Firefighters employed at stations in the heart of the Greater Sydney lockdown zone have been enlisted to cover staff shortages in the Hunter in what the fire brigade union says is an attempt by the emergency service agency to save costs, but is putting firefighters and the community at risk of spreading COVID-19.
The Newcastle Herald understands that three firefighters from the City of Sydney station and one from the Cabramatta station, in south-west Sydney, were called in to cover shifts at the Lambton, Cooks Hill and Holmesville Fire and Rescue NSW stations last Thursday, instead of overtime being given to locally-based firefighters.
Fire and Rescue NSW has defended the strategy, saying it has been working with other government agencies to manage infection risk for more than a year and that firefighters who are stationed in Sydney but live in the Hunter are called upon, where possible, to cover shifts in this region.
But the Fire Brigade Employees Union says those who travel south to work in Sydney stations go into lockdown when they return home.
The union said putting them to work inside Hunter stations posed a serious risk of spreading coronavirus among local fire crews and the community at large.
The Herald understands concern has been heightened recently after a firefighter from the Chester Hill station - only a few kilometres from Cabramatta - tested positive to COVID-19, resulting in three shifts of firefighters being put into isolation.
Fire Brigade Employees Union Newcastle secretary Jason Morgan said he believed potential cost savings were involved in the decision not to roster Hunter firefighters on overtime to cover shifts.
Mr Morgan said papering over staff shortages with firefighters from Sydney stations risked a situation where entire teams could be temporarily out of action.
"[Firefighters] had issues with it for the pure issue that caseloads in Sydney are quite high," he said.
"It's a risk to ourselves and our families but it's also a risk to the greater community.
"Unfortunately, the nature of our job sometimes is we're close to people. We're coming into contact with the general public."
A Hunter firefighter who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity said emergency service crews did not live in a "magic bubble".
"We don't want this [virus] up here more than it already is," the firefighter said.
"We are concerned for the community and concerned for our families."
The office of Police and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott referred the Herald's questions to Fire and Rescue NSW this week.
In a statement, the emergency agency said it was "doing everything possible to keep its firefighters and the community safe, while continuing to deliver critical and reliable emergency services across NSW".
"Wherever possible, the firefighters who are coming to work in the Hunter region are in fact Hunter residents who are normally stationed in Sydney," a FRNSW spokesperson said.
"In recognition of the critical need to maintain emergency services, NSW Health has given emergency services some exemptions from the current public health orders, including movement in and out of regional areas.
"We have infection prevention measures in place, including COVID-19 surveillance testing.
"FRNSW is committed to working in line with all NSW Government requirements whilst protecting the NSW community."
The agency did not comment specifically on whether potential cost savings factored into its recent decisions regarding staff allocation in the Hunter.
Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery said she and some of her Labor colleagues had written to the minister asking for locally-based firefighters to be used to cover shifts in future.
"It is concerning that Fire and Rescue NSW would risk the health and safety of local firefighters by bringing in staff from the areas of concern in Sydney," she said.
"We have the ability to staff these vacant positions with people from Hunter [stations] and that is what should be done."
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said the minister should "urgently intervene", saying the situation was "outrageous".
"This practice puts the community at risk," Mr Crakanthorp said.
"We've seen in recent weeks just how easily COVID-19 can spread into our region from Sydney."
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