed 17 of the world’s largest eucalypts. In these circumstances, individual stands of important trees can be protected provided suitably trained personnel are available’.
It is clear that we will need more specialist remote area crews who are able to carry out this sort of protection work as well as first strike response when lightning strikes cause fires across large areas of land. While the states and territories are responsible for funding local remote area teams and volunteer teams, there is a role for the federal government in establishing a national team.
Teams could be allocated to staging points in specific areas at high risk of fire and deployed alongside local strike teams and brigades, with a specific focus on protecting significant ecological assets.
This was recommended by a Senate inquiry after the devastating fires in Tasmania of 2016.
2/ We propose the creation of volunteer firefighting teams open to people living in urban areas
Australia has always relied on volunteer firefighters to do a large proportion of fire response. But many local brigades, especially in farming areas, are aging, and struggling to attract new members. At present, most people living in urban areas can’t contribute to volunteer firefighting efforts because they live too far from a volunteer station, which means that the burden of fire fighting continues to fall on rural and regional communities, while the benefits of effective firefighting are experienced by all Australians.
Volunteer brigades on the urban fringe of large cities are increasingly important in providing capacity, especially 'surge capacity' of extra crews in bad fire seasons. However, a rapid response to call outs is required for firefighting efforts to be effective. Most people who live in large cities are well beyond the expected call out time of volunteer brigades (for instance in Victoria there is an 8 minute call out time expected of brigades in 'medium urban' areas).
The states and territories could be assisted by the federal government to establish volunteer firefighting teams which are not attached to specific existing brigades. These could offer opportunities to people living in urban areas to sign on, be trained, and then be deployed at times of urgent need. This would mean we skill up new trained firefighters rather than draining the existing volunteer base or relying on the ADF to be active in fire zones. This is more complicated than attracting people who already have fire qualifications and experience but would allow urban people to play a role through committing time to firefighting efforts.
Such volunteer teams could be required to do pre summer refresher training prior to fire season to be available for deployment. Creating a template to develop these teams (eg uniform national training programs so people can stay as members even if they move cities) could create an entire new firefighting capacity at a low cost to the tax payer. If the federal government establishes the framework for urban based crews, then guidelines, training and equipment could be uniform across the country, rather than if individual states or territories develop their own teams.
These groups could also be specifically trained in remote area firefighting to be able to assist state, territory and a potential professional national firefighting team.