Local firey volunteers can’t afford time off
A DECADE on since John McDonald tried and failed to raise the issue of compensating Rural Fire Volunteers with local politicians, he's pleased the issue is back on their radars thanks to The Morning Bulletin's 'Fair go for our fireys' campaign.
Cawarral Rural Fire Brigades First Officer John McDonald, 57, has battled bushfires around CQ for over 40 years and he says this fire season was among the worst he's seen.
"It's fairly extreme at the moment," Mr McDonald said.
"We've had other years that are bad fire seasons but we haven't had the dryness to go with it.
"There's no moisture in the ground and that changes how fires react because they usually draw moisture from the ground which slows them down."
In the conditions, he said it didn't matter what direction the wind blew because fires "race off" and quickly become catastrophic like what was witnessed locally with the Cobraball bushfire.
Mr McDonald said his day job working on a farm didn't allow him the luxury of paid leave or financial compensation to answer the frequent requests to be deployed to fight bushfires around the state.
Members in his brigade were reluctant to answer the call for help, which would expose them to financial hardship or force them to burn through their leave entitlements.
"I do have members that have been away on a few deployments. Most people, it they do go, have got to take it out of their holidays or something like that to still get paid for that time," he said.
"I don't go away, especially now, I wouldn't go away. If something happens here, I need to be here."
When massive fires burn closer to home, Mr McDonald said the situation was different for employers, with many more likely to grant volunteers leave.
"If have major fire our area, a lot of my members' employers let them go," he said.
"I'm not sure how they work out pay with that. Most of them I think don't get paid and take it out of their holidays.
"That Cobraball fire, I took whole week off without pay. I don't get paid if I don't work but it's the adjoining local area and when something happens you get in and do it."
He couldn't blame companies refusing to release their staff saying "they've got a business to run as well".
"You take one person out and everything changes, especially at this time of the year," he said.
"A lot of them are very busy and can't afford to have people off."
While Mr McDonald said he personally didn't financially struggle having the occasional week off from work, members of his brigade ran into trouble with their employers when they needed a longer stint away from their jobs.
He supported governments putting their heads together to develop a better system for leave or compensation for firefighting volunteers - particularly for protracted fire disasters like the recent Cobraball bushfire.
A government tax deduction could be the easiest way to compensate volunteers and a decade ago he said they successfully lobbied local government MPs with the idea
"If they recorded hours spent away from work at big fires, they could make some sort of claim off their tax at the end of the year," he said.
"We've put all these suggestions forward and never got anywhere before.
"We tried pretty hard and basically got told to 'shut up and put up'."
He said it shouldn't fall to employers to be burdened with covering costs for compensating employees and while there used to be a situation where employers didn't have to pay payroll tax, he wasn't sure if the incentive continued to this day.
Another alternative having his tick of approval was setting up system similar to the Army Reserve, where employers were compensated by the government for employees being away.
With a compensation strategy in place, Mr McDonald was convinced it would assist QFES in their efforts recruit fresh volunteers for deployments to large scale bushfires.
In addition to the compensation issue, he hoped that more money could be set aside for aerial waterbombing resources and streamlining the procedure to quickly hit bushfires like Cobraball before they got out of control.