Australia Firefighter compensation scheme may exclude many volunteers

13:31  14 january  2020
13:31  14 january  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a close up of a man with a beard looking at the camera: Firefighter Andrew Ruddock says the compensation scheme does not go far enough. (ABC News: Marian Faa)© Provided by ABC NEWS Firefighter Andrew Ruddock says the compensation scheme does not go far enough. (ABC News: Marian Faa) Andrew Ruddock left behind his terminally ill wife to battle blazes across Queensland and New South Wales, but says he and hundreds of other volunteers are ineligible for compensation under a new federal scheme.

Since compensation was announced late last month, only 29 volunteer firefighters out of more than 33,000 Rural Fire Service Queensland (RFSQ) volunteers have applied.

In NSW, a Customer Service Department spokesperson said 923 people had pre-registered their interest in the payment.

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Mr Ruddock, who lives in Far North Queensland, said he was "disappointed" by the scheme's "restrictive" eligibility criteria, which exclude pensioners and people employed by large businesses.

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He said being a full-time carer for his wife, who has an inoperable brain tumour, made him ineligible for the scheme.

"When I do go away on deployment I have to get my friends to look in on her and some of my relatives to keep in contact with her," he said.

"It's not so much about the money — I am a pensioner and I'm not losing any money — but the principle is we do go down and we fight the fires.

"It is good to see [the Federal Government] has come up with something to help us, but it's just not enough."

Mr Ruddock said many people were under the impression volunteers were "getting paid" for their service during the nation's catastrophic bushfire season, but that was not the case.

"I think it's just political grandstanding," he said.

"A lot of the rural fire members are pensioners, and also quite a few unemployed people — and they're excluded from any payment by the Government."

In a press release announcing the package, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the scheme was "not about paying volunteers".

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As noted above, volunteer fire fighters and state emergency service volunteers were always going to be exempt from the changes. workers compensation scheme rather than the more generous pre 2012 scheme . Another question yet to be resolved is who is a paramedic.

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"It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss," Mr Morrison said at the time.

"It's targeted and is the result of a direct request and consultation with the NSW RFS and NSW Government."

A Federal Government spokesman said the vast majority of volunteers did not ask to be paid for what they did.

"We thank those volunteers who have not lost income (for example, those who are retired, or who volunteer their weekends) for their selfless service, but this payment is intended to assist their more vulnerable colleagues," the spokesman said.

How much can be claimed?

State governments are responsible for assessing eligibility and administering the reimbursement of volunteers.

The payments of up to $300 a day per person — up to $6,000 in total — are tax free and not means tested.

They are available to volunteers who are either self employed or work for small and medium-sized businesses and have been on the ground or providing direct operational response to bushfires for more than 10 days in total.

Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland representative Gary Patzwald said many of the state's volunteers had a "remote chance" of being able to claim compensation under the scheme.

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In an all- volunteer fire departments, the firefighters are responsible for maintenance and care of the fire vehicles and equipment. At a fire or accident, volunteer firefighters work to clean up the scene to prevent any additional damage and may have to shovel, sweep or remove debris.

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"It was well intended but poorly thought out," he said.

"Who is going to get it, how is it going to be administered, who is going to be offended by not getting it?"

But Mr Patzwald also pointed out RFSQ volunteers did not expect payment for their service.

"If you're getting paid you're not a volunteer, end of story," he said.

Cost of response 'enormous'

Cairns and Cape RFSQ area director John Lindsay said he would like to see all firefighters paid for their service, but there was a limit to how much could be spent.

"Maybe they deserve the money," he said.

"But there has to be some checks and balances, and there has to be some control over the money.

"The Government just cannot give away billions of dollars without some sort of management."

Mr Lindsay said the bushfire response across Australia was costing millions.

"You've got transport, you've got accommodation, you've got food. Helicopters are worth anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 an hour," he said.

"The money that is being poured into fighting these fires is phenomenal."

Federal Natural Disaster and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud urged large businesses to support employees who took time off work to fight fires.

"Big business benefits more than most of us from the hard work of our volunteer firefighters and I urge them to support their staff who are part of volunteer services," he said.

At Microsoft News Australia we've partnered with the giving platform Benevity to raise funds for Australian Red Cross, St Vincent De Paul Society and The Salvation Army; these organisations are helping communities across the country devastated by bushfires. You can help these organisations by donating here and for the latest news and RFS links visit Bushfire emergency.

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