Fire service reform desperately needed for morale
A record number of submissions inundated the parliamentary inquiry into fire service reform. A large majority of submissions favoured the proposed reforms, and overwhelmingly, the common theme was a two-pronged case for reform: Firstly, that structural reform is the best way to rectify glaring service delivery gaps that currently threaten the safety of firefighters and the communities they serve. And secondly, that the politicisation of the fire services has created a crisis of spiraling morale and emotional despair that has passed the point of no return, leaving structural reform as the only viable way forward.
Copious volumes of evidence supporting these conclusions were provided to the parliamentary select committee, only to be ignored by the controlling faction of the committee and by the media. This is clearly contrary to the public interest. A blog post written by a firey on his/her days off doesn’t cut it either, but it’s better than what professional journalists are serving up, which is nothing, or worse. So let’s take a look at that evidence. I’ll begin with the morale issue in this article, and return to the service delivery issues in a subsequent article.
The morale issue in its simplest form is this: firefighters feel embattled.
Professional firefighters are embattled, because they have spent years defending their workplace safety and conditions against the vicious industrial war waged upon them by the senior management of the CFA and MFB, which the Fire Services Review found had intensified significantly at the encouragement of the Baillieu/Napthine government. At the same time, through a propaganda effort of unprecedented intensity and scale, volunteer firefighters have also been made to feel embattled. The Hands Off CFA! campaign sold them a fiction of a hostile takeover of the CFA by some demonic Other: the dreaded emergency services professional (or ‘mercenary’, as some have taken to calling them). Unwarranted angst was deliberately provoked amongst volunteers, in order that they might be recruited into the campaign to defame professional firefighters, itself part of a broader self-serving political campaign of deception that saw the Turnbull government re-elected and boosted the Coalition’s prospects for the 2018 Victorian election.
Some may disagree with the chain of causation I’ve outlined above, but surely everyone can agree with the bottom line: morale is down across the board because of long-lasting dug-in hostilities between various groups within the fire services, amplified by significant media attention.
The morale issue is a cause for reform for two reasons: first, because a legislated structural separation of paid and volunteer firefighters would prevent any conflict (perceived or real) between the workplace safety and conditions of paid firefighters and the ascendancy of volunteers within the CFA; and second, because the establishment of a new fire service as a single employer of professional firefighters presents an opportunity to build from scratch a positive culture of constructive relationships between senior management and front-line workers.
The parliamentary select committee looking at fire service reform received overwhelming evidence in support of the proposition that reform is essential for the resolution of the morale issue.
That point was central to the testimony given by the three most senior, experienced, relevant experts consulted by the committee: CFA Chief Officer Steve Warrington, Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley and former Fire & Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins. These leaders reiterated this point over and over, at pains to be heard by certain MLCs who seemed more interested in pushing their own agenda than listening to experts. A look at the extensive highlighted excerpts I have made from the transcripts illustrates amply how emphatically these leaders pleaded with the committee to implement the reform to resolve the morale issue. For the purposes of the present article, let’s just go with one quote from each:
Warrington: I am sick to death of good people being put against good people … Bring on the reform.
Lapsley: The proposal is solid … because it separates the career people from the volunteers … it is what we need now, because these people are not getting on.
Mullins: You have firefighters pitched against firefighters. The best armies in the world can lose wars if their morale is down, and the status quo is not going to fix that. Something has to be done.
The careful reader might ask who Warrington and Mullins had in mind as the grammatical subjects of their sentences. Who is putting good people against good people? Who is pitching firefighters against firefighters? Both chose a sentence structure that directs blame away from firefighters — either professional or volunteer — but, through the use of the passive voice, Warrington and Mullins both avoid identifying the perpetrators.
Any doubt left by that omission is thoroughly dispelled by the enormous volume of submissions made to the committee that also complain about the morale issue. Those submissions, in their hundreds, lay blame where I too have argued it is due: at the Liberal and National parties, the Herald Sun, 3AW, Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria and at individual volunteers who got on board the Liberals’ Hands Off campaign.
Morale is rock-bottom, say hundreds of submissions
Trigger warning: the remainder of this article is likely to distress those who read it. It has been hard for me to write and I don’t recommend you expose yourself to the trauma of reading it, if you are already personally suffering the terrible impacts of this dispute. Please scroll to the end of the article for contact details of support services.
Professional firefighters are experiencing severe psychological distress and rock-bottom morale as a result of the divide engineered by the Liberals and Nationals between volunteers and career firefighters. The psychological damage occurs not just through the hostility so incited, but also more directly and more prevalently in response to the lie-driven hate speech employed by politicians and the media to achieve this division and to capitalise upon it politically. This is mental stress professional firefighters must cope with on top of the ongoing, cumulative psychological trauma that is inherent to emergency response work. It’s tough to cop, particularly when it’s clearly undeserved. Inevitably, psychological harm spreads beyond firefighters themselves to affect other family members.
Submissions from professional firefighters consistently back up the views expressed by Greg Mullins, Craig Lapsley and Steve Warrington, that the proposed structural reforms promise to put an end to such bitter divisions, by giving volunteer fire brigades the assurance that they have autonomy from professional firefighters and the union.
Of course, those who don’t already agree with me won’t take my word for what these 1000+ submissions contain. At the same time they won’t make the effort to read every submission. I don’t have time do that either. But I do know how to do keyword searches. Searches miss a lot — not everyone uses the same vocabulary — but even still, the message comes through loud and clear. Any journalist who was serious about adequately covering fire service reform could easily employ this method.
(Note added 15/11/17: I have since discovered a large number of submissions appear to be scanned copies of printed submissions. These were not accessible to my search software. As a result, there are many more submissions covering the morale crisis that are not excerpted in this article.)
Here are some of the highlights, just from searching for ‘moral’: (NB all quotes are sic, with emphasis added by me using boldface. Click or tap the submission number to view the full submission on the Parliament website.)
- S28: This dispute has broken the CFA, and like Humpty Dumpty, I don’t think it can be put back together again. I will carry scars with me until I retire of this dispute.
- S50: I believe the only way forward is for the implementation of the Fire Service reform legislation. If this fails, the division will continue into another fire season, morale will continue to drop and it will be firefighters who pay the price. Sadly there has been a lot of misinformation and outright lies circulated to further certain parties’ political fortunes. I, for one, am utterly sick of having my industry used in this way. I am also suffering the effects of being continually vilified in certain media, merely for doing my job and being passionate about fire safety and response within my community. I believe the reforms will put an end to this situation and give us all a clean start.
- S55: The impact the current, ongoing industrial disputation is having on my colleges, volunteers and myself, is at best draining. It has continued for too long and is having quite a negative impact on mental health and morale is at an all time low.
- S56: The continually debated industrial action has taken a great toll on both myself and my family … the constant media attention that firefighters are thugs, bullies and every other term thrown at us chip away at morale and pride. I have personally stopped telling people who ask me outside of work what I do for a profession as the backlash and comments that come from telling someone you are a firefighter is not worth it. You get publically criticised and people who know nothing about the risks you take, the dangers you face and the sacrifices you make will try and make assertions about something they are ill‐informed about.
- S72: I can honestly say that morale at work has never been at a lower point. Not only do we have to put up with almost daily articles in the papers, letters to the editor expressing clearly uninformed viewpoints, being branded as “union thugs” but even local politicians are spreading lies and rumours in parliament to fight the FSR(A.Katos). At my own father’s 80 th birthday celebrations just recently, I had to field an hour of questioning from relatives who live in country Victoria about the “union takeover” and the government trying destroy the CFA. We are simply sick and tired of being used as a cheap political point scoring opportunity. This issue needs to be addressed and put to rest.
- S178: I also want to tell you how damaging the current Industrial dispute is to the morale and wellbeing of all firefighters, both career and volunteer alike. We all perform our role for the community and our job is difficult enough without being used as a political tool.
- S225: Morale is at the lowest I have seen it which is affecting our level of service. I will quote the saying ‘happy work means a happy home’ and vice versa. I for one feel that my family life has been negatively impacted.
- S241: This industrial dispute has been going on far too long. It is impacting not only on myself and my colleagues, but more importantly my family. My family and I are all sick of seeing professional firefighters used as a political football. Every day I go to work and I do my best to serve and protect the community, yet politicians and media outlets regularly disparage my profession. This is simply infuriating and demoralising. Good people who are just trying to do their job deserve to be treated with more respect.
- S256: I no longer read newspapers due to the constant attacks on career firefighters the impact it has on me when reading them. I’m sick of having to discuss and explain the mistruths that are put out in the media about firefighters. It angers me that my wife has to explain what is happening and defend my profession to people in our community. I look forward to a day where my workplace is not in dispute and morale is high, when the people I work with look forward to coming to work and helping/protecting the community. I joined up as a firefighter to help the community not to be abused and treated like a second class citizen.
- S260: This Bill provides a ‘circuit breaker’ of sorts to both volunteer and career firefighters, we both need this desperately , the uncertainty has to end, volunteers are concerned what will happen to their communities (mostly through misinformation) and if they will still have a role. Career staff has seen themselves and their career vilified and dragged through the mud, the morale of career firefighters is at rock bottom, this must end.
- S294: I used to be proud of being a CFA staff member and had no issues to wear my uniform in public, now I’m not so sure. Morale has been affected greatly in the last few years and the only people I can rely on and trust are my fellow work mates.
- S300: The EBA disputation has had a massive negative effect on the moral of the station. The constant media scrutiny of something that will be great for Victoria is starting to wear thin and members of the public are seeing career staff as the enemy of volunteers. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
- S302: I am a peer for the MFB peer support program so have a strong awareness of just how detrimental the ongoing industrial disputation is to my colleagues as well as myself. I have never observed firefighter morale as low as it is currently in the 16 years I have worked in the MFB.
- S332: It has been well documented about the long running EBA industrial saga for career firefighters. I have seen first hand the demoralising effect it has had on firefighters and their families, made all the more difficult due the the increasing politicising and public nature of it. In my role of Commander I have endeavoured to keep the morale of fire-fighters upbeat and focused on performing our important role. For our own mental health and wellbeing we just want it to be resolved.
- S342: The damage this disputation in the workplace has been devastating and I have never seen morale in the Fire Services so low. I … believe that irreparable damage has been inflicted upon CFA and the disputation will only increase in the future if the reforms are not implemented. I do fear for the future.
- S365: I truly think that many of the people who have contributed to the continued attacks on career firefighters do not understand the damage that they have caused,moral is the lowest that I have witnessed in over thirty one years.
- S382: This dispute has seen the morale, confidence and faith of many firefighters, in upper managment reach unacceptable lows, which we can no longer allow to continue. This dispute has also had disgustingly unfair and negaive and distructive impact on my young children,(currently 11 and 12 years old), through the lies and misinformation generated by people who are ment to lead our organisation, through he media.
- S388: The uncertainty of what the future holds as well as the negative attitudes towards career firefighter (from certain political parties and media organisations) has taken its toll and morale levels in the workplace are at an all-time low.
- S405: The continual attacks and lies propagated by the VFVB and Victorian Liberal Party, not just about the proposed changes in legislation but also the attack on my profession and character has seen morale on station the lowest I have seen in my sixteen years’ service. These attacks have been going on way too long! The proposed changes to the fire service should see an end to the attacks as CFA will become a 100% volunteer organisation, the way it was intended to be.
- S414: Morale of staff is at an all‐time low. Motivation is low. Pride in the organisation and with the uniform that people used to be so proud to wear has been diminished somewhat. Relationships have suffered within volunteer and staff ranks due to the misinformation that is being pushed on the community and to Volunteers by some parties about the impact that Fire Rescue Victoria (and our EBA) will have on CFA.
- S428: This campaign has produced the lowest morale I have seen yet. It has directly effected families and friends of Firefighters with most colleagues I know carrying unhealthy amounts of stress 24 Hours a day. It has been a disgusting campaign against Firefighters in many cases waged for political gain. The campaign has sought to use anything to denigrate Firefighters including, Gender, Bullying, 37 Front pages of the Herald Sun, Federal Interference, Political funding of a divisive “Hands off CFA”, Lying under Parliamentary Privilege being a few of the tactics.
- S429: This has had a profound impact on the morale and mental health of the staff and their families. Something has to be done to end this dispute and prevent it happening again. Other than the formation of Fire Rescue Victoria and making the CFA fully volunteer I cannot see another way around this.
- S443: My sincere hope that is the reform will proceed, and as a result of the security of distance, all future attempts to provoke tensions will fall upon deaf ears. Once that is in place, morale can be rebuilt, and volunteers and professional firefighters alike can consign this toxic, unbecoming saga to history.
- S477: The current environment and moral in the fire service is at an all-time low. This is not the type of fire service we all joined.
- S488: I have unfortunately only known the current turmoil in trying to negotiate a current EBA and seen the effects first hand it is having on the wellbeing and moral of my fellow workers and in some cases the divide that it has caused which is flamed by the constant demonization of career staff in the media through political agenda driven and ill-informed reporting such as the latest pamphlet I received in my mail from Sarah Henderson.
- S499: Over the past couple of years during the current EBA negotiations, I have noted how political the Fire services have become. This has caused great concern to my family and myself. The constant newspaper articles saying how we are union thugs and bullies, and endless social media posts has really affected me personally and also the morale amongst my work colleagues. We are really tired of being treated like this; I joined this job to try and have a positive impact on people and the community. It’s very hard to accept that some people and media outlets think they have something to gain by trying to turn the public against the people who are there to help them, in these times of need. I believe that the fire services reform will eliminate this issue.
- S512: As a dedicated CFA career officer I have been disheartened by the continued attacks on career personnel from governments, the media, volunteer groups such as the VFBV and individual volunteer personnel. The level of trust, morale and the ability to maintain the integrated model of fire service has been compromised by this ongoing dispute. A “line in the sand” has to be drawn to move forward and get on with this reform to strengthen the fire services and regain community confidence. The only way forward is to make CFA a volunteer only service and transfer all career personnel to FRV.
- S528: Workplace moral caused by false political advertising in my opinion is at all time LOW and has caused an enormous problem within our services.
- S555: The introduction of enterprise bargaining has resulted in CFA becoming a political battle ground, impacting on the welfare and morale of Staff, Volunteers and their families and ultimately service delivery capacity, capability and interoperability. The reform will provide long term focus on the important issues facing the State to refocus on the appropriate fire service delivery, therefore creating safer communities.
- S579: I have had this dispute occurring for my entire CFA career, and it is morale killing … It feels like our reputation in the community has been smashed by the herald sun and their news articles. Most of the herald suns articles are twisted and not correct, but there has been no defence of the fire fighters from the government or the CFA and MFB. Is anyone going to hold the Herald Sun accountable for the twisted stories and directing of public opinion down incorrect information?
- S587: I personally was abused by members of the public who believed the rubbish printed in the Murdoch press, I was called a thug / greedy and many other things. I along with many of my colleagues was reluctant to wear our fire service uniform out in public for fear of being abused. I have never seen the work force morale down so low, but yet through this whole time we never let the public that we have devoted our lives to serve to be affected.
- S620: Professional firefighters are proud civic minded people who want to do their best for the community they serve and the negative aspects of this dispute are continually demoralising, even for the most resilient people.
- S666: For my entire career so far, I have not been able to tell my wife with any certainty what my future employment and conditions are going to be like. We have all ridden the rollercoaster of an uncertain future whilst constantly being attacked in the media and from people in the public. This has had a significant effect on morale, mental health and wellbeing of myself, my colleagues and my family.
- S685: [Reform would] see an end of the ongoing industrial dispute that has been ongoing for almost 4 years! It has taken a huge toll on all firefighters, morale is low and it needs to end.
- S694: the effects of the ongoing industrial dispute, as well as media reporting, the actions of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) and a small cohort of volunteers, are apparent. My colleagues and I feel that our work is undermined and the general morale within the ranks is low. I did not expect to become a professional firefighter and be constantly painted in a negative light by the media and a small group of volunteers. I like to come to work and feel that I am positively contributing to my community; however it is unfortunate that I am unable to feel this way. I seek an end to the ongoing dispute regarding the fire services in Victoria and I firmly believe that this change to legislation is the only option for us to move on
- S701: This long disputation has had a significant effect on my moral and wellbeing, as l feel career firefighters have been portrayed as destroying the jobs ,lives and careers of the volunteers. This sadly has rolled into my personal life, where not only myself but my family are continually having to defend and explain things, after being asked , `What are you doing to the volunteers?`
- S740: The ongoing industrial dispute has mentally drained many of my colleagues who’s moral is at an all‐time low . The constant attack on my colleagues by the newspapers and certain politicians has scarred many of us. That said we live in hope that the pain is going to be worth the gain. That the public and firefighters will be better off .
- S762: I would also like to point out about the damage that has been done by politics and the media of late. All Fire Fighters, both career and volunteer are being affected by the fact we have been used in a political tug of war, the morale has noticeably dropped around the stations, and although we keep a professional face to the public, this is sometimes hard when some of the public we serve have a diminished view of us after reading and hearing some of the numerous untruths about their fire services through certain outlets of the media.
- S809: We don’t deserve the reputation we have been given by some members of the public and it needs to stop as the damage on our morale and mental health is only getting worse, not to mention the effect on our families.
- S813: Some key attributes I believe are important as a firefighter, both professional and volunteer, include being a team player, comradeship, honesty, mateship, loyalty and trust. All these attributes seem to go out the window during EBA negotiations. The moral of all staff is significantly affected and it creates a toxic relationship on the fire-ground. The toxicity is so severe in some instances that staff do not work together at incidents and community safety is compromised.
- S830: This constant vilification and bullying has seriously affected the morale of both myself and my co-workers, to the point where we all have concerns for one another’s wellbeing. This alone is enough for me to fully support these proposed changes. These attacks have been nothing short of disgraceful.
- S892: Being part of a Union should not allow people label me and my professional colleagues as “thugs”, “terrorists”, “scabs”, “standover men”, “knuckleheads”, “stooges”, “bullies” and “drones.” This repulsive and offensive rhetoric has come from some our fellow volunteers, some State and Federal politicians, some media outlets and many on social media hiding behind fake accounts. I watch the news and read the newspapers and see the media label murderers, gang members and armed robbers as thugs, and I feel sick to the stomach to think that some people in privileged positions put my colleagues and I in the same category as these criminals, simply because we chose to become professional fire fighters and because we chose to be a part of a Union that supports our welfare and livelihoods. I am ashamed! With morale at an all time low, and anger and conflict at such dangerously high levels now, I fear for what will happen to CFA if this Bill does not get passed.
- S930: The manner in which the service stands at the moment honestly stinks; this can be seen an is reflected in staff morale and in the horrific incidence of suicides within both organisations over the past 24 months. People have just had enough of being in the paper, being exploited, being blind sited by untruths and fictional stories without substance.
- S951: The current anti staff media campaign has been horrific for not only career staff but their families as well. We have seen the morale and mental wellbeing of our career staff partners undermined at every turn. They have been used as political footballs by people with little understanding of what it means to go to work in an emergency environment, wait for support to come that often never arrives, make on the spot decisions about the lives of others and themselves, deal with loss and death, deal with abuse brought about by ill-informed people, and maintain a public confidence that they often do not feel. As a group, professional firefighters feel let down by their own organisation, their political parties and their communities in general.
- S966: The ongoing industrial dispute has caused staff/volunteer relations to come to an all time low. The fire station has become a reactive rather than a productive environment to work in. Over the last four years I have seen my fellow work colleagues degraded and demoralized by the continuous use of firefighters being used as political footballs.
- S969: The profound effect that this dispute has had and the misinformation that has been published can be seen in … a distinct drop in moral on station as we continually feel under attack from a campaign of misinformation provided purely and simply to diminish our standing in the public eye.
- S977: These last four years have been discouraging and demoralizing for firefighters and their families. The stress and trauma of this last EBA negotiation has caused an increase in the mental health issues of career firefighters. This is extremely disturbing and has to be taken into consideration.
- S997: One such media outlet has consistently set out to vilify and tarnish the reputations. This … has pitted firefighter against firefighter in many outlets and has desecrated the moral of the state’s fire services
- S1002: Morale has never been lower, and mental health issues have never been higher than what they are now in the fire services. The fire services reform will be a positive step to fostering a positive environment for career firefighters.
- S1010: To be called a union thug, scum, and many others things is very demoralising. It has not only affected me at my workplace, but has put extra strain on my family life also. It amazes me that the people we have helped train and support can turn so nasty. The division that this has created between staff and volunteers has now reached a level that will be very difficult to repair.
- S1039: the current morale within our organisation is at an all time low, I know myself, that I have accessed help services, in regards to dealing with the attacks and lies, which have constantly been published in the tabloids and spruked by our politicians for their own party gains
- S1079: constant vilification and attacks on professional fire fighters including continuous mistruths sprawled over countless front pages of newspapers, members of parliament and throughout social media is taking its toll on me personally as a fire fighter, my family and my work colleges. It is extremely disheartening to see these barraging attacks on us lower morale throughout the service.
- S1109: This industrial dispute needs to end, moral on station is low, Staff with over 30 years’ experience are saying it’s the lowest they can ever remember.
- S1115: [We] are well and truly sick of the unrelenting victimisation that has been playing out in the media. Morale is extremely low at the moment. We don’t need this added mental pressure. Our jobs can be difficult enough as is. Without a resolution, there seems no end in sight.
- S1149: The current industrial dispute that has been going on now for some years has been very detrimental to the health and well‐being, and morale to both career and volunteer fire fighters. Never in my time as a fire fighter have I felt so attacked for what I do. The amount of untruths being published in the media and pushed so blatantly by the Liberal government has left me trying to defend myself to the general public whose only source of information is through the media.
- S1218: I have seen morale drop. I have seen colleagues who I thought had been through horrible things reach tipping point and beyond, because of the extra stress and the unknown for the future of our careers.
- S1223: The damaged caused from the past few years and the impact it has had on morale I feel is irreparable in its current form. The orchestrated attacks on professional firefighters have resulted in an integrated model that is beyond repair.
- S1330: There has been a significant toll to moral amongst professional firefighters through this dispute as we have often been relentlessly slandered in the press.
- S1442: Change is required in the Victorian Fire Services. Morale of all parties is at an all-time low, relationships are strained to boiling point, even close mates and colleagues find themselves at odds disputing current issues.
- S1449: The damage this dispute has had on the morale of my workplace has taken a significant toll. … The mental strain that it has had on my co-workers and myself has been very upsetting. My fiancé has noticed a change in myself and so that of my work colleagues with constant undermining and harassment both politically and in the media.
- S1605: I have seen my colleagues and profession constantly attacked by politicians; ably supported by the media and volunteers that have been unfortunately hoodwinked into supporting a political agenda. These constant attacks have had an increasingly negative effect on my moral and that of my colleagues.
- S1608: Full time firefighter morale and standing in the community is at an all-time low. This reform will go a long way to restoring that.
- S1626: My colleagues and I have been exposed to unrelenting attacks on our profession and our integrity from certain sections of politics and the media. This has undoubtedly had a detrimental impact on moral.
- S1630: As a result of CFA’s ‘integrated’ model UFU and VFBV representatives have quarrelled over organisational and operational procedures for decades. Politicians and the media have encouraged these divisions by demonising career firefighters for political gain. The drain on morale for firefighters on the ground is catastrophic. To maintain the current integrated arrangement is to condone a continued deterioration of the mental health and wellbeing of Victoria’s firefighters.
- S1649: the intervention of the volunteers into EBA negotiations … has taken a real toll on morale on station, and is actually having an effect off station for members. Personally I have found myself having to defend my role as a career fire fighter within CFA against volunteers, members of the public and even family. This is all due to the politicising of fire fighters and more so that blatant mistruths that are spread via media without ramification.
- S1662: The past 24 months of disputation has had a dramatic effect on the morale of firefighters in our workplace, the constant put downs and headlines in all forms of electronic media, has made for a difficult time, when all we want to do, is our job.
- S1673: As it currently stands the moral level on my station is at a very low level as our industrial dispute has been a constant feature in the media. Career Firefighters are being portrayed in a very negative light and this has over time, worn down even the most resilient of us. The media manufactured tension is a constant weight on the minds of both the volunteers and the staff and makes our ability to continue in the same organisation very difficult if not impossible.
- S1700: I certainly feel we have reached a point in time where we cannot continue the way we have been. Every time a CFA EBA expires, the same arguments are rolled out regarding the destruction of CFA through career staff and UFU meddling. These continued arguments have taken a toll on many people in the organisation, including myself. Moral on fire stations is as low as I have ever seen, and I know of many friendships that have ended or been damaged between career staff and volunteers. The proposed changes will lift this cloud of anger and resentment, and the working relationship will return to what it has normally been, a very healthy and respectful one.
- S1711: Fire-fighters morale, health and well-being are of high concern, due to the ongoing political division which has infested our industry over a number of years. As a peer support member I have noticed an increase in the amount of support required by Fire-fighters. This needs to stop. The reforms will make a difference by taking the politics out of the Fire services. Broader support will be provided to all Fire-fighters.
- S1731: Moral is at its lowest I’ve seen and has had a big impact on me personally.
- S1774: The current disputation has had a huge impact on morale at volunteer and intergrated fire stations. This can’t continue, reform of the fire service will bring about change and lift morale while re instating CFA as a volunteer only fire service.
- S1777: My service to the fire brigade has taken its toll on my mental health, family, and physical health this being made even more difficult in recent years with the constant and ruthless attacks on my profession, attacks stemming from the Victorian Liberal Party, Federal Liberal Party and VFBV have lowered moral on fire stations state wide to a level I have never seen before.
- S1804: This dispute has seen the morale, confidence and faith in firefighters at an all time low. The lowest I have seen in my 31 years in the service.
- S1808: We have seen our firefighters being treated as political footballs vilified by media and politicians. Each and every attack has been felt not only by them but also their loved ones. The effects around the industry have been wide spread, low morale, heightened problems of PTSD, anxiety and depression.
- S1832: I’m tired of having to defend myself to the general public, who have been taken in by the media misinformation and propaganda campaign that is destroying the morale of the fire services including our volunteer colleagues. This has to be fixed!
- S1864: I also feel the reform would go a long way towards ending the ongoing dispute. Having been in the brigade for over 38 years I have never known the moral of the members to be as low as it is at the moment and the lack of trust that we have for the upper managementand the board. I feel strongly that this will not change until there is CHANGE.
- S1866: As a volunteer based organisation CFA has far too much to address to take it forward into a relevant future and doesn’t need the anxiety of industrial issues as has been the case for several years. This has had a huge impact on the morale of both volunteer and paid staff. This is not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ argument, as many career staff like myself are volunteers.
- S1870: The current environment has damaged fire-fighter moral at station level and has had a negative impact on many families
- S1876: The moral of staff members is very low and is a direct result of the actions of the VFBV in attacking the conditions of my employment and together with the Liberal party (State and Federal) have attempted to denigrate the professionalism, commitment, and skills of Career Firefighters through campaigns such as the “Hands Off CFA”
I don’t know about you, but for me, that was heavy going. Good women and men in their hundreds are hurting. At the hands of self-serving liars.
Doesn’t that make you angry? It should.
Or do you need more convincing? Not enough evidence for you?
Fireys know they were deliberately, viciously targeted
All of these submissions have much more to say and it is worth clicking through to read them in full. Many of them articulate in some detail the ways in which the firefighters found themselves the victims of an orchestrated bullying campaign. Let’s at least taker a closer look at a few.
Here’s a snippet from a CFA Station Officer (Submission 28), who has no doubt that the VFBV, the Liberals and the media have broken the CFA:
A CFA Leading Firefighter (Submission 587) cites example of face-to-face vilification incited by media lies:
In Submission 1454 an MFB Station Officer says he is heartbroken by the political point-scoring and the abuse he has suffered:
The painful truth of mental suffering was outlined as follows, by a CFA Leading Firefighter (Submission 1876):
An MFB Leading Firefighter (Submission 830) had this to say:
Submission 969, from an MFB firefighter, makes it clear that abuse firefighters suffer has been created for cynical political gain:
These sentiments were ably echoed by an MFB Leading Firefighter (Submission 997):
Families suffer, too
As shown by numerous excerpts above, firefighters have found their families have also suffered as a result of the Liberal-media-VFBV bullying campaign. In fact, as outlined in Submission 627, such is the extent of the problem that a support group has been formed by partners and spouses of firefighters:
A number of individual submissions from the spouses of professional firefighters also make passionate pleas for mercy.
‘It breaks my heart’, says one woman (Submission 65):
Another woman expresses her disgust as follows (Submission 1101):
According to Submission 429, something has to be done about the profound impact of shameful media bullying:
So distressed is one woman that she says ‘I want my husband out of the CFA’ (Submission 1807):
That submission (1807) is compulsory reading. I will return to it in my next article, on the service delivery case for reform. The author provides compelling evidence on the basis of her professional experience as an emergency services dispatcher and communications operator.
Submission 421 is another that is compelling reading, both in terms of the morale issue and of service delivery. This paramedic is disgusted by the abuse her husband faces, and notes the similar experience suffered by paramedics in recent years.
Submission 355 had this to say:
Like others, the author of Submission 547 is appalled at the anguish endured by her firefighter spouse and the negative impact it has upon their children:
Submission 565 testifies that the victimisation of firefighters by the media and politicians has caused relationships to break down:
Bullied to death?
Trigger warning (reminder)- this section is likely to cause distress. Please scroll to the end of the article for contact details of support services.
Firefighters generally aren’t quick to complain, or to fill out a hurt feelings report. It’s only in recent years that firefighters began to feel comfortable acknowledging even their difficulties dealing with exposure to incident trauma. Firefighters value having a thick skin — after all, people only call us when they need us to deal with a situation that is too perilous to deal with themselves — and would not normally be let themselves be seen taking to disparaging comments heart —particularly from the likes of politicians, reporters and other renowned lying windbags. So, when hundreds of firefighters do complain of bullying-induced low morale and resulting mental health issues, you can safely assume they’re not having a lend.
Not convinced? Let’s look at some of the submissions that elaborate on the mental health challenges.
Like me, this CFA Leading Firefighter (Submission 1742) has suffered through exposure to psychological assault by the media while in a vulnerable state due to the psychological stresses inherent to emergency response work. For him, the mental impact was severe enough to require medical intervention:
This extraordinary submission is another I will return to in the next article. Among other things, it examines the cynical policy about-turn Jack Rush undertook once engaged by VFBV and calls out blatantly misleading communications from VFBV CEO Andrew Ford and Liberal MLA Louise Staley.
Submission 365, from a CFA Operations Officer, has prompted me to almost wear out my yellow e-highlighter, with a passionate plea for recognition of the severe wellbeing impacts of the continual vilification of firefighters:
Some submissions make for particularly tough reading. Submission 1177 is one of those. After noting that ‘the fire service has become a political football and media publications are only publishing information that is blatantly untrue’, this CFA Station Officer goes on to say:
Comments such as these should ring alarm bells. These people are in a precarious place. But there’s more. A number of submissions express the view that the stress of disputation has contributed to firefighter suicide.
Like Submission 421 quoted earlier, Submission 1345 finds parallels between the psychological suffering of firefighters and of paramedics, caused in part by toxic disputation. Tragically, this MFB Station Officer lost his his brother, a paramedic, to suicide. He offers a heartfelt plea for reform, in the interests of the safety of firefighters and the public:
Another MFB firefighter (Submission 290) goes further, directly attributing partial blame to the media for the suicide of two of his friends and colleagues:
An MFB Acting Commander (Submission 535) also draws on his considerable experience supporting firefighter welfare to point out the suicide risk caused by disputation:
The toxic fight that has been our E.B.A has caused a huge amount of damage in relation to Mental Health. Fire Fighters are witness to some of the most gruesome and graphic scenes by virtue of our employment. The last thing we want/need is more stress from a protracted industrial dispute. I have no doubt that this fight has been a factor in Fire Fighter suicide. That is a terrible disgrace.
A CFA firefighter (Submission 930) also blames the media for firefighter suicide, and shares a gut-wrenching tale of the cascading trauma so caused:
Enough is Enough
While I was putting the finishing touches on this article, one morning — perhaps not coincidentally, the day after Jane Garrett’s preselection ballots arrived in letterboxes — I got a phone call from a very upset firey. At the mess table early that morning, towards the end of a busy night shift, he had unwrapped the day’s edition of The Age to find the front page dedicated to vicious, misleading slander of firefighters. Here was yet another volley in the media hate campaign against us. Everyone on station was ropeable. I soon was, too. When you have just spent the night risking your own physical and psychological wellbeing in order to help the public, it’s very hard to cop attempts by powerful interests to incite unfounded public hatred of you.
A handful of us on Twitter sought the reaction of a few journalists who have engaged with us in the past. Their response: circle the wagons. Deny that the story tried to implicate firefighters. Play dumb when we showed them spin-off stories from other outlets that explicitly blamed firefighters. Ignore our references to fire reform inquiry submissions that provide ample evidence of a mental health crisis caused in part by media bullying.
To those journos I say: here is your evidence. I’ve done the work you couldn’t be bothered doing and laid it out in easily digestible form. It’s only a fraction of the testimony given to the committee, but it’s ample. Yes, there is a mental health crisis. Yes, your colleagues contributed to it, and so did the lying politicians you refuse to call out. Yes, they risk having blood on their hands, and potentially already do. Does Brodie’s Law apply to journalists? I, for one, will enthusiastically join any class action brought over this matter.
The time has come to say, to the media and to politicians involved in vilifying firefighters: enough is enough. It needs to come from recognised authority figures the media won’t ignore. It’s not enough to brush the question of blame under the carpet. The perpetrators must be identified and their actions condemned. Thankfully, when it comes to the media at least, one fire service leader has now done this:
It’s an incredible relief for firefighters, after so many years of trench warfare, to find there is now a Chief Officer who tries to look after them, not to attack them.
In the video, CO Warrington says again that reform is the way out of this mess. Like the vast majority of professional firefighters, I agree.
Readers experiencing distress in response to this matter are urged to seek support. The following list of contacts is excerpted from a recent UFU bulletin.
SUPPORT SERVICES AVAILABLE
As previously notified, there are dedicated support services available including support services for MFB and CFA members, external support services available to everyone, and the additionally the UFU Welfare Officer.
MFB and CFA
Both the MFB and the CFA have support services which members are encouraged to access. The contact details are as follows:
• For MFB personnel there is 24-hour access to a dedicated counselling service with psychologists by calling 1800 451 138 or 1300 366 789. If you call this service you can have immediate access to a psychologist via telephone or alternatively make an appointment. This service is also available for family members.
• Additionally, for MFB personnel there is an extensive peer support programme where a clinician can be accessed by calling 9665 4405 or 0407 665 174 or the Peer Coordinator on 0417 538 289 or 9665 4516.
• CFA members can access Critical Incident Stress Peer Support by calling either the CFA Chaplain Service on 1800 337 068 or the CFA Member Assistance Program 1300 795 711. [Corrected from previous version]
We encourage you to use the above services provided by the MFB and CFA, but if you feel uncomfortable in doing so there are external support services which all can access.
Services available to all:
On the beyondblue website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/ the following support services are listed that are external to the CFA and MFB and that are available to all.
The website has comprehensive information that deals with a range of mental health awareness and the support and help that is available.
The numbers for these services are as follows:
• Lifeline 13 11 14
• Suicide Call Back Services 1300 659 467
• beyondblue Support Service 1300 22 4636