Planned changes to the Country Fire Authority have resulted in a lack of trust, feelings of disillusionment and plummeting morale, a Victorian Parliamentary inquiry has been told.
A number of organisations and fire brigades have accused the government of failing to consult relevant parties on the reforms, which would see the CFA become a volunteer-only organisation with all paid firefighters from the CFA and Metropolitan Fire Brigade to be combined under a new Fire Services Victoria body.
At the time of the announcement, Victorian Emergency Services Minister James Merlino said the changes would enshrine the CFA as a volunteer firefighting service under law and unite career firefighters under one organisation.
More than 1100 submissions have been made to the inquiry, with two public hearings hosted recently.
In a submission to the inquiry, the Benalla and District Fire Brigade Group accused the government and CFA management of ‘‘complete abandonment’’.
‘‘Never before have we witnessed in volunteers so much disillusionment with the CFA management, board and office of the chief,’’ the submission read.
‘‘There is a belief amongst volunteers that they are being blackmailed in that they will not give up protecting their communities and can be forced to adopt changes without proper due process or consultation.’’
The proposed changes, which were announced in May, have drawn criticism from volunteers and brigades with concerns about the impact on surge capacity, morale and operational relationships.
The government drew further ire from the community by linking the proposed changes and presumptive legislation to provide firefighters suffering from cancer with compensation in a move that was slammed by members of parliament.
A CFA Volunteer Leadership Group for District 23 — that incorporates senior CFA volunteers from towns including Benalla, Mansfield, Moyhu and Wangaratta — blasted the government over the linked legislation.
‘‘Joining two pieces of unrelated legislation to facilitate the passage of one by using the other as a lever, to stifle debate on both issues is a cynical ploy that reflects poorly on the government,’’ the leadership group’s submission stated.
The parliamentary committee will address the impact on fire service delivery across Victoria, the effect on volunteer engagement and participation in fire service delivery, short and long-term cost impact on fire service provision and the underlying policy rationale.
State Member for Northern Victoria Jaclyn Symes said people who appeared before the committee were largely in favour of reform but that volunteers were ‘‘understandably nervous about what it may mean’’.
The bill was passed by the Legislative Assembly in June and will be considered by the Legislative Council when the eight-member committee hands down its report on August 8.