Firefighters slam cuts, demand climate action

"Climate change is a critical workplace issue for firefighters and emergency service workers."

The NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) is campaigning to reverse cuts to the state fire services budget by the Liberal state government.

Under the theme, "Stop Fire Station Cuts and Closures," the FBEU is circulating an open letter to NSW Liberal Premier Barry O'Farrell stating: "As NSW faces devastating bushfires — the worst since 1968 — your closures and cuts to fire stations puts lives at risk when we most need protection.

"Before your government's election and $70 million in cuts, permanently staffed stations had never been closed. Yet over the last 10 months professionally crewed fire stations have been closed hundreds of times.

"As concerned citizens, we ask you to put our safety and communities first. Firies bravely protected us every day under dangerous conditions — don't make their job harder and threaten the state's safety with fire station cuts and closures."

FBEU state secretary Jim Casey spoke to Green Left Weekly on October 25 about the current bushfire crisis in NSW and key issues for the future.

"There are two major observations relating to the current fire crisis," he said. "One, it is still October, and while in Australia we always face bushfires, we have never seen fires like this so early in the season in this region. The question of climate change is clearly significant.

"Meanwhile, the O'Farrell government is cutting the budget of both Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) [the professional fire service] and the Rural Fire Service (RFS) [volunteer fire brigade]. We see the gross hypocrisy of Premier O'Farrell and [Emergency Services Minister] Mike Gallagher draping themselves in the flag of helping the firefighters, while simultaneously undercutting them.

"Both the FRNSW and the RFS were affected by the state government's enforced cuts of 1.2% to the public sector. However, only one-third of the RFS budget is made up of wages, compared to 85% of the FRNSW budget.

"This has meant an 8% reduction in the wages bill for both organisations, which means either hack into jobs or cut conditions. For FRNSW, this has meant temporary closures of fire stations.

"For the RFS, there is effectively no such option. They have been shedding jobs.

"The FBEU campaign against the cuts has gained a positive response from the public in NSW. But passive public support, while a nice thing to have, isn't going to cut it. We need to really take this battle back to the government.

"The FBEU is a proudly militant union, and our strength has always been based upon our capacity to deliver industrial action. That will not be changing any time soon. But we are mixing things up a little, and trying some new things, like our intervention into the Miranda by-election [which resulted in a big win for the Labor opposition candidate with a swing of 26% against the Liberals].

"Firefighters mobilised in force, campaigning at almost every polling booth, exposing the cuts in fire services. The material we distributed talked about station closures in the area, and urged punters to 'Put the Liberals last'. Making the politics of it so directly linked to the industrial problems we are facing made it much easier to get members to participate. All in all we had 80 members in structural firefighting gear handing out our leafets on the day.

"We believe this had a significant impact on the vote. Comparing the handful of booths we did not cover with the overall result it appears that the FBEU intervention was worth as much as 2%. This is enormously significant.

"Regarding the current bushfire crisis, at the height of the fires, some 2000 firefighters were involved. Around 1000, or half of these, were professionals from the FRNSW.

"And this is only the start of the fire season. Depending on the vagaries of the weather, we could well see further serious fires driven by more extreme summer weather.

"In general, we are clearly facing an increasingly unstable environmental situation. There is a strong argument for more serious action against climate change. At present, we are treating the symptoms, not the causes.

"Our union's message to the NSW government is: Now's not the time to be cutting budgets and fire services. These cuts will come at a severe price.

"Our message to the broader community is that we need urgent action on climate change. Climate change is affecting all human and other life on our planet.

"Finally, climate change is a critical workplace issue for us as firefighters and emergency service workers. These changes create a less safe work environment for our workers.

"For all these reasons, we need to unite to defend our firefighting and emergency services, to stop the cuts and expand our capacity."