Report 17

Support and Preparedness of Fire and Emergency Services Volunteers

Support services are provided to volunteers, but there are some weaknesses

There are a range of support services available to volunteers

DFES knows the importance of providing volunteers with support services. These include the provision of recognition, counselling, insurance, and reimbursement of costs. Volunteers were generally satisfied with the support services provided by DFES. Further, DFES has revived its Peer Support Program.

DFES has a volunteer Reward and Recognition Policy as well as a number of recognition programs in place. One of the key events is the annual award ceremony at the Fire and Emergency Services Conference. Recognising and celebrating volunteers supports ongoing participation and promotes volunteering in the community.

Recognition also happens at a local level, through newspaper articles, LG recognition programs and through local District Officers. In 2014, DFES also expanded an innovation portal, ‘Portal to Progress’, which provided volunteers (and DFES staff) an opportunity to input their ideas to improve the way the organisation operates.

DFES has three key components to their counselling support services. These are their Chaplaincy, Employee Assistance Program and Peer Support Program. Volunteers were generally very positive about the support programs they could access. However, we noted inconsistencies between what LG volunteers thought they had access to and DFES policy.

Around 40 per cent of respondents to our survey had tried to access support services. Seven volunteers responded with the ‘No – I cannot access support services when I need them’ option and almost 10 per cent indicated that they found it difficult to access services (Figure 9).

Figure 9 - Office of the Auditor General 2015 volunteer survey responses - Question 18

Responses from some LG volunteers to this question highlighted confusion around what DFES services LG volunteers can access. Almost 19 per cent of respondents selected ‘I am a bush fire brigade volunteer and therefore do not have access to support services.’

We spoke to senior DFES staff who explained that it would be ‘highly irregular’ for DFES to provide welfare type services to LG volunteers. They said that LG volunteers should be encouraged to seek support from their LG.

However, we understand that if LG volunteers respond to a DFES controlled incident that is identified as potentially traumatic, LG volunteers would then be included in the DFES support response.

Essentially, LG volunteers involved in an incident will be supported when DFES has a duty of care. Outside of this, DFES does not provide support for LG volunteers, nor is it resourced to. DFES needs to improve communication both internally and to volunteers about the type of support services available and the circumstances when LG volunteers can access them.

Requesting counselling assistance can be a difficult decision. Volunteers should be provided with clear information about how to access this assistance when necessary. Current legislation contributes to confusion around who is responsible for who. DFES are nearing the end of a legislative review process. One outcome of the legislative review will be changes that will enable LGs to hand over responsibility of volunteers to DFES, if they choose to.

In 2012, the Community Development and Justice Standing Committee (CDJSC) of Parliament released their Toll of Trauma Report, which identified weaknesses in the tracking of staff and the number of traumatic events they attended. Although the finding related to paid staff, volunteers also attend traumatic incidents and DFES should monitor them in a similar way.

DFES does not have an integrated system for their data management. This means that DFES cannot reliably identify who has responded to a traumatic incident and who may therefore require follow up and support.

DFES staff rely on incident response information to identify the need to offer support requirements for volunteers. However, DFES staff have told us that there can be significant delays entering incident response reports into its system. Delays in accessing those reports will have flow on delays to providing assistance.

All volunteers are insured by either LG or DFES. During our site visits, volunteers were generally comfortable with the process for making insurance claims, provided they followed correct processes and completed all required paperwork. We heard of one instance of a delay of almost a year to a LG volunteer’s claim after it was sent incorrectly to DFES rather than processed through the LG.

DFES provides insurance for DFES volunteers and LG provide insurance to LG volunteers. However, because different services are covered under different insurance provisions, not all volunteers are entitled to the same level of insurance cover, even if attending the same incident. The Bush Fire Act 1954 sets out insurance arrangements for LG volunteers and the Fire Brigades Regulations 1943 detail the insurance levels for the VFRS. There is no legislative provision around insurance for the SES or the VES, in absence of this DFES covers these volunteers under its personal accident policy.

In 2012, the Minister for Emergency Services announced legislative changes to provide consistent insurance cover for all volunteers operating under the emergency services Acts and to simplify compensation claims for career and volunteer firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers. Cabinet authorised DFES to draft these legislative amendments in September 2014. DFES expects the Bill to be introduced to Parliament in 2015.

Figure 10 - DFES Peer Support Program

 

 

 

 

 

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