The debate over compensation for volunteers firefighters should address safety concerns too, a senior industry figure has said.
Volunteers form a majority of the Australian firefighting force but are often required to pay for their own food and transport to battle blazes.
In many cases they are even required to use up their annual leave to get away from work to protect lives and property.
And as the catastrophic fires raging across New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia reach the end of their second month, pressure is mounting for that to change.
Petitions have sprung up calling for volunteers to receive more benefits and Paul Keating’s 1994 decision to provide fiscal help to firefighters soon went viral on Twitter.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison even relented on the Coalition’s previous assertions that volunteers didn’t need or want additional support and offered those employed by federal government additional annual leave.
But Volunteer Fire Fighters Association president Mick Holton said the debate over compensation also needs to factor in safety concerns.
Speaking to The New Daily, Mr Holton said many volunteers are anxious their protective equipment isn’t suitable for battling fires this large.
The P2 dust masks worn by many are of particular concern, Mr Holton said, and some volunteers are asking for better respiratory protection to be provided.
Those requests, Mr Holton said, are being too readily dismissed.
“If an employee was to raise questions about the suitability of their personal protective equipment, we’re obligated to at least discuss it,” Mr Holton said.
“If we’re not being open minded and at least responding to some of those requests from our firefighters, I think it’s a bit short-sighted.”
Some brigades are even crowdsourcing funds to buy equipment, and it’s “not uncommon” for individual firefighters to spend thousands from their own pockets on new gear over the course of a year, Mr Holton said.
“It’s not right that we expect them to spend that money on the basic essentials,” he said.
“If you were a mechanic and you spent that on some new spanners you’d expect to claim it back on tax – these people aren’t even generating income.
“What it boils down to is that if they’re asking questions, then we need to look at it for them.”
Try to donate directly
Concerned Australians looking to extend a helping hand need to be wary of where their donations are going, Mr Holton said.
“Just be careful, there might be some dodgy people out there trying to raise funds. To me, the only safe way if you want to give money to a volunteer group is to go directly to the brigade,” he said.
“Take the time to drive down the road and go and see them, that way at least you know the money is getting to where it needs to go.
Mr Holton’s comments follow reports of scammers trying to steal bank details from people whose homes were destroyed in Adelaide Hills and nearby regions.
But Mr Holton added that it’s “not all about money” and encouraged Australians to “be a friend” to their local firefighters, supporting them however possible.
“They need to be looked after, but a little bit of a pat on the back wouldn’t go astray either,” he said.
“If you want to do something worthwhile, just thank the firefighters for what they’re doing and maybe give them a cold drink and be a friend to them.”
Insurance claims mounting
The total cost of the damage so far caused by the fires is continuing to grow, based on data from the Insurance Council of Australia.
By Christmas Eve, the total volume of insurance claims made by residents of the 102 postcodes listed as ‘catastrophe’ zones by the Insurance Council was $182,620,387 and rising.
More than 900 homes have been destroyed since the ICA declared the bushfires a catastrophe on November 8.
Most of these (more than 800) were in NSW, with 40 lost in Queensland and a further 86 in SA.
Fortunately, it said “only a fraction” of the Australians who hold the 523,000 building and/or contents policies in the region have been affected, but “sadly for some, the claims lodged will involve the complete rebuilding of lost property and replacement of destroyed belongings”.