Volunteer Firefighter International

Opinion: Paying Australia’s Volunteer Firefighters is a No-Brainer

By Rick Markley

Australia’s national government has a lot on its plate, perhaps more than it can handle. And that’s understandable given the massive wildland fires ravaging much of the country, especially its eastern coast. It has been going on for months and there’s no end in sight. It’s expected these leaders will get some things right and some things wrong. It comes with the territory.

One thing they’ve gotten wrong is having a debate about whether to pay volunteer firefighters. And that they haven’t swiftly solved this issue is mind boggling.

If you’ve not kept up with this aspect of the story, here’s the condensed version. Fires have popped up in every state, but New South Wales, on the southeast coast, has been hit the hardest. Upwards of 2,000 homes were lost, 24 people have died nationwide, and the fires claimed the lives of three volunteer firefighters. Drought and record-high temperatures have made conditions worse.

On top of all this, there’s been a running criticism about the lack of equipment, supplies and compensation for the volunteer fire crews who are spending more than a week at a time battling the fires. There have been heated exchanges between both volunteer firefighters and victims with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison during his scene tours — some are comparing his handling of this emergency to that of US President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

One of the sore spots for Australia’s volunteers is compensation — and it shouldn’t be.

Australia has a long culture of volunteering and helping their neighbors in times of need. This is unquestionably a good thing and probably reason why they have such a thriving volunteer fire service, which they claim is the largest in the world. In normal times, that selfless giving to neighbors and strangers is a good thing for both the volunteers and the community — it keeps both strong.

But these are not normal times in Australia’s New South Wales.

Those volunteers need compensation. They need to know that their jobs, their homes and their families will not be put in financial peril because of their decision to defend their country against these wildland fires.

No rational government would deploy troops to an armed conflict without financial compensation. It is morally wrong and a dangerous — a mission-critical — distraction for troops to be worried about their situations at home rather than focusing on the immediate tasks before them.

The enemy of the state will bring different motives and tactics, but the stakes and demand on focus are just as high for those volunteers battling back the wildland fires. For their safety and for the nation’s conscious, they need to go into that battle without worry if they will come home to financial hardship.

Granted the Australian national government has its hands full. This is likely a once in a generation emergency. It is one that will probably cause them to rethink their previous disaster plans. Those in leadership positions are going to make mistakes — that’s normal.

But the time for handwringing over how to compensate volunteer firefighters, or if to compensate them at all, is once this emergency has passed and efforts to help those effected are well under way. A rational and fair process can be engineered and enacted when cooler heads and cooler temperatures prevail.

Right now, the government has an obligation to act swiftly, decisively and meaningfully to ensure volunteer firefighters are protected — financially and physically.

Australia is rightfully the recipient of a great deal of generosity. Common individuals are making modest donations. Celebrities are pledging half a million dollars and more. Groups, such as authors, are donating services and proceeds. Even models are offering up risqué photos of themselves as fundraisers.

This generosity is certainly needed and welcomed. But the most fundamental responsibility of any government is to pool the resources of its people to protect the lives of those very people. By not giving the volunteer firefighters the cover they need to keep protecting their country is an abdication of that prime responsibility — and it’s inexcusable.

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