Young to fight fires regardless

Declan High is a CFA volunteer at Ferntree Gully. Photo by Edwina Williams
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Young people volunteer to fight fires, despite long-running political and union disputes over the state fire service, writes Edwina Williams.

Young people still want to volunteer to fight fires, despite long-running political and union disputes over the state fire service, according to a volunteer firefighter.

Declan High, a law student, says the disputes involving Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) and associated publicity have not been sufficient to turn young people away.

He volunteers at Ferntree Gully Fire Brigade and has been involved with the CFA for two years. He believes the Hands Off the CFA campaign run in response to planned State Government changes was “a disgrace”, but volunteers were undeterred.

“I have had friends…who asked about volunteering,” High says. “There is still an interest.”

High says the Hands Off campaign failed to turn young people off. Photo by Edwina Williams

Sixteen is the minimum age to join the CFA, which has 59,000 volunteers. Its firefighters are based at 1,186 rural and metropolitan stations state-wide.

Volunteering Victoria (VV) data shows firefighting comprises 3 per cent of volunteering activity in Australia.

High says that for those with day jobs it can be difficult to get to the station quickly enough to respond to a fire.

“I became a volunteer because…[they] were seeking members who could turn out during the day [and] as uni student I had that availability.”

He says the dispute over a new pay and conditions deal for career firefighters had created tensions between career and non-career firefighters. The CFA is concerned that the deal would give greater power to the firefighters’ union, enabling it to influence CFA operations in the future.

In June the State Government announced plans to make the CFA a volunteer-only organisation, but it is unclear whether the necessary legislation would pass the Upper House of State Parliament.

A CFA media release says there is no reason to believe the dispute has caused any firefighter resignations.

VV data shows that 203 million hours of volunteering were completed by Victorians in 2014. Twenty five percent of Victorian volunteers were between ages 15 and 17, and 28 percent between 18 and 24.

The data also shows that Australians between ages 18 to 24 did voluntary work for an average of 48 hours per year. On average, youth volunteers worked 10 more hours a year than 25 to 34 year olds.

Rodger Klopak, coordinator of volunteer programs at Ballarat Grammar’s senior school, says student volunteering is more about experiences than clocking up hours.

“Our aim is to give kids a service experience because we know the more people can give to others, the more the community and their personal growth benefits,” Klopak says. “The kids don’t shy away. They are interested, they are taking up opportunity.”

He says the keenest young volunteers still need a lot of support, including staff administration and ensuring safety.

“It’s hard for kids to manage that [alone]. Someone’s got to take them to the opportunity.”

Klopak says Ballarat Grammar wants kids to “develop relationships with…people who are different than them” because “they do become better people” when they have relationships with other communities.

Volunteering Victoria says 23 per cent of volunteers began volunteering to learn new skills, but 37 percent got involved for new social connections.

High feels immense satisfaction from his CFA involvement because he has been “able to make some great friends, learn some new skills” and “give back”.

In State Parliament on May 10, Labor MP Vikki Ward said those friendships and sense of community are what the CFA is all about and what the Liberal National Party has tried to eradicate.

“That is exactly what the CFA is supposed to be and that is exactly what those opposite have worked incredibly hard to destroy. Those opposite do not under any circumstance support collectivism,” Ward said.

On the same day Liberal MP Brad Battin said Premier Daniel Andrews “want[ed] to destroy the CFA and the very, very community-minded people who have been involved in the CFA for so many years”.