District waiting game

The new Country Fire Authority District created to cater to the Latrobe Valley is yet to be fully established despite being officially launched.

District 27 was announced by the former government in September 2014 and launched in April with a goal of tailoring itself to address the unique risks posed by the region’s open cut mines.

It’s the first formation of a new CFA district in 53 years, with the Valley previously governed by two separate districts. At the time of the launch, CFA Chief Fire Officer Euan Ferguson said District 27 would be “essentially live and operational” by the end of April.

However, sources have revealed the detailed implementation of the district is not complete.

The man tasked with heading the new district, operations manager Bill Johnstone, acknowledged District 27 was not fully established.

“There’s a resource issue for sure and that’s in regards to human resources and working through the processes around recruitment of additional staff to support the district and the business we need to do here,” Mr Johnstone said.

“The future that was portrayed isn’t quite consistent with the reality that we find ourselves. We haven’t quite got there yet.”

He said resource issues impacted the ability to manage expectations of the district in the wake of the Hazelwood mine fire; engagement with the community; and the implementation of the nearly finalised specialised brown coal training package for firefighters.

“I would hope that the future of District 27 will see a resource model that’s consistent with what was portrayed to people – operation capability with additional operations staff, administrative capability to support that and training capability,” Mr Johnstone said.

The Express understands Mr Johnstone is currently supported by two administration staff at the building on the corner of Ann Street and Hazelwood Road, Morwell and the CFA is seeking two operations officers.

The United Firefighters Union wants to see three operations officers put in place and says it expects the matter to be resolved.

The State Government has allocated $5.5 million to the district’s formation.

“I suppose like anything you could always sit and say we need more funding to do what we’ve got to do, but the reality is that’s what you’ve got so we have to try and do the best that we can with it,” Mr Johnstone said.

Mr Johnstone moved to reassure the community the challenges facing the new district would not impact on the CFA’s response to incidents.

“We don’t allow these challenges to impact on it, we simply cannot,” he said.

“We will always be there. We will always come.”

Yallourn North Fire Brigade member and Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria District 27 president Lance King said there had not been a “proper plan” put in place for the implementation of District 27, describing the process as rushed.

“Currently, Bill Johnstone is taking the whole district on his shoulders to try and manage and it’s not right,” Mr King said.

Member for Morwell Russell Northe raised the issue in Parliament on Wednesday, saying he had been approached by CFA personnel and volunteers who told him District 27 was “underprepared and under resourced”.

When speaking with The Express last week, Mr Northe welcomed the new government’s allocation of $5.5 million to District 27.

“The problem is that on the ground there is a distinct lack of resources, lack of communication and consultation and preparedness for the fire season,” Mr Northe said.

“They’re not my words, they are the words of volunteers and CFA personnel who have contacted me. I’m calling on the government to ensure they convey what the plan is, when it will be implemented and how it will be rolled out.”

United Firefighters Union national secretary Peter Marshall said it was “disingenuous and hypocritical” for Mr Northe to raise the issue of resources “given there was no funding by the previous government of which he was part of”.

He said in December last year the union lodged a grievance to get a “structured process for resolution of outstanding matters”.

This effectively placed the full implementation of District 27 on hold until resolution, which Mr Marshall believes will occur in “the very near future”.

“I’m satisfied with the process, 100 per cent,” Mr Marshall said.

Mr Northe said the Coalition Government of the day made the announcement in early September that it would introduce the new district.

However, he said an election campaign eight weeks later “curtailed the process” and a re-elected Coalition government would have budgeted for the district this financial year.

The Express lodged numerous questions with Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett’s office and the CFA regarding resourcing and implementation.

A government spokesperson said “in line with longstanding practice, specific resourcing decisions are made by the CFA”.

CFA acting chief executive Michael Wootten said in a statement the authority was continuing consultation with the UFU.