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August 2020 Newsletter

You are not alone

By Adam Barnett, VFBV Chief Executive Officer

On day of writing, Melbourne and surrounds are entering Stage 4 COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, with the remaining areas of Victoria returning to Stage 3 restrictions. No-one should underestimate the significant impact this is having and will continue to have on Victorians.

I want to acknowledge the considerable anxiety and uncertainty that many of you are feeling. CFA volunteers, drawn from the very communities they protect not only need to adapt and make sacrifices to maintain our emergency response to our communities during this time, as well as deal with reform implementation but are also having to deal with a myriad of external pressures such as home schooling, job insecurity, and working from home arrangements. Our self-employed and primary producers are also dealing with the added pressures of interrupted supply chains, restrictions on trade and business continuity pressures.

In essence – people’s livelihoods are being challenged. From a psychological perspective this starts to chip away at our most fundamental needs that are central to our health and wellbeing, and helps explain the considerable anxiety, fear and concern pulsing through our communities.

I have heard from members who are just feeling it is all getting too hard, and the collision of work and home life, diminishing job security and the like, pushing people to their limits.

No-one should be going through this alone and I encourage members to be using our brigade and group networks in addition to CFA’s wellbeing support services to ensure we each look out for one another and stay on top of our mental health.

My plea to you is to give yourself some space and time and be kind to yourself and each other. You are not alone. If CFA commitments are getting on top of you at the moment, have a chat with your Captain or Group Officer and I’m sure they’ll understand you need to take a small break. But don’t cut yourself off from your brigade. No-one will judge you for taking a step back, and I’m confident you’ll find members in your brigade/group are only too happy to support you in whatever way they can. We are a family. We’re all just doing the best we can in what is a very tough environment. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open.

By bringing your brigade management team into your confidence so they understand what you’re going through and what you need, it will help them plan and support you as best they can. Don’t feel you have to do it on your own. And if you need a hand or any additional support, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with your local VFBV district council who can give you some advice and assistance if required.

VFBV has been working closely with CFA’s pandemic management team to constantly review updated health guidelines and changing restriction levels and move to adapt CFA systems and processes. Not just at the corporate level but also ensure there is a focus on how best to support brigade operations and response at the local level.

The wonderful team of CFA peer support members continue to be available, and are adapting to phone and online contact to ensure members and their families have access to 24/7 support. Peers, psychologists, counsellors and chaplains are all available by calling 1800-959- 232.

Supplies of disposable face masks have been secured and will provide every brigade with access to face masks. In order to protect Victoria’s stock levels, brigade leaders and CFA line managers are being requested to ensure adequate stock is maintained to support current and predicted activity and to ensure the masks are only used for CFA activities. These same restrictions apply to all members – staff and volunteers – and we all need to work together to ensure our critical health workers continue to have access to supplies.

Distribution to each of our 1,200 brigades is a significant logistical exercise, but the expectation is that masks are supplied to all locations as quickly as possible. Please contact your delegate should your brigade be having any difficulty accessing masks, or any other protective equipment you need, and we’ll help you sort it out. My expectation is brigades will be provided with sufficient access to whatever supplies they require.

Whatever you need you should have. But please understand that dealing with 1,200 brigades means we don’t have the luxury of stockpiling for the what if scenarios. Order what you need and be confident that if you need more – then that can be arranged when and if you need it. I acknowledge there is low trust in some of the ordering systems and processes, but I want to encourage brigade leaders to discuss any concerns with CFA management early and in good faith.

From a VFBV perspective we will support and back any brigade or group having difficulty accessing appropriate supplies, so please have some confidence that you don’t need to be stockpiling.

The supply systems are fragile enough without adding any additional pressure to them. I have every faith that our brigades and volunteers will more than meet the challenge.

For those brigades operating in or supporting into areas covered by the Stage 4 restrictions, you are encouraged to keep your CFA ID card on you when responding in your private vehicles to the station or CFA operational activities. Your ID card will assist you identify as an emergency service worker, and therefore exempt from curfew, providing you are responding or returning from an emergency call out.

CFA has requested VFBV support for a quick COVID related survey to be conducted across the membership. This support has been provided, and we have worked closely with CFA to tailor the survey questions for the local brigade environment. The survey will ask members how they are feeling about the arrangements and support being put in place in order to respond to the COVID environment.

I highly encourage members to participate as soon as it becomes available. It is expected to be available by the time this edition of Fire Wise goes to press. All responses will be confidential so you can participate in confidence knowing that no personal identifying information will be collected or attributed to in the results.

VFBV will work closely with CFA to review the results. It is critical to ensure that every CFA brigade, group and member feels supported and equipped so you can continue to safely perform your roles during the pandemic.

Fire Season Preparedness

We need to prepare for some of the unique challenges that this year’s fire season will bring during the pandemic. Changes will need to be made to accommodate social distancing and safe work group practices to protect our operational response but also mitigate against cross contamination during large and potentially long duration fires.

Discussions have already commenced at agency levels, and I would encourage volunteer leaders and group officers to also start involving yourselves in discussions and thinking. Be proactive about identifying what you will need at the local level to have confidence in arrangements and how administrative processes and practices will need to work to best support you and your brigade/group.

There will need to be changes to strike team deployment, crew selection and screening, and base camp operations to name just a few. Many of these will require significant modification, and even after modification it will be almost impossible to eliminate every risk. Therefore, we will need to plan for additional redundancies to best manage the residual risks. This is likely to be very disruptive during what has traditionally been our peak activity period.

Please start having these conversations amongst yourselves now. Don’t wait for changes to be foisted on us, start the discussions now so we can shape the discussions and decision making. No one has the background, experience or familiarity with local conditions, capacity and capability that you do, so it will be critical that volunteers and brigade/group leaders are treated as equal partners in these discussions. VFBV will continue to advocate early engagement and involvement of volunteers in these discussions so please be ready to step up when asked.

Royal Commission

Earlier this month, I appeared and gave evidence on behalf of VFBV to the Commonwealth Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.

VFBV made extensive submission to the royal commission and has advocated strongly for the respect and recognition of the fundamental importance of volunteers in disaster preparedness, response and relief arrangements across Australia. We have advocated strongly for strengthened and improved support for volunteer safety, consultation, support, training and recognition.

On the 23rd July the Commission announced that it had been granted a request to extend its reporting date from the 31st August 2020 to the 28th October 2020.

New CFA Chair

On behalf of VFBV I welcome new CFA Chair Mr Greg Wilson who was appointed by the government on the 21st July. Mr Wilson was a former secretary of the Department of Justice and Regulation and has also previously served as secretary of the former Department of Sustainability and Environment. He is currently chair of the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and the Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES).

On the 15th July VFBV issued a statement reporting on ex Chair Greg Smith AM sudden resignation and departure, and thanked Mr Smith for his service.

Early interactions with the new chair and acting CFA CEO Ms Catherine Greaves have been positive, and VFBV will continue to foster and nurture constructive relationships with the newly appointed leadership.

Early discussions on strengthening and improving volunteer engagement and consultation has commenced, and I am encouraged by initial discussions. We will keep your apprised of progress.

Welfare Fund

VFBV continues to prioritise the VFBV Welfare Fund, and we have put in place processes to ensure it continues to operate uninterrupted during the current lockdown restrictions. All welfare operations and processes have been maintained and are operational, with the committee of management continuing to meet regularly through the pandemic electronically. The fund hit an important milestone recently, with welfare grants paid out since its inception surpassing $2 million.

The fund has been operated by the association since 1913 and is a critical safety net to support members who find themselves in severe financial hardship. Its emergency grants have assisted over 1,228 members over the years and highlights the critical importance of this work.

The fund has come under immense pressure this year and I want to acknowledge the tireless and selfless work of the VFBV Board, State Council, Committee of Management, and our welfare fund secretary Jenni Laing for the incredible work done not just to assist members when they need it the most, but also the incredible foresight and management of the fund that has sustained it for more than 107 years.

This means the fund is not only supporting todays volunteers, but the thousands of volunteers in generations to come. A legacy we are all incredibly proud.



Electronic Addendum

The following is provided in the electronic version of our newsletter to provide an update on developments that have occurred since this month’s update was provided in the August page 2 edition of Fire Wise.

Secondment Agreement

The Minister has granted a 90-day extension to the temporary secondment agreement that was signed by the Acting Chief Officer Garry Cook on the 30th June. While this agreement is referred to as the Secondment Agreement it is officially known as the “Temporary Administrative Agreement”.

This agreement outlines how CFA and FRV will operate with secondments of FRV officers to CFA.

The temporary agreement that was struck on the evening of June 30 just prior to the midnight deadline does not include most of the controversial aspects that were put to the previous Chair and CEO/Chief Officer.

Section 102 and 103 Transfers

VFBV continues to pursue transparency over the section 102 and 103 transfers. These refer to the mandatory transfers of CFA staff to FRV made by the Minister under sections 102 and 103 of the transition provisions contained in Part 6 of the governments fire services legislation Bill.

With appeal and grievance processes largely over and the dust only just starting to settle, there is still very little information available to fully understand the reduced capacity across CFA’s district and region structures as a result of transferred staff, and the myriad of vacancies left by internal transfers and promotions done across the agencies during the restructure.

VFBV is continuing to pursue concerns around reduced capacity in roles that are vital to volunteers such as training, specialist response and administrative support to name just a few.

VFBV will continue to pursue.

Tenancy Agreement

A short extension has been granted to the status quo arrangements currently in place at CFA/FRV co-locations (formerly known as the CFA integrated brigades.)

Discussions are continuing with all parties to progress a formal tenancy agreement and associated schedules.

VFBV is regularly discussing key issues with the senior volunteer(s) at each of these locations and have supported every brigade request for support and assistance with matters in which they do not agree with CFA on. While the initial extension was to expire on Saturday 15th August, a brief two-week extension has been provided to facilitate negotiations.

VFBV continues to argue that volunteers need adequate time to go through changes and understand its impacts. It is hoped an updated draft will be provided early this week.

Of deep concern to VFBV has been some last minute changes to remove volunteer access to the administration and resources room, primary turnout areas and unacceptable arrangements proposed for volunteer access and right of movement accessing the station, common areas and the brigade multi-purpose room in particular.

VFBV continues to strongly advocate and escalate the concerns of volunteers at these locations. VFBV does not support the changes being requested to these areas and believes the overall treatment of volunteers at many of these locations is inequitable and unfair, with arrangements moving far away from status quo and becoming very heavily biased in favour of FRV.

Due to the broad range in station age and layout, VFBV has taken a location by location approach – in order to support each location with their unique needs. VFBV support officers are facilitating discussions with brigades directly - with many district councils also running regular video conference hook-ups to support broader groups. Any locations requiring any further support or assistance should make contact with your VFBV support officer or State Councillor ASAP.

Thankfully, in many locations existing relationships between volunteers and staff are helping mitigate the deterioration in arrangements proposed in the agreement, with good relationships allowing robust status quo arrangements to apply.  The main concern is when these people change or if further pressure is put that continues to drive a wedge between the two groups, how this will manifest down the line.

VFBV will continue to support the position of each of the co-located locations and will continue to add its voice to the concerns raised in order to pursue fairer outcomes for these locations.

Allocation Statement

Work is continuing on the allocation statements that will formally transfer CFA assets to FRV. (The former integrated brigades and CFA trucks exclusively responded by staff etc). While technically the initial statement had been due to be signed prior to July 1, a considerable amount of detail that was not originally envisaged or planned for did not exist and therefore they did not meet the required legal requirements.

VFBV has worked closely with each co-located brigade to ensure any volunteer funded brigade assets intended to be transferred have been reimbursed, returned or allocated for shared use. This has been a long process, and VFBV has supported each individual brigades’ position. This has required very strong advocacy by both us and the brigade but by and large has resulted in most outcomes being reached to the satisfaction of the brigade.

This work is almost completed, with only a couple of remaining disputed items.

Secondee Uniforms

For noting, the temporary administrative agreement maintains current status quo with regards to uniforms. Seconded officers continue to wear CFA uniform while the temporary agreement continues.

It is CFA and VFBV’s position that all seconded officers seconded to CFA should continue to wear their CFA uniform.

VFBV is advised that the Minister has not yet intervened to make a direction one way or the other, however it is worth noting that recent correspondence sent by the Minister to volunteers who have been writing and raising concerns directly with her, does not provide much optimism.

It is VFBV’s express position that officers fulfilling CFA roles and holding CFA positions should be proud to identify as CFA and continue to wear their existing CFA uniform.

 

COVID-19 Financial Support Resources

VFBV's COVID-19 financial support resources page has been updated recently with new advice and resources available to those who have been impacted financially by COVID-19. 

The update resources page can be found on the VFBV website and provides updates the original article published in March detailing what support is available and how to access it. This page will be updated as more information comes to hand. 

 

Reform

Considerable work is continuing to try and mitigate consequences from the reform implementation.

VFBV acknowledge the very difficult and negative environment that this work entails. We wish to pass on our utmost admiration and respect for all those members and delegates involved in discussions and negotiations. In particular the Captains, Captain- elects, former 1st Lieutenants and all members of the former CFA integrated brigades who are having to deal with the stress and anxiety of trying to represent their brigades and members throughout a very unfair and inequitable process.

VFBV is working closely with each of these locations to provide tailored support and advocacy for any issues as they arise. VFBV will continue to standby each brigade and group leader and support their advocacy.

Discussions continue on the CFA/FRV allocation statement that will formally transfer former CFA assets to FRV. Each brigade has been required to work through an asset allocation process and identify brigade assets that will either remain with CFA, or transfer to FRV.

VFBV has supported any brigade that has wanted to dispute any item intended to be transferred that they don’t agree with and have backed the brigade position on each occasion. We have worked with government to provide a guarantee that no equipment that was paid for by volunteers would be transferred without volunteers agreeing to it, and largely that principle has prevailed.

On the few occasions where agreement could not be reached, VFBV has successfully advocated for full reimbursement provided to the brigade to ensure the equipment can be replaced and they are not out of pocket.

Priority negotiations are continuing on the tenancy agreement, with the status quo extension due to expire on 15 August.

 

CFA's COVID-19 Pulse Survey

CFA’s COVID-10 Pulse survey is now available for all members to complete.

You can complete this survey by going to: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/CFAVolCOVID19Survey 

The intent of this survey is to help CFA understand how well you and your brigade/group is being supported during this time and to gather feedback on any gaps or anything else you may require to support you during the pandemic.

VFBV has worked closely with CFA to help tailor the survey for the brigade environment, and you can be assured that your responses will be confidential, with no personal information being collected that will personally identify you.

The survey closes on 30 August.

VFBV will continue to work closely with CFA’s pandemic management team to ensure you are getting the support you need. Your participation in the survey will help CFA understand if what they are doing is hitting the mark, needs tweaking or if you need anything else.

 

VFBV continues to stand in solidarity with Trafalgar & Westbury Fire Brigades 

As previously reported on the 4th June and again in July - Parliament was due to consider legislative amendments to the official primary brigade area for the CFA/FRV co-located brigade of Latrobe West. The proposed boundary significantly impacts on both Trafalgar and Westbury primary areas, with large amounts of their area being proposed to transfer to FRV, which is contrary to all previous government assurances. The brigades are not opposed to the proposed response arrangements, but are deeply opposed to large sections of their primary area being removed from their brigades area where they are best placed to be the primary agency in their own community.

These changes are being made via the “Police and Emergency Legislation Amendment Bill 2020” which was due to go to third reading in the lower house earlier this month.

With the Victorian government’s decision to suspend the lower house (Legislative Assembly) during the current COVID restrictions, the Bill remains on the agenda and will be dealt with when parliament resumes. (Generally speaking - the Bill cannot proceed to the upper house until it passes the lower. So, while the upper house is continuing to sit – the amendment bill will remain on hold until the lower house sits again.)

VFBV supports Trafalgar and Westbury brigades and is recommending to MP’s that they do not support the amendments proposed in Part 6 of the amendment Bill.

Brigades and groups are encouraged to support these brigades and are reminded to forward letters of support. You can find details on the VFBV website.

 

COVID-19 Updates

The VFBV COVID-19 resources page has been updated to reflect the new Stage 4 restrictions in Metropolitan Melbourne and Stage 3 restrictions for Regional Victoria including Mitchell Shire. The resources page can be accessed here.

VFBV has also complied information relating to COVID-19 Financial Support Resources that are available, this information can be accessed here.

 

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CFA Volunteers are the unpaid professionals of our Emergency Services. VFBV is their united voice, and speaks on behalf of Victoria's 60,000 CFA Volunteers.

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