By Michael Hill.Â
Every summer around 214,000 Australians volunteer their time and efforts to become the backbone of Australia’s bushfire fighting efforts. These individuals are normal citizens who have been organized across the country at the state levels into various agencies that then cascade down to form community-based fire brigades. Australian firefighting state agencies themselves can be divided into core groups of paid career staff who largely determine strategy and set policy that support much larger forces of volunteer firefighters. These individual agencies with their various support functions roughly range in size from around 70,000 members in New South Wales to nearly 200 in the Northern Territory.
The evolution and function of this volunteer system is an important piece of the overall Australian bushfire fighting picture. To better understand it, we must first view the annual Australian bushfire situation.
Australia’s southeastern regions of Victoria, New South Wales, its Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and South Australia are the country’s prime risk areas for seasonal extreme fire behavior; however, Western Australia and Tasmania have also been known to have dangerous fire seasons. Queensland’s far north, more tropical location in the northeast typically has more rainfall, and the Northern Territory, with its sparser population, has mostly shifted its rural firefighting responsibilities over onto individual land owners.
The Australian states with the greatest potential for bushfires individually have evolved complex systems for managing their rural firefighting tasks. These systems range from bushfire fighting services delivered by dedicated primary volunteer organizations with a relatively few paid staff to other state government agencies made up of paid employees who undertake more specialized roles in managing their public lands, forest and pine plantations.
As a rule, the larger volunteer organizations around Australia tend to be predominantly firetruck-based. The other, mostly specialty efforts on the public lands, undertaken by paid staff, often correspond on a smaller scale to the dry firefighting and fire aviation similar to the United States and Canadian governments’ annual forest firefighting efforts. Some Australian state volunteer systems have crossover into these specialties themselves, such as New South Wales.
How did these volunteer organizations end up providing the bulk of Australia’s frontline fire forces? What do they contribute? What do they get in return for their efforts? And why do they do it?
A HISTORY OF HELPING
The volunteer bushfire brigade system in Australia traces its roots to the late 1800s when on February 1, 1898, the Red Tuesday fire roared across Victoria’s Gippsland region killing 12 individuals and destroying 2,000 structures. This fire, and several other major fire events that impacted Victoria and New South Wales throughout the 1890s, led to the expansion of localized bushfire brigade systems. In addition, it paved the way for the advancement of prevention and mitigation bushfire legislation that then evolved across the nation at different degrees at the state level.
Urban areas were often protected by paid career firefighters. Individual communities became responsible to organize their own volunteer fire brigades to protect their vulnerable people, property and natural resources across the expanding Australian frontier.
These independent volunteer brigades grew numerous. Then state by state over the next 100 years, through often completely separate evolutions, they became organized into Australia’s current umbrella fire agencies. Today, these agencies are funded roughly at an 80%/20% split, with insurance companies providing around 80% of their funding from fire levies placed on their policies and the local governments picking up the balance.
THE CONCEPT OF “MATESMANSHIP”
The volunteers year round constantly give up their time and efforts for their communities, often at considerable expense to themselves and their families. Members are expected to attend weekly or monthly meetings and organized training events. There are peer-elected field management roles to be filled. And in responding to fires, the volunteers are expected to cast off their everyday and work responsibilities for up to 72-hour deployments, during which they risk their personal health, life and well-being.
Besides their normal firefighting tasks, Australia’s firefighting volunteers can respond to car accidents and household emergencies in the more remote parts of the country. HAZMAT responders in some states can conduct marine patrols, undertake rescues and perform other basic emergency roles during natural and man-made disasters.
In return for their volunteering, the communities in which these brigade members protect can receive a feeling of greater self-reliance, increased community inclusiveness and safety. By donating their own time and hard work, the volunteers can also reduce their communities’ dependence on government, along with increasing the individual member’s skill base and that of their community. Under the right conditions, it’s believed the efforts of brigades can help increase a community’s cohesiveness, which can lead to local investment, growth and self-confidence.
Why do Australian volunteers donate so much of their valuable time and resources to the brigade? It could be that the brigades offer individuals the opportunity for significant personal achievement, adventure, excitement and goal-oriented activities with the possibilities for family involvement.
“Matesmanship,” in the Australian context, can also be another key element. Matemanship is the strong cultural belief in Australia that “we are all in this together,” or more simply, that we “look out for our mate.” These cultural principles mix with the common Australian desire that one and all should be given a “fair go.”
A MODEL APPROACH
Australia’s emergency services volunteer system allows the country to field for its population impressive community-based emergency response capabilities for a fraction of the cost its government would pay. Volunteers strictly motivated to donate their personal time and resources are the keys to success here in Australia.
Upon review of these programs, much is routinely asked of the individual volunteer; however, due to social, economic and industry pressures of today, volunteerism is becoming much less attractive than it was to the Baby Boomer generation. In return, what advice from studying the Australian model could be offered as remuneration by a government for its volunteer staff to others who may be interested in reproducing its volunteer-based structure?
Individual volunteers could be provided with reimbursement funding to compensate for using their own personal vehicles while on official duty, in purchasing equipment and for training. More focus from their paid staff could be directed at supporting, empowering, offering opportunities and communicating with their volunteers. Tax exemptions could also be provided towards documented time invested towards their volunteers’ time lost from work and their personal life in fulfilling their duties. Businesses that employ the volunteers and allow them to respond to their emergency assignments could be reimbursed for their losses with tax exemptions, making their employees’ absences a much more attractive option.
Throughout Australia today, nearly 400,000 volunteers are working across the range of its emergency services, offering their time and efforts for free. In return, they are providing Australia’s population of approximately 21 million emergency response services that would be impossible for the country to support otherwise. In Victoria alone, its volunteer-based Country Fire Authority has estimated that during theÂ 2000/2001 bushfire season, if its volunteers had not been available, the Victorian government would have had to provide an additional $470 million Australian dollars for comparable services.
In summary, the extensive dependence on volunteers manning the backbone of Australia’s impressive emergency system is a product of its unique history, conditions and choices. As such, based on the hard work of many, this system has proven successful here in fulfilling its communities’ diverse needs.
Michael Hill is a wildland firefighter and an aviation military contractor specializing inÂ helicopter projects in Afghanistan. In the United States, he worked 18 summers for the U.S. Forest Service as a hot shot, rappeller and smokejumper; in Australia, he serves as an aircraft specialist and remote-area helicopter hoist specialist.