THE Rural Fire Service (RFS) has lost touch with its regional roots, and volunteers who have spoken against the bureaucracy have faced bullying and harassment, including election interference at a brigade level, a parliamentary inquiry into the emergency services has been told.
The inquiry also revealed a grants scheme that was giving nearly $2 million a year to brigades for upkeep and improvements has been dumped in favour of a process where brigades must apply to receive funding.
Allegations of nepotism were also raised, with a document not yet publicly released indicating a tenfold increase in likelihood of a paid position for applicants working out of a pocket of 11 RFS brigades in northern Sydney.
On the first day of hearings on Monday, the inquiry, which will look at responses to bullying, harassment and discrimination in emergency service agencies, heard from the representatives of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFF) and the Rural Fire Service Association (RFSA), and RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said he had “no explanation” for the apparent tenfold increase in paid positions for members in 11 brigades in Sydney’s north.
“I don’t have anything other than coincidence,” he told the inquiry. “It doesn’t correlate with the recruitment process.”
He said every recruited position was the subject of open, merit-based selection.
When questioned about a People Matters survey which found 48 per cent of RFS respondents had witnesses bullying, Commissioner Fitzsimmons acknowledged there was a disconnection between formal reports of bullying and the survey results, but said the organisation was working to address the issue.
“Bullying is a serious issue. There should be no retribution, there should be no punishment (for reporting bullying),” he said.
“We’re seeking to ramp up again changes and adjustments … we are trying to do more to ensure that we hear those matters so we can deal with them appropriately.”
Of the submissions made to the inquiry, 20 relate to NSW Police, 26 to NSW Ambulance, 25 to Fire and Resuce, 16 to the SES and 46 for the RFS.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the inquiry needed to acknowledge “we are proportionally larger than a lot of those other agencies”.
VFF president Mick Holton said his organisation was concerned about the loss of valuable local knowledge.
“One of the complaints we get from volunteers is we’ve got a loss of local knowledge,” he said. “We’ve got situations where, because everything is run from the Sydney-centric model so, nothing against city people, but if we’re going to be fair to rural people, we have to tailor things to their needs.
“If the bureaucracy is such that it is not meeting the needs of rural people … we’ll lose them.”
When asked if there were occurrences of paid staff interfering with volunteer elections at a brigade level to ensure a favoured outcome, Mr Holton said “absolutely”.
“We do hear these cases (of management manufacturing an election outcome to get rid of people) but it’s also comforting to know that it’s not everywhere.”
Ken Middleton, president of the RFSA, rejected the claims as “hearsay”.
“I haven’t had any member or salary member come to me saying that their career has been terminated because somebody had it in for them,” he said.
He also defended housing the RFS head office in Sydney, rather than a regional centre such as Orange, Dubbo or Parkes.
“In order to effectively manage and co-ordinate high level functions of the service, head office should remain within Greater Western Sydney,” he wrote in his submission.
When questioned about a $1.9 million reduction in member expenses this year, RFSA chief executive Bernard Cox defended the organisation’s decision to review the giving program.
“We found the brigades were actively supplied … so we changed it to you come to us with what you would like … we put it back to them to come back to us.”
He said the change was gaining momentum and applications were increasing.
“At the end of the day we want to be responsible with the money we raise from the public,” he said.
The inquiry resumes on Friday.