The man in charge of Northern Rivers Fire and Rescue stations says comments from a state Labor politician about the Tweed Heads station closing last week aren’t true.
Member for the Blue Mountains Trish Doyle last week told media the regional station was closed so fire-fighters could go to a community outreach program in Ballina.
‘To cut costs, no backup crew were called in to staff the station in the meantime,’ she wrote in a press release sent 26 September.
The statement said Ms Doyle questioned Deputy Leader and Nationals leader John Barilaro ‘today in question time’ about the closure.
But when Echonetdaily spoke to the Northern Rivers zone commander, Superintendent Greg Lewis said the event in question happened on Tuesday 24 September, two days before Ms Doyle sent her media release.
A mix-up over days and dates may seem insignificant but the matter of whether or not Tweed Heads residents had any fire-fighters available at their local station on any given day less so.
Fire-fighter chief says union stopped workers from going to training
‘My message to the Liberals and Nationals is that if there are not enough fire-fighters in Ballina today, the solution is not to shut down Tweed Heads and send crews down south,’ wrote Ms Doyle, ‘the solution is to hire more fire-fighters’.
But Mr Lewis told Echonetdaily Tweed Heads fire-fighters were never directed to work on behalf of the Ballina crew that day; rather, the excursion was for a day of training.
Secondly, the Tweed Heads workers didn’t end up going to Ballina because, Mr Lewis said, ‘the union prevented them from coming’.
High-risk community groups targeted in fire emergency campaign
Mr Lewis said fire-fighters from several stations across the region, including Lismore and Tweed Heads, were supposed to attend training in Ballina last Tuesday.
FR NSW has launched a new community outreach program aimed at ‘building resilience in the community’, Mr Lewis said and fire-fighters employed permanently at Tweed Heads would have spent the day learning about the initiative.
‘Each station has a safety database identifying top groups at risk in the community, for example the elderly and lower socio-economic groups,’ Mr Lewis said.
He said the initiative was aimed at making sure everyone knew what to do in case of a fire emergency.
The commander said people in pockets across the region, including Lilli Pilli residents near Byron Bay, would have experienced the program in action over the past weekend as fire-fighters from the Byron Bay crew doorknocked houses.
No comment on salary cuts
The Ballina training day was supposed to start at 10am, Mr Lewis said but at 8.30am he received a call from workers at the Tweed Heads station saying they wouldn’t be coming.
‘Even if they had come, they wouldn’t have left Tweed Heads unprotected,’ Mr Lewis said,‘ we have retained fire-fighters from Tweed Heads, Banora Point, Kingscliff and Ballinga that would have protected Tweed Heads residents in the event of a fire’.
Mr Lewis said training days were only ever scheduled for days outside High Fire Danger Periods and ‘retained’ fire-fighters were essentially casual employees.
He said managing tight salary budgets for a government agency was never easy but wouldn’t comment on whether or not the Northern Rivers region had experienced salary cuts since the March state election.
Labor says deputy premier doesn’t know the difference between paid and volunteer firefighters
Ms Doyle’s statement centred on the deputy leader’s apparent failure to understand the difference between the volunteer-run Rural Fire Service and the paid FR NSW.
Ms Doyle said she asked Mr Barilaro why he had ‘allowed a Liberal Minister to cut the staffing budget of Fire and Rescue NSW by almost $13 million’.
‘The recent cuts to the staffing budget come despite the Minister for Emergency Services, David Elliott MP, assuring Parliament at a recent Estimates hearing that frontline staff would not be impacted by any budget cuts this year,’ Ms Doyle wrote.
‘Instead of answering the question about the staffing cuts to Fire and Rescue NSW on the North Coast, Mr Barilaro began a soliloquy about the contribution made by Rural Fire Service volunteers across the state and a recent junket he took to California where he discussed the RFS volunteer model with foreign dignitaries.
‘The Deputy Premier clearly doesn’t know the difference between the various emergency services agencies in this state, so it’s little wonder he didn’t jump up and down around the Cabinet table when cuts were made to the staffing budgets at Fire & Rescue NSW.’
Union copy-pastes Labor MP’s press release
The day after Ms Doyle sent out her press release, her comments about alleged funding cuts to the Northern Rivers and FR NSW generally were repeated in a union press release.
Fire Brigade Employees Union State (FBEU) Secretary Leighton Drury used three of Ms Doyle’s paragraphs word-for-word without attribution before quoting the MP.
Other FBEU press releases showed the union had concerns about expectations for fire-fighters to carry out more home safety visits, as well as concerns about salary cuts.
‘This is politics, it’s one side trying to get points from the other,’ Mr Lewis said.
Echonetdaily asked FBEU for comment, along with Ms Doyle, Nationals Member for Tweed Geoff Provest, Greens Member for Ballina Tamara Smith and Country Labor Member for Richmond Justine Elliot.