DFES provides some support to volunteer groups for the recruitment of new members. However, its capacity to identify current and emerging service gaps across the state is affected by a lack of information. DFES needs information about the type and number of volunteers it requires in each location, backed by accurate and reliable data on volunteer membership, availability, and training.
DFES has recognised that the annual volunteer turnover of around 15 per cent across both DFES and LG volunteer services is problematic and is developing a strategy to reduce turnover.
DFES does not have risk profiles to help it determine what kind of volunteers it needs and where. Risk profiles include identifying the nature, likelihood and severity of potential incidents occurring, and using this to determine the numbers and types of resources required to address these risks. Past attempts to develop regional risk profiles involved five out of 10 regions in the state before the project ceased due to other priorities. These issues will become more significant if current recruitment and turnover trends continue though we noted that DFES was able to manage the 2014-15 bush fire season which was one of the worst in many years.
By their nature, volunteers are those with the motivation and ability to donate their time. But in many regional areas, motivation is losing the battle to population decline. Any decline in volunteer numbers places added strain on current volunteers and in the worst case, communities will lack the numbers to operate a volunteer unit (Figure 2). As discussed later in this report, volunteer fatigue is an increasing problem that can have significant short and long terms impacts.
While the Volunteer Marine Rescue Service (VMRS) was out of scope for this audit, the work they are doing in this space is relevant. DFES is currently trying to determine a Resource to Risk Decision Support Model for the VMRS. The aim of the model is to ensure that the risks that exist in various locations correspond with the resources (in terms of type, size and number) available to deal with those risks. DFES advised it would roll out a similar model for all volunteer units by December 2015.
Without an understanding of how many volunteers it needs in specific areas DFES cannot predict service gaps across the state. DFES currently manages this risk by calling on volunteers from other regions to fill gaps as they arise. In situations where there is no volunteer capability, DFES can deploy career firefighters. For major incidents, DFES has also called for assistance from other states.
In the absence of full risk profiles, DFES relies on skill profiles for each volunteer group to identify the number of volunteers it needs and the training they require to respond safely to incidents. According to its policy, DFES should review profiles every three to five years, but in practice, reviews occur infrequently.
Profiles are developed from incident response information. We noted the potential for delays in the development or review of profiles as DFES relies on volunteer groups to provide the relevant incident information, which is not always timely. We also noted that the profiles do not take account of local conditions that may affect the number of volunteers needed in a community. For example, a regional area with a high fly-in, fly-out population may need more volunteers to respond than an area with a regularly available population base.
In 2013, DFES commenced undertaking Operational Readiness Reviews for the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service. The purpose of the review is to determine if the volunteer groups are meeting appropriate standards, including skills profiles. The reviews therefore provide important assurance about the readiness of the groups.
DFES conducted 24 such reviews in 2014. We looked at the readiness reports on five groups and found that none met their full skill profile. The plan, in part, is for these reports to inform the training needs of the service, but inaccurate training records hamper this. Later in this report, we discuss the challenges DFES has in delivering training.
For regional and remote volunteer groups that struggle to recruit members, meeting these skill profiles is difficult. DFES recommend that when skill profiles are not met, the volunteer groups should increase recruitment and upskill existing volunteers to achieve the required profile. However, this recommendation reflects an approach that some volunteer groups say is not realistic. Table 1, taken from a DFES District Officer’s Station Inspection Report, further demonstrates this point. The report notes that ‘…..despite constant efforts to recruit it is a very difficult town to encourage volunteers and highly unlikely that we will ever fully achieve the required profiles.’