Firefighter hopefuls forced to sit out of bushfire season

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A glimpse of last year’s ACTRFS volunteers fighting regional fires. Photo: Nick Moir.

THE bushfires that lashed the outskirts of Canberra and tinged the suburbs this time last year has attracted greater interest from volunteers to pick up the hose one year on.

But the ACT Rural Fire Service admits that it does not have facilities to train firefighters more than its proposed cap.

Weeks after the Black Summer Fires devastated the region and shocked Australia, more than 900 Canberra residents came forward – including last year’s firefighters – to volunteer for the next bushfire season.

New ACTRFS chief officer Rohan Scott said the response was simply overwhelming, which made turning away more than half of the volunteers hard.

“Unfortunately, that expression rate was nearly 10 times more than what we normally get,” Mr Scott said.

“It’s now a case that we have a very healthy waiting list, but it’s now about looking for opportunities to capture that 400-odd people to join.

“Really it’s a bit of a conundrum because people want to volunteer their services and their valuable time and here they are offering their family time to us to help the community, but it wouldn’t be fair for us to take them and then not have them engaged.”

Mr Scott, who has rose to the head of the service from spending more than two decades fighting fires around Canberra, said it was a similar inquiry rate after the 2001 and 2003 bushfires that destroyed a number of suburban homes and took some lives.

ACTRFS has around 480 capped members set to put out fires.

But because it retains around 95 per cent of firefighters each year, it means taking on most new recruits is not possible.

“Usually when they do want to help is at our busiest time, so we haven’t got the ability to start training people then because it does take time to train,” Mr Scott said.

“That’s why we give them a bit of a cooling off period (until next summer).”

Mr Scott said the RFS has to work out ways to “balance it out” so it does not lose good volunteers.

A number of constraints including the time to train volunteers, the depth of the training courses to become operational and the personal protective clothing cost requirement.

“As much as we had a long, protracted season, we haven’t had a high exit rate,” he said.

“Our retention of volunteers has been very, very good.”

A number of volunteers did withdrawal their offer of service prior to training commencing that was put down to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Mr Scott, who stood in his current role since April last year as acting chief, felt last year’s bushfires have given a strong sense of belonging.

“As much as the fatigue was there, the morale was boosted and the camaraderie across the whole service was there after we started mixing crews a lot more,” he said.





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