05/02/2013 - Notes from SESVA Legislation Information Night

Briefing for State Emergency Service Volunteers

on

Development of a Single Emergency Services ACT

By
The SES Volunteers Association
7.00 pm 31 January 2013

Panorama Room, Metro Inn, 61 Canning Highway, South Perth

David Price President of the SESVA opened the meeting, thanking people for their participation.  He noted the SESVA would shortly be taking this presentation to some regions. Gordon Hall commenced the presentation noting an article on this topic will be posted on the SESVA website over the weekend. The presentation was based on the proposal by government to develop an all encompassing emergency services Act to cover all emergency services.   He invited people to participate in a question and answer session or make statements at the conclusion of his presentation.

Feedback received from Volunteers, from tonight’s session, the forthcoming road show and comments lodged on the SESVA website, will be provided to the Legislation Review team for development of the Options Paper.  Gordon Hall stressed the importance of Volunteer feedback as this would assist to prevent the imposition of unacceptable policy on emergency services Volunteers.   An item of contention has been that that the Coordination of the review of legislation will be overseen by an interagency working group, which does not have the benefit of an SES representative.

It was noted that the Volunteer Portal has proven to be challenging and not user friendly for many Volunteers to access and locate information.  Information is not pushed down, just placed on the portal.  It was acknowledged that accessibility could be affected by browser compatibility; however, there is no advice to this effect offered on the website.

Gordon Hall referred to the Fire Brigades legislation, which may provide a starting point for the amalgamated legislation.  The concern is that areas within the FBS legislation will conflict with the ethos and current practices/operation of Volunteer SES units if it is used as the model. 

For instance some of the following could be part of the regulations,

  • Fundraising activities requiring written permission from the Commissioner;
  • Physical requirements of Volunteers to be decided by the Commissioner;
  • Training requirements of Volunteers to be decided by the Commissioner;
  • Suspension of Volunteers to be decided by the Commissioner with no right of appeal to an independent panel.
  • Roles of Volunteers are being watered down.

The concern is that there could be a change in the autonomy and identity of the SES and other emergency services Volunteers.  Indications are that the amalgamation of legislation will serve to create an homogenous emergency services brand.
Volunteers now need to clearly and loudly state what they want and don’t want in the legislation. 
Any comments lodged on the SESVA website will have all identifying information stripped out.

Comments from the floor by SES Volunteers to the SESVA:

  • The Emergency Management Act is not included in the legislation review.
  • Increasing involvement of Fire & Rescue in all emergency services operations, and the marginalising of Volunteers during these operations.
  • Fire and Rescue do not have the necessary experience to take over operational activities.
  • The Commissioner has already demonstrated his presumed authority in demanding the dismissal of a Volunteer (for a matter that had no criminal intent). 
  • SES units are incorporated bodies which operate through local government, surely this will prevent DFES undermining or imposing their action on all SES units.
  • The SES culture is one of independent action.  Indications are that DFES is eroding the SES identity by stealth.
  • LI, LII and LIII training requirements are creating divisiveness within Volunteer ranks.
  • There may be some benefit in identifying the region from which Volunteer feedback is received, without compromising the confidentiality/identity of the Volunteer.
  • A copy of the PowerPoint presentation will be made available to all Volunteers in three to four days by emailing sescomment@gmail.com.
  • The current Emergency Services Legislation, which is under review, will be accessible on the SESVA website.
  • SES is a national brand.  There are some similarities with what is happening to emergency services legislation in other states, however, SES is a stand-alone service.
  • Would it be possible for SES to return to a stand-alone service, if this position was eroded by the legislation amalgamation process?
  • All Volunteers are encouraged to write to their MLA/MLC to voice their concerns.
  • Freedom of speech and rights of the individual Volunteer appear to be under threat with the increased powers and status of a Commissioner of Emergency Services – as is the case with the Police.
  • The Commissioner (mistakenly) believes all assets of the SES is the property of and under the jurisdiction of DFES.
  • The culture of DFES has changed in the 18 months since the appointment of the Commissioner.  They are less helpful, unwilling to share information and make decisions.  There is a loss of empathy with Volunteers.
  • DFES representatives are struggling with their own jobs.  There is a conflict of interest as they now cant represent the interests of the Volunteers while representing the interests of DFES which are not always compatible.
  • Volunteers must take responsibility for the current situation as they have contributed to its creation through apathy. 
  • Volunteers should stand up to DFES.  Refuse to use the DFES insignia.  Be prepared to protest.
  • Volunteers in Norseman were impeded in their search to locate the missing prospector because of the ban on using ATVS.  The police encouraged members of the public to participate in the search, out of SES uniform, using their private vehicles, including road bikes.  There is strong evidence to suggest that had the SES been able to use ATVs the prospector would have been located.
  • Where would Volunteers stand if they obtained their own insurance coverage which would then enable them to take responsibility for using ATVS and defying DFES.  Some Volunteers have sourced insurance and are ready to take this step.  How would this impact on Incident Controllers?
  • DFES staff have expressed concern that comments made to the media by SES Volunteers was criticism directed at DFES.
  • It is imperative for SES to obtain legal representation and advice to navigate the increasing complexity of the matter and to protect their interests.
  • For instance: Will the Constitution/s of SES units become invalidated by changes to legislation?  Who has authority to override the Associations Act?  Legal expertise is required to determine such matters.  Commerce Department will also be approached seeking advice.  This is a question that should be directed to the Legislation Review Team. 
  • There is only one Volunteer on the Interagency Legislation Working Group, being from VMR.  The interests and knowledge of all other Volunteer agencies cannot be represented.
  • The Disciplinary policy document was discovered by chance on the DFES website. No one knows of any formal announcement as to the release of this new policy, dated 8 January 2013.  There is no unit involvement in the disciplinary process.   The Commissioner has the final say however SES Volunteers have no right of appeal after the Commissioner. The FRS can have a special panel formed who can overwrite the Commissioner’s decision.  There appears to be no direction to external assistance, which is in contravention of state government policy that requires anyone facing disciplinary procedures be directed to the State Ombudsman. 
  • Is there a risk that under the amalgamated Act that ESL will be lost to Treasury? 
  • This was recommended by the Keelty Report, and there may be advantages to funding going to Treasury, or administered by an independent agency, rather than being held by DFES. 
  • WALGA is looking for feedback and are encouraging Volunteers to approach their local government.
  • There are indications that local government wants to maintain independence from DFES.
  • Bush Fire Services are equally concerned that the Fire and Rescue Act will be used as the template for the amalgamated Act.
  • DFES is utilising more of the ESL budget.  ESL has already been reduced from 3% to 2%.
  • Other factors that will impact Volunteers are changes to the OSH Act (which will see Volunteers regarded as employees); and, amalgamation of local governments.  The increasing complexity of these intertwining issues suggests Volunteers should consider:
  • Adopting negotiating processes similar to enterprise bargaining to resolve issues.
  • Creating a fighting fund for appointment of solicitors/seeking legal advise.
  • Develop a coordinated approach.
  • There is now new WHS legislation which can be made available on request from government departments. 
  • These changes will create an exodus from Volunteering.
  • SES Volunteers need to use LG and SESVA to build an alliance with WALGA
  • Discussion concluded with the SESVA noting that the Association exists to represent the interests of its Volunteers.  They therefore need direction from Volunteers as to what their concerns are and what outcomes they want to achieve.  If necessary, as requested by Volunteers on the floor, the SESVA will support SES Volunteers to march on parliament, or undertake what actions are deemed necessary to protect their interests.
  • The power of the Commissioner was questioned, as his influence is governed by committees and is delegated down through regulations/chain of command.
  • Regulations can be changed by the Minister/Commissioner.
  • Employment protection for Volunteers.  Covered in Emergency Management act but only for declared emergency that employer can’t take action against Volunteers.  A reduction from a ‘’declared emergency’’ state to a level 3 operation, should be sought for Volunteers.  There is no employment protection for going out on search.
  • Emergency services Volunteers are very different to other Volunteers and can’t be compared with them.
  • SES identity needs to be preserved.  The current trend is the strongest attack on SES identity witnessed over many decades.  SES now needs a champion.  There is no deputy commissioner looking after the interests of SES.
  • SES should take advantage of the current election.  The power is in the hands of 1500 SES Volunteers.
  • DFES demonstrating disrespect for Volunteers.
  • What specifics are SES Volunteers asking for?  What is the most pertinent issue that Volunteers should pursue.
  • It is important to demonstrate that Volunteers’ opinion is that of individual Volunteers, not a reflection of the SESVA’s opinion.  Demonstrating passion for the cause is important.
  • There is a dichotomy between government encouraging independence in some areas, like schools, but subverting it in other areas, like emergency services.
  • Are the detrimental changes anticipated with an amalgamation of the Acts merely speculative?  There is strong evidence, for example the Commissioner’s indication that he wants to deal with one Union and one association, that supports the SESVA’s concern.