This story starts with myself, as a crew leader for the Samaria Fire Brigade. Samaria brigade received two pager messages at 17.34 and 17.43 on 15th December 2014, to attend fires at Lima South and Tatong. Upon confirmation from Vicfire, based on current need, Samaria Tanker was deployed to a fire at Old Tolmie Road, Tatong at 17.48. Following the suppression of this fire, we were released at 19.30 hrs and returned to the station. We had just replenished our water and supplies on the tanker, when at 20.00 hrs; we received multiple pager messages to attend a number of locations in the Lurg/Winton area. A severe thunderstorm had gone through the region and lit fifteen significant fires between Shepparton and the ranges. We set off to the last pager location which was Kennedy Lane, Lurg, with a crew of five, including myself.
On the fire ground we were directed to a number of fires, which we extinguished and moved onto a more significant fire in very rugged country just east of Tatong. The main outbreak was extinguished; however there were a number of spot fires just inside the perimeter that required monitoring. Samaria was selected to remain on-site, as we had the experienced crew, a 4WD tanker and equipment to deal with the rugged terrain. At one point we went back down the hill to refill with water, and then asked the Incident Controller if he could organise some change-over crew, as two of our crew needed to return home for commitments later in the morning. It was 2 am on 16th December at this point. We were later told that replacement crew could not be located. Upon returning to refill the next time, we dropped off the two crew members requiring a lift home, and the remaining three, including myself, went back up into the hills.
At 3 am we located some burning logs close to the fire perimeter and stopped to extinguish them. In the process, one of the crew slipped and fell, breaking his ankle. He was quickly loaded back onto the tanker and very carefully driven down to the command point, where he was transferred to another vehicle for transfer to Benalla hospital.
To cut the story short, the crew member was eventually operated on at Wangaratta Base Hospital and returned home, some weeks later. The problem then arose with CFA regulations. Under the Kennett Government the rules had been changed on paying loss of income compensation to anybody in Victoria who was over 65 years of age. The reasoning being that they should be either, on the pension or drawing down on their superannuation. Unfortunately this reasoning did not match reality in any form, as many older Victorians were still employed, either in their own business, or as PAYE employees. By way of explanation, my brother-in-law worked in a special area of insurances, and in 2014 there were over 600 employees and contractors on building sites in Victoria who were over 70 years of age.
Our crew member was 72, however was very fit and had regular seasonal work for over six months of the year. Whilst he drew a pension during the off-season, he declared his income to Centrelink when he was working. The initial approach for loss of income compensation to the CFA was met with a very firm ‘no’.
Well, it was time for me to rebel and fight the case. With the pro-bono assistance of a friend who was a retired County Court judge, I prepared a case to put to the CFA, via the volunteer’s representative group, Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria.
We pointed out that the current CFA regulations were in breach of at least two Federal Government laws, and we required the loss of income to be paid to our crew member. These breaches of the laws had been pointed out to the CFA in a report in 2011, however they had taken no action to correct the situation.
Upon presentation of our case, the CFA relented and paid all of the assessed lost income. In September 2016 the Chief Officer of the CFA sent a letter to all brigades stating that loss of income compensation would now be paid to all volunteers, irrespective of their age. Not only did this change the policy for the CFA, it set a precedent for all organisations in Victoria with a volunteer component.
I do not normally get as passionate about issues as I did with this one, however we did receive the desired result without the volunteers, or the regional fire brigades, paying out one cent in legal fees.
I stood down from the CFA in August 2015 after almost 34 years of service, in protest to the treatment of CFA volunteers.