Australia

Exclusive: Tens of thousands rush to become volunteer firefighters amid bushfires

Volunteer fire fighters on duty at Menai Rural Fire Service Station, in Sydney. Source: AAP

The NSW Rural Fire Service has received more than five times its usual amount of annual enquiries in less than three months, as fire services in Victoria and South Australia also report an increase in people wanting to volunteer.

People in Australia are rushing to join volunteer firefighting services in record numbers as bushfires continue to rage across the country, with more than five times the usual yearly number of applicants expressing interest in joining the NSW Rural Fire Service since November.

The massive spike in membership enquiries comes as five volunteer firefighters have died in NSW and Victoria in the same period.

In the two-and-a-half months since the start of the fire season, the RFS has received more than 25,000 membership enquiries, community engagement manager Anthony Bradstreet told SBS News, compared to an average annual application intake of approximately 4,000.

Mr Bradstreet said the massive number of enquiries was likely a record.

NSW RFS volunteers make an honour guard for Andrew O'Dwyer, a firefighter who died while battling a blaze in December.
NSW RFS volunteers make an honour guard for Andrew O'Dwyer, a firefighter who died while battling a blaze in December.
AAP

“There really is a huge number of people who are wanting to support the service and we are going to be working through those enquiries,” he said.

“Following large fire events we do see an uptick in enquiries. Obviously, when people are seeing the bushfire experience play out in their living rooms and hearing about it people are keen to be a part of it.”

The RFS is the biggest volunteer fire service in the world, with more than 70,000 members across 2,002 local brigades.

Victoria’s fire service, the Country Fire Authority (CFA), also told SBS News it had seen a “significant increase” in expressions of interest following the horrific fires that have torn through East Gippsland this summer but was unable to provide an exact figure.

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“It is not uncommon for volunteer expressions of interest to spike in the wake of significant fires and CFA welcomes all inquiries from members of the public who want to help their community,” a spokesperson said.

But despite the increase in volunteer interest, they warned new recruits would not be ready to assist the current firefighting efforts anytime soon.

“During this time of high fire activity our usual timeframe to recruit new volunteers may be delayed due to the volume of applications, current operations, and our requirements to provide vital safety training to recruits so they can operate in dangerous environments,” they said.

The CFA instead urged people eager to help during to current fire season to donate to bushfire appeals.

In South Australia, the Country Fire Service (CFS) told SBS News it received 1,545 membership enquiries in the first ten days of this year. In the final two months of 2019 it received 1,622 expressions of interest.

'This is not going away'

Blue Mountains resident John is one of the 25,000 people who have recently expressed interest in joining the NSW RFS, making the decision just before Christmas.

“I felt that I should because this is not going to go away and we need to be more prepared,” he said.

“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while but I just never got around to it, so I thought now was the time to make it happen.”

The 66-year-old, who has previously defended his home from fire, said he wasn’t concerned about the danger, describing it as “part of what you do if you get involved”.



The increase in enquiries come as questions are asked about whether Australia’s firefighting forces are receiving adequate funding to support the current cohort of volunteers.

Speaking to SBS News on Thursday, Capertee RFS Brigade captain Steve Dalli said he had been requesting funding to purchase a modern bulk water carrier for more than five years.

"For over five years I've been requesting this and I've been continuously knocked back because the funding is not there,” he said.

In December, Canberra man Lewin Hodgman authored a viral Facebook post detailing how his 23-year-old volunteer firefighter brother had asked for a “better firefighting helmet” for Christmas because the one he was supplied was “an older one without a visor”.

He also said volunteer firefighters were only given one set of protective gear, meaning they were often going out in the field wearing dirty clothes.

Volunteer firefighters have also reported having to buy their own respirators and regularly having to work overtime to contain the massive numbers of fires due to a lack of people to replace them.

The RFS's Mr Bradstreet insisted there were no issues with providing current members with the equipment they need.

“We are very well resourced and supported by our state government,” he said.

“We are working as a service to try to make sure that, once the bushfire situation eases, we do have some systems and processes in place to try to welcome obviously the large number of members who have expressed their interest in joining service.”

Late last year RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons also dismissed claims the NSW Government had cut funding from the service, stating resourcing had “never been better”.

"Our investments are at record levels. Do we want more in the future? Of course we would, and I'll be working with government about what that might look like," he said on 18 December.

To find out more about joining your state's volunteer firefighting force visit the following websites: NSW RFS, Victoria CFA, South Australia CFS, Queensland RFSWestern Australia DFES, Tasmania Fire Service and Northern Territory PFES.

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