Volunteer have their say

By Country News

Volunteer firefighters have mixed opinions on a new payment scheme implemented by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with some welcoming the compensation and others fearing a threat to the meaning of volunteerism.

Echuca Country Fire Authority volunteer Colin Atkinson has relieved crews in Gippsland, and said volunteers who perform the same work as the NSW Rural Fire Service should be paid for their efforts.

“All volunteers need to be compensated,” Mr Atkinson said.

“As for myself, I run my own business — I can go away but at the same time I'm losing potential income.

“A lot of families are out of pocket at Christmas time after buying presents and paying bills which puts a lot of pressure on, so to have any financial compensation to take the pressure off would be good.”

Mr Morrison announced volunteers in NSW who were fighting fires for more than 10 consecutive days would receive payments of up to $6000, with the funding available to all states if requested.

The payments of about $300/day are designed to provide financial compensation for volunteers who are self-employed or employed by small businesses.

Echuca CFA volunteer Bridget Burke agreed being a self-employed volunteer leads to monetary loss.

“Some of the ones who have been away would have financial problems and it would definitely be beneficial to those who have been gone for weeks or months,” she said.

“I think it would even encourage people to join, to know they won’t be left stranded when they leave their jobs.”

NSW Volunteer Fire Fighters Association president Mick Holton said volunteers’ out-of-pocket expenses should be paid for by the government.

“You get a lot of volunteers who say they don’t feel remuneration is appropriate because it would damage the volunteer ethos, but there are many others who say, ‘I can only do this for so long’,” Mr Holton said.

Echuca CFA volunteer Luke Weymouth recently used his annual leave to fight fires at Ensay in East Gippsland, and said the new payment scheme contradicted being a volunteer.

“The support the government is giving is a good idea but not in one lump payment, it would take away the spirit of volunteers,” he said.

The bushfires ravaging NSW have caused the loss of eight lives, 1000 homes and millions of hectares of bushland.

As the fires continue, Echuca CFA captain Robert Amos said a long-term solution to ease the strain on resources was required.

“We need more volunteers in the fire service to deploy more people and get around this sort of thing,” Mr Amos said.

“The governments will come up with the money if they have to, but I’m wary of knee-jerk decisions — I'm not saying it's wrong, but making decisions on two to three weeks could be problematic.”

CFA Committee for Greater Shepparton group manager Ray Stockwell said another solution was to provide employers with funding to allow staff to leave for extended periods.

“Out of all the volunteer firefighters I've spoken to not one expects to be paid, however I personally am not against the idea of the volunteers’ employers being paid, that then allows them to grant employees leave,” Mr Stockwell said.