We asked volunteer firefighters what they need to get through this bushfire season

 

Volunteer firefighters from around Australia spoke to The Feed about what this fire season has been like on the ground, and what kind of help they need to get through it.

In November, The Feed tried to answer a question that's been on many Australians' lips this bushfire season: why do Australia's bushfire defences rely so heavily on volunteers?

In that story, we explored the history of volunteer firefighting in Australia, and the issues of geography and unpredictable weather that led us to our current reliance on thousands of volunteer firefighters across the country. A number of former fire service chiefs explained to us why relying on huge reserves of volunteers has been, to date, the best possible approach to fighting Australia's bushfires.

Since we published that story, the bushfire season has continued to intensify. Experts are clear that the damage so far this season is unprecedented, and we're not even halfway through.

The debate about how we can support our volunteer firefighters right now has also continued to intensify. Many have called for pay or compensation for volunteer firefighters, while New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has insisted that volunteers do not want payment, and Victoria's Country Fire Authority chief Steve Warrington has said that payment "is not in the spirit of volunteerism".

In late December, Morrison made funding available for payments to volunteer firefighters in NSW, capped at $6000, with potential for the scheme to be extended to other states. Over the past week, donations to fire services and bushfire recovery efforts have poured in from celebrities and the general public.

But as volunteer firefighters continue to put their lives on the line, the debate about whether we can do more to support them continues.

Often missing from that discussion are the voices of actual volunteer firefighters on the ground this fire season. In early December, we published a callout on social media asking for volunteer firefighters to share their experiences, and we've spent the past month interviewing those who responded.

Many volunteers requested anonymity because the media policy of the firefighting organisation they volunteer for restricts what individual volunteers can comment on publicly. These volunteers still felt it was important to share their stories and concerns. As one firefighter put it, "I think it's important to be honest with people with what's happening out there, and also to correct a lot of misinformation."

None of the volunteers we spoke to claimed to speak for all firefighters. Instead, their stories together form a sample of the experience of volunteer firefighters on the ground this fire season, and an insight into how we can best help them get through it.

"There's no end in sight. There's just a universe of fire."

We've known for weeks that this fire season is unlike those that have come before. Firefighters who have served for decades told us that on the ground, the difference is obvious.

Val Ansett is a volunteer firefighter in a rural Tasmanian town, and also a career firefighter in Hobart. Fire has been his life for decades, and he can't help but notice the changes in his area.

"It's much drier than what it used to be," he told The Feed. "It's so dry that six weeks later, we're finding fires re-igniting that have been burning underneath the ground in roots and peat and things like that."

"Down here in Tassie we've had a lot of dry lightning strikes which we've never had before, so last year was a real eye-opener for us. It's definitely got worse."

The fire front in Queensland
A volunteer's photo of a bushfire in Queensland.
Mark Tull

Matt* is 24 years old, and has been volunteering at a NSW brigade for six years, but even in that time he's seen a shift.

"On the ground it's so dry. It's extremely dry, it's not funny. Like, me coming from a fairly metro area, going out west and up north, it's just a massive eye opener of how dry it is, and it's hard to describe."

Mark Tull is 60 years old, and has volunteered for Coomera Valley Rural Fire Brigade in Queensland for the past five years. This fire season, he says, "has been beyond my experience".

Volunteer firefighter Mark Tull has a cup of tea after saving a house.
Volunteer firefighter Mark Tull has a cup of tea after saving a house.
Mark Tull

"The size and intensity of the fires, and the length of the fire's life, I have never seen. Even with the little I have been doing, I am just flat, very flat, a bit teary and emotional and probably drinking too much after work, but I am dealing with it."

The hard part of this is the wish you could do more, and when you cannot, I feel very useless.

Colin*, who has been a volunteer firefighter in the Blue Mountains for several decades, has also seen a dramatic change.

"What we're going through is something we've never experienced before, something the RFS itself has never experienced before," he said.

"I think we all agree that the current volunteer model of doing this based on volunteer labour has to be reviewed at the end of this season."

"Because it's okay to go to six fires a year, but you know, a campaign fire previously might go for two or three weeks. The really bad ones might go for a month. But our crews have been going out since September. We've been sending people to northern NSW since September."

"There's no end in sight. There's just a universe of fire, and there's fires to go to everywhere."

That universe of fire has required many volunteer firefighters to push their work-life balance to the limit. Ian McHenry is 56 years old, and volunteers for Jerrabomberra Rural Fire Service in the ACT. As of January 2020, he will have clocked up 40 years' service. He works for a government agency, which gives him access to paid emergency leave during work hours, but he volunteers in his own time as well.

"Really the cost is borne by my wife and family who don't have Dad around as much," he told The Feed. "I did make sure I was around for my daughter's 16th birthday and high school graduation ceremony last week."

For Colin, balancing work and firefighting this season has taken "an enormous physical toll".

Colin says he feels lucky that his boss has allowed him to take paid leave to fight fires, but to ease pressure on the business he has been trying to take night and weekend firefighting shifts while still attending work in the afternoon.

"Technically, the shifts are supposed to be 12 hours, but there's been no shift that's been less than 14," he said.

It takes me about two days to actually recover from it. And it is quite difficult, managing working with that as well. It's extremely difficult.

"My brigade gets by because most of the senior officers there are tradespeople -- they run their own businesses. They're builders and carpenters, so obviously they just take time off and don't go to work and go firefighting."

"But yeah, these people are sacrificing tens of thousands of dollars to do these jobs, there's no doubt about it."

Will paying volunteer firefighters help ease the burden?

When it comes to the question of how to ease that burden on volunteers, is pushing for pay the answer? The volunteers The Feed spoke to had mixed feelings.

For Colin, the end of this fire season will be an opportunity to work out the way forward.

"I think everything's gotta be on the table: the model of volunteerism, how we support volunteers, the equipment that we provide, the air support that we get -- the whole lot will have to be reviewed," he said.

Because if we're doing this every year, it's not going to stack up. We can't be asking people to make those sacrifices in the same way that they have so far.

Dossel is 22, and has been a member of the Mt Helena Voluntary Bush Fire Brigade in Western Australia for 5 years.

"I don't believe volunteers should be paid as such, but they should not be expected to fight fires to the extent where it is detrimental to their financial situation," he told The Feed. "Some form of compensation would be no doubt welcomed, but I personally wouldn't expect any."

Volunteer firefighter Aidhan Dossel wearing a breathing apparatus
Left: Volunteer firefighter Aidhan Dossel wearing breathing apparatus as part of a community demo in October. Right: the Yanchep bushfire in December.
Aidhan Dossel

57-year-old Malcolm Alexander, a member of Lynwood Park Rural Fire Brigade in NSW since 1981, agreed. "Do not want to get paid," he said. "I am ex-military and have a wish to return my experience and skill back to the community. I fill in a gap that not everyone can do."

Mark Tull is self-employed, and takes leave to volunteer at a cost to his business, but also says he doesn't want to be paid.

"Rurals don't want pay, but for every employed firefighter there is an employer -- otherwise all we have is students and the retired," he said. "Support to employers so that we can safely leave our paid work without fear of losing your job or losing pay is the logical answer to our personnel situation."

Other volunteers wondered if it was actually possible to pay volunteer firefighters for the service they provide.

"When I was working for myself, every day I volunteered was a day I got zero pay. And, in fact, it was a day where I might upset clients and lose them because I wasn't available to them," said Aaron*, who has been a volunteer with the NSW RFS for 3 years, and volunteered for the State Emergency Service before that.

And yet, Aaron doesn't want pay. "I don't think you could pay people to do what volunteers do. In either service - SES or RFS," he told The Feed.

"What we ask of these people is too much for anything less than a very generous pay packet."

"And I think that, no matter what you offered to pay them, it wouldn't be enough. Or it would remove the real motivators which keep us engaged - to grow as individuals, to work as a team, and to achieve goals together, knowing that we are going to take care of each other whilst we go into places no person in their right mind would ever go."

Once you replace that feeling of ownership and belonging with a number preceded by a dollar sign, you'd lose it.

As Colin added, volunteers also retain the ability to say no. "I'm just not putting myself in such a dangerous situation," he said.

Some of the volunteers we spoke to did want pay. Several were frustrated that as long-serving volunteers, they often ended up taking a leadership role at the fireground for free, while less experienced career firefighters working alongside them collected pay and even overtime.

Jeff*, a volunteer firefighter in a rural brigade in Queensland, was blunt about the toll firefighting takes on his life.

"Fire call comes in, life and work is put on hold," he said. "No pay, no support, no income and no rewards."

"When I was serving in the Army, we had discounts and other perks that offset our costs of living. Nothing of the sort for us volunteers. We need to start seeing some wages or pay as I already lose 10+ hours a week for RFS in Winter -- comes fire season, on average, 25+ hours a week I lose to the fire service."

"There is a lot more to being a member than just fighting fires, training and other behind-the-scenes activities that chew up time."

Photos of bushfires in Tasmania
Photos of bushfires in Tasmania, taken by Kate.
Supplied

Kate*, too, was open to a kind of pay -- she currently participates in the Work for the Dole program, and would much rather fulfil her requirements through her volunteer firefighting. While volunteer firefighters are exempted from their Work for the Dole obligations during a crisis, volunteer firefighting does not usually count as a Work for the Dole activity.

"The best support, for me at any rate, is to make it a legitimate Work For The Dole activity," Kate told The Feed.

"Personally, I would far rather be there than at WFD. Firefighting makes a difference. Having five people standing around while one person uses a high pressure cleaner on a building you need to paint doesn't."

If not pay, then what?

While most of the volunteers we spoke to said they did not expect or want pay, many suggested other ways that we could support volunteer firefighters financially, through tax breaks, compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, support for increased paid emergency leave from work, and more.

The distinction may seem difficult to grasp, but for many volunteers it came down to this: right now, many brigades are under-resourced, and many volunteers are paying out of pocket for the supplies they need.

Volunteers we spoke to described losing wages or paid leave just to show up and volunteer, and then needing to purchase their own dust masks or other supplies. Everyone we spoke to was more than happy to volunteer their time and earn nothing for it, but no one wanted to lose money, or their jobs, while putting their lives on the line.

A fire at Papinbarra in NSW
A fire at Papinbarra in NSW, photographed by volunteer firefighter Darcy Carney.
Darcy Carney

There are also plenty of other things volunteers say they desperately need funding for.

Overwhelmingly, the resource firefighters say is lacking right now is breathing protection. Almost every volunteer firefighter who contacted The Feed said that they were concerned about their lung health, and felt that more funding needed to be allocated to the issue.

At best, most volunteers we spoke to said their brigades provided the basic disposable P2 masks available at hardware stores. In several cases, volunteers said that even these basic masks were often unavailable or in short supply.

Several volunteers said they were uncertain whether the disposable masks were adequate for prolonged exposure to thick bushfire smoke. In December, an RFS spokesperson said that P2 masks were the most appropriate protection for firefighters, but volunteers speaking to The Feed were uneasy.

Jack*, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Western Australia for four years, pointed out that his brigade had been called to fires where career firefighters had been wearing respirators, while his volunteer crew only had P2 masks.

A few weeks ago, Colin took matters into his own hands, and bought himself a respirator at a cost of around $90.

"Thank god I did, because on Sunday night I was backburning for ten hours, and the wind was blowing straight into my face, and it was just this thick smoke for a good ten hour period," he said."

"If I did not have that respirator, the impact on my health would have been enormous. And I'm not even talking about the long term impact. It actually undermines your operational capability on the fireground, to do your job, because you can't breathe properly. So we actually need these to do our job on the fireground itself."

"I find it amusing that we talk about the smoke in Sydney and how it's 30 cigarettes a day, and that you shouldn't do arduous outdoor work. Well if the pollution is 30 cigarettes a day in Sydney, 200 kilometres from the fire, what is it like at the fire, doing arduous work for ten hours without a respirator?"

"We were equipped for what we had faced up until now, but the organisation is not equipped for this scale of fire"

Beyond breathing, most firefighters we spoke to had other resourcing concerns. These varied from brigade to brigade, and from state to state -- each state in Australia has a different organisation responsible for firefighting services, and several states have separate organisations responsible for volunteer and career firefighters.

Just as resources differ across those organisations, so too does training and strategy. This can sometimes pose a problem when firefighters from multiple organisations are called up to work at the same site. Jack described to us a recent fire attended by his brigade along with firefighters from several different organisations, where one crew was attempting to backburn while another crew continued to systematically put out the backburning fires.

A containment burn at Nabiac, NSW
A containment burn at Nabiac, NSW.
Darcy Carney

Other firefighters flagged problems with trucks, building maintenance, uniforms, personnel and more.

"We have a serious lack of medium rigid drivers," Kate told The Feed. "Two of our three appliances need a MR license to drive them. Those two vehicles carry 11 people all up. We could have 10 people on station, all without a MR licence, and be stuck there feeling entirely ineffective."

Meanwhile, members of NSW brigades were concerned about a shortage of fire trucks, and the wear and tear building up on many existing trucks.

"At the moment, we only have one Cat 1. We've only got one fire truck. And during the week, that's going out to Mt Gospers," Matt said. "So it's leaving our area with no trucks. Our area's relying on our neighbouring brigades."

"When I was up north, the amount of trucks that were damaged due to fire or just the conditions we were facing up there -- in our truck, for the crew before us the handbrake failed. It was fixed before we got it, and then the crew after us it failed again."

"There was another truck up there that had flat batteries that went out, so if the crews turned it off on the fire ground you'd have to jump start it. There were others with broken welds in the seat base. So maintenance is a big thing -- I'm also a mechanic by trade, and maintenance isn't being carried out properly. It is being carried out, but not properly."

A bushfire in Queensland
A bushfire in Queensland.
Mark Tull

Aidhan Dossel was deployed to Queensland for a week last year, and was taken aback by the damage he saw.

"The conditions for rural brigades were shocking. Many brigades were underfunded, with one notably having no funding other than the few local members, their trucks were run down and hardly operational, with everything done to save cost."

"Brigades had so few resources and were so far spread out it was evident that there was extremely limited funding for rural fire brigades, they had no chance against even moderate fires."

Several of the firefighters we spoke to stressed that the problem here is not the NSW RFS or other state agencies dropping the ball.

"We all love the RFS, and it really does try to provide the best equipment and adequate resources as best as possible, and the fact is we've never been better resourced than we are now," Colin said.

I think the right answer to that question was we were equipped for what we had faced up until now, but the organisation is not equipped for this scale of fire.

"It's like the equivalent to an army at war, when it's being pushed so hard and it's fighting on so many fronts, the resources obviously begin to wear out, and that's exactly what's happening now," he said, pointing out that many of the tankers from his Blue Mountains brigade were still up north even as fires encroached on the Blue Mountains.

"We're holding on in the Blue Mountains -- and look, the RFS and Fire & Rescue are very good at sending resources where they're needed, so when there's a big fire you get the strike teams come in, and the resources have been there -- but everything's pushed to the limit."

"And the troubling thing is we've got another three months of this. In three months' time, I just don't know how. I don't know. Obviously we'll just get by, but it's a problem and again it's something that they all need to look at post this season."

In Tull's opinion, "no brigades have the necessary resources for this season. Whether it's more gear, blowers, high pressure hoses, troops, trucks, radios, we just don't have the volume we need for fires such as this."

"The big one is firefighters. If you have 40 in your brigade, then probably only two to three are available at any one shift, so you put one truck out. Sustaining multiple trucks with multiple firefighters over protracted successive fires is not possible, at least not in the numbers I would like to see."

"We've already asked so much of the volunteers, and they were already fatigued from what we asked of them last year"

And that's the main problem the volunteers we spoke to wanted to emphasise: we need more volunteers.

"The one resource we are really in need of? Volunteers! Active, engaged, volunteers," said Aaron.

"It takes about 6 months to get trained up to a basic 'Bush Firefighter' (BF) level, and then it depends on availability to get assessed as such. But, like learning to drive - the real learning starts when you finish the course."

As a Tasmanian firefighter, Val Ansett is particularly worried about volunteer numbers.

In Tasmania our fire season hasn't really started yet, but already every single day we're getting requests to attend firegrounds further up north, in Queensland or NSW -- every day they're asking for volunteers to go and do it.

"The amount of volunteers available are always overstated, and include inactive (and often deceased) members. In reality volunteers respond with one or two people in a truck, leaving ourselves open to injury and a struggle to deal with the fire when we arrive."

"I guess I can only speak for myself, it makes me worried that we're just going to burn out our volunteers way too early. I just know we've already asked so much of the volunteers, and they were already fatigued from what we asked of them last year."

"And yeah, I'm afraid that at some stage they're going to have enough, and either they're going to have enough and say no, or they're not going to be able to say no and they're actually going to end up either injuring themselves or making drastic mistakes just from being so fatigued."

"Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge facing volunteer emergency services is that of recruiting," said Alex*, who has been a volunteer firefighter for over 15 years.

"Finding the next recruit is an ongoing challenge and an unsolved problem. We find that fewer people work in the local area, instead traveling down to the city on a daily basis. This puts a huge demand on the few members who are available during the week to provide coverage."

"Additionally people seem very reluctant to give up their precious free time and commit to a community service such as a fire brigade."

It's the need to keep attracting volunteers that makes some look again to tax breaks, compensation, or some kind of incentive to help draw more people to volunteering.

"I think we need to somehow provide some incentive for volunteers, to get more younger members into the volunteer ranks, instead of just relying on the same people," said Ansett.

"Because I know in my town I've got volunteer first responders, we've got volunteer SES, we've got volunteer firefighters, and often it's the same people. It's often, you know, retired people who are in their twilight years, and you can only ask so much of them. And they're so willing, and they never say no, but I know it's a real toll on them and their bodies if you keep asking them day after day."

"I was in the army reserve for a couple of years, and we got a very small amount of money -- you certainly didn't do it for the money, but that small amount of money, and it was all tax-exempt as well, and I don't know if it was an incentive, but it certainly seems like well if we can pay our reservists then maybe that would be a possibility, or provide some tax incentive some other way."

What do volunteer firefighters want Australians to know right now?

Earlier this fire season, Scott Morrison dismissed calls for volunteer firefighters to be paid, saying that volunteers "want to be there". Morrison has since introduced a compensation scheme for volunteer firefighters, but for many of the volunteers I spoke to, it's the "want to be there" comment that was more jarring.

Matt, who was helping protect properties in the Blue Mountains on a day when a house was lost, put it this way:

I didn't want to be there. I felt like I needed to be there.

"I saw the conditions, I saw how hot it was going to be, I heard from some friends the day before that the weather was going to be pretty bad in the afternoon, and once I saw the team come up I said yeah I've gotta go."

"The whole reason I joined is because a couple of very good mates of mine lost houses in the Yellow Rock fires in October 2013. That's the whole reason I joined up, because I felt like an extra pair of hands wouldn't go astray."

"So I don't really want to be there, it's the fact that I feel like I need to help, to help the community, if you know what I mean."

Alexander expressed similar feelings. "If Scott Morrison would ever feel the pain when we watch someone's house burn down, or hold a dying person's hand in a car wreck, or try to give assurance to people they are being looked after, or conversely tell a homeowner we cannot defend their house, he would never ever say we are happy to be there."

This is not a hobby, but indeed our way of helping people on what may be their worst day. Helping people to get back to normal. It's serious business.

Ian McHenry told The Feed he wants the public to know how much firefighters value their support right now.

"I am personally happy to continue to be a volunteer firefighter, and what has really touched my heart recently was all the thank you letters from Torrens Primary School kids -- they have pride of place in station," he said.

"We did not ask for them, they just turned up in the letter box, and then only just last week a lady just pulled up at the station and gave the stand-up crew a nice box of chocolates. It's kind of funny but it's these small things that makes your heart race a bit with pride, and you say well, that's enough to know that someone thinks the Jerrabomberra brigade is making a difference."

Messages of support from primary school students handing on the wall of a fire station
Messages of support from primary school students handing on the wall of Jerrabomberra fire station.
Ian McHenry

 


 

The Feed reached out to the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES), and Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA) regarding some of the resourcing issues identified by volunteers.

A spokesperson for QFES told The Feed that "QFES currently has sufficient supplies to respond to this bushfire season, ensuring firefighters receive adequate respiratory protection at the scene of incidents."

"QFES also employs a continuous program of asset upgrades and replacement. Firefighting appliance technology is constantly assessed to ensure the QFES fleet continues to meet the needs of Queensland's specific hazard environment."

The spokesperson said that while P2 masks filter 93 percent of harmful particulates in the atmosphere, QFES plans to introduce P3 masks, which are capable of filtering 99.95 percent of particulates, going forward. Some brigades already have access to these masks following a feasibility trial between 2014 and 2017, while P3 masks will be rolled out to other brigades between now and 2024.

Regarding volunteer numbers, QFES says it has more than 33,000 volunteers currently, and has received 5962 expressions of interest and 943 volunteer membership applications since August 2019. QFES has received donations of approximately $2.24 million as of January 10, and will direct funds to support rural fire brigades.

A spokesperson from the Victorian CFA said the organisation was satisfied that its front line is well resourced at this time, with adequate supplies of P2 respirators, vehicles and other equipment. In the event that volunteers do incur costs for approved items, they are able to lodge an expense claim to be reimbursed.

Regarding breathing protection for firefighters, a CFA spokesperson said that "when worn in accordance with fitting instructions and replaced regularly, P2-rated Disposable Respirators are effective in filtering out the fine particles in smoke. Specialised self-contained breathing apparatus is used by firefighters (including volunteers) who are specially trained to respond to higher exposure incidents such as structure and chemical fires."

Regarding volunteer numbers, the CFA said that "with more than 34,000 firefighters and more than 20,000 support staff and volunteers, CFA has the capability to respond to fires this season and into the future. That said, CFA welcomes all enquiries from members of the public who want to help their community." Due to high fire activity, responses to volunteer applications may be delayed, and the CFA encourages anyone seeking to assist immediately to donate to the Victorian Bushfire Appeal.

The NSW RFS did not respond to requests for comment by time of publication.

*Names have been changed