New rule likely to ban thousands of volunteer firies
THOUSANDS of volunteer firefighters will be banned from battling blazes for failing to get Blue Cards under a "ludicrous'' rule that classifies them as health workers.
As firies risk their lives in the worst bushfires in living memory, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services has warned volunteers they must lodge a Blue Card application before December 1.
"Any QFES volunteer who is required to have a Blue Card, but refuses to apply for one, or is unable to hold a current Blue Card, will not be able to continue their role," deputy commissioner John Bolger has told volunteers. "As a member of the Rural Fire Service, you are likely to come into contact with children while performing your role, so are required to have a Blue Card. It is the law.''
Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland boss Justin Choveaux warned that more than 15,000 volunteers had failed to apply for work-with-children checks so could be banned from fighting fires from January 1.
"Who's going to fight fires, then?'' he said. "They defend the state for free and do dangerous things. Getting rid of 75 per cent of the membership of the truck brigades is not a good plan.''
Emergency Services Minister Craig Crawford refused to back down yesterday, despite revealing only 5300 rural firies - or one in four - had applied for a Blue Card.
"QFES is complying with the law," he said. "There are adequate volunteer firefighters meeting requirements for current needs."
Mr Choveaux said many rural firefighters felt offended that they were being treated like potential paedophiles, as volunteer firies did not require similar credentials in Victoria or NSW.
"In rural areas, as primary producers they see Brisbane has put all these imposts on them and they feel really disempowered," he said. "But they feel they can do something about this so they are pushing back against the machine.''
In correspondence obtained by The Sunday Mail, acting Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Mike Wassing wrote to volunteers last month saying they needed Blue Cards in case they "come across students who have been evacuated … and are on their way home".
He said the working-with-children checks were now required because firefighters are classified as a "health service", as they "maintain, improve, restore or care for a person's health or wellbeing".
Mr Wassing also blasted volunteers for criticising or questioning the requirement.
"Let me be clear that disrespectful conversations regarding the Blue Card process, including questioning the integrity of those people who are currently reluctant to apply, is not acceptable," he said.
He also insisted QFES was "not sacking anyone".
"The requirements for your ongoing involvement, as a staff member or volunteer, have changed and it is up to you to determine if you want to continue serving your local communities under these changed circumstances," he wrote.
Veteran volunteer firie Ian Swadling - a retired builder who has received an Australian Fire Service Medal - said the new rule was "stupid" and said he refused to comply.
"I think it would be very foolish to start dismissing trained firefighters in the worst fire season the state's seen in 60 or 70 years,'' the grandfather from Villeneuve, near Toowoomba, said.
"I think it's ludicrous - typical bureaucracy using a steamroller to crack a peanut. I'll just put my feet up and relax and the community's going to lose out."
Mr Swadling said it was strange he did not need a Blue Card volunteering as an ambulance first responder.
He said his only contact with children in his 30 years of firefighting was showing off the truck at the local show.
In his October 29 email, Mr Wassing said firefighters "can be required to assist children when no one else is present".
"For example, firefighters at the Peregian fire last week may have come across students in the area who had been evacuated," he said.
"You are the secretary of a Rural Fire Brigade and a 16-year-old brigade member wants to have a one-on-one conversation with you.
"In this scenario you will require a Blue Card."