REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: Volunteer help goes beyond state lines

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's is written by ACM's head of engagement Emily Sweet.

NSW Rural Fire Service firefighters protecting a property from the Currowan fire on December 21. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

NSW Rural Fire Service firefighters protecting a property from the Currowan fire on December 21. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's proposal to implement financial compensation schemes for volunteer firefighters in the states and territories has sparked a national conversation.

It goes to the heart of volunteering and those who are passionate about serving their communities. But how far does that passion stretch, when some firies on the front line are working 12-hour days, for weeks on end?

Mr Morrison announced on Sunday that Rural Fire Service Volunteers in New South Wales who were self-employed or worked for small and medium businesses and had been fighting fires for more than 10 days this season would be eligible to apply for compensation for lost income.

Compensation payments of up to $300 per day and up to a total of $6000 per person will be provided.

Other states and territories will have to apply for the scheme based on their assessment of need and the demands on their volunteer effort.

In Canberra, ACT minister for police and emergency services Mick Gentleman said he would seek advice on whether a compensation scheme was needed for ACT RFS volunteers.

"Our volunteer firefighters sign up because they want to protect our communities and help their neighbours," he said.

"As fire seasons become longer and more severe due to climate change, a national discussion is needed about rural fighter resourcing and arrangements and I will continue to raise this with my state and federal colleagues."

In Tasmania, Premier Will Hodgson said his government would consider any initiative offering further support for their 5000-plus volunteer firies.

 Premier Will Hodgman says his government will consider any initiative offering further support for the state's volunteer firefighters.

Premier Will Hodgman says his government will consider any initiative offering further support for the state's volunteer firefighters.

The sentiment has been echoed in South Australia, where arrangements are being made for their volunteers to receive the same payments.

"The consistent advice I have from them is that none of them volunteer to get paid," Country Fire Service chief Mark Jones said.

"However, there is a parity issue and if some states are to receive it, it's fair that they all do."

So in recognising the role that our volunteer firefighters make across the country, why not make it a uniform scheme across the board?

Perhaps Mr Morrison need not stray too far from his recent holiday destination of choice to see how they look after their volunteer firies.

In the United States, an estimated 65% of all firefighters were volunteers in 2017, providing an estimated $46.9 billion worth of services annually. Without this, the National Fire Protection Association says many communities would be unable to provide emergency services protection while others would have to raise taxes to afford paid staff.

In February, the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act was introduced, in a bid to help recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.

The bill makes property tax benefits and up to $600 per year in other incentives exempt from federal tax.

Here in Australia, our volunteer firies protect an enormous land mass, too. And the value of the services they provide us is equally as significant.

It's about ensuring they are fairly compensated, too.

Emily Sweet, ACM head of engagement

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