Firefighting associations are claiming more than 7,000 people are stuck in a backlog trying to rejoin volunteer firefighting efforts in New South Wales, as professional and volunteer firefighter associations demand an urgent royal commission into the unfolding bushfire crisis.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he is considering a federal inquiry into the disaster, which has so far claimed more than 20 lives and destroyed more than 1,500 homes across the country.
The unprecedented scale of the bushfires, which have swept across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania have led to calls for a federal royal commission to ensure emergency services organisations are properly prepared for future disasters.
Mick Holton, the president of the New South Wales Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFFA), said there had been a significant drain on reserves of volunteer firefighters in recent years.
“We’ve lost a lot of very experienced people, because they’re frustrated with the way the Rural Fire Service is run currently,” he said.
“I learnt that there’s about 7,000 people sitting in the backlog of volunteers wanting to rejoin at this time of need, and because of bureaucracy and red tape, they’re being withheld.”
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has previously taken aim at the VFFA and its criticism of how the fires have been handled, telling Sky News late last year Mr Holton’s motives were unclear — but labelling the organisation as “politically charged”.
State-based royal commissions have been established in the past, including after the 2009 Black Saturday disaster in Victoria.
But given fires continue to burn across borders, those representing frontline firefighters are demanding a greater response.
“I’ve seen many reports being built for fire agencies, particularly after major events,” John Oliver from the United Firefighters’ Union of Queensland said.
“There’s lots of gloss and little substance. They generally serve those that pay the bill.
“We can no longer rely on these reports to provide unbiased advice to the decision makers.”
Mr Morrison has said a federal royal commission could be established in coming months.
“It is something I would consider in concert with states and territories and these are matters that we are assessing right now,” the Prime Minister said on Sunday.
“But right now, the message I have from state premiers and from fire commissioners, is we are fighting the fires now.”
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said he would be open to the idea as well, however, he was not sure of the timing of such an inquiry.
“There hasn’t yet been a meeting of COAG, and [at] a meeting of COAG, the Prime Minister with the premiers and chief ministers can actually make decisions to impact things right now,” Mr Albanese told reporters in South Australia.
The United Firefighters’ Union of South Australia, in joining the demand for a national inquiry, said there were many ageing fire trucks in the South Australian fleet that could not be properly equipped.
“Our people work very hard on the smell of what’s frankly an oily rag,” state secretary Max Adlam said.
“These people are passionate about what they do.
“I think its incumbent upon our political leaders to get their acts together, and to ensure that frontline emergency services workers are properly resourced and the communities are looked after.”
The Public Service Association of New South Wales warned there had been cutbacks to staff working in national parks, and claimed there was only one fire management officer monitoring the area from Port Macquarie through to the Queensland border in New South Wales.
General secretary Stewart Little said it was welcome to hear the Federal Government talking about appropriate resourcing and the injection of money into bushfire-hit areas, but it was too late.
“Sure they’re talking about it now, but why on Earth were we not talking about this at the beginning of the fire season in August back in New South Wales.”