Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Fire Danger Season

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (16:50): I move:

That this council—

1. Acknowledges that the Bureau of Meteorology has formally declared an El Niño weather event and that risk of a significant fire danger season is higher following an El Niño year;

2. Notes that some South Australian CFS stations are currently ill-equipped to ensure volunteers' safety and dignity; and

3. Calls on the Malinauskas government to urgently audit current CFS facilities and fund any identified need.

The motion I move today notes that this council acknowledges that the BOM has formally declared an El Niño weather event and that the risk of a significant fire danger season is now higher, following this. It notes that some South Australian CFS stations are currently ill-equipped to ensure volunteers' safety and dignity and calls on the Malinauskas government to urgently audit current CFS facilities and fund any identified need.

This month, September 2023, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology formally declared that the world's most consequential climate driver, the El Niño weather pattern, is active over the Pacific for first time in eight years. The effects of El Niño reach across the world, resulting in extreme rainfall and floods in the southern US and Central America, failed monsoons on the Indian subcontinent, and in Australia an increased risk of drought and heatwaves. This is an urgent reminder that we must drive down greenhouse gas emissions and increase our resilience and preparedness for catastrophic bushfires and other climate disasters.

A study earlier this year, led by CSIRO scientists, found that global heating from greenhouse gas emissions has likely been making El Niños and La Niñas more frequent and severe since the 1960s. As El Niño exacerbates dry and hot conditions across the country, the likelihood of drought and bushfires increases even further. Indeed, the BOM's announcement came as parts of New South Wales were put on alert for catastrophic fire danger—in September—with strong winds combining with unusually hot temperatures in the south-eastern parts of that state. It is little wonder, then, that Greg Mullins, the founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, has warned us that:

The El Niño event is like adding fuel to the fire—literally. With the warmer and drier conditions it brings, it's likely we're looking at an extended and potentially volatile fire season.

With fires already raging across our continent this spring, it is hard not to recall the horrific 2019-20 bushfires that came so soon after the extreme floods. In recent weeks, fires in the Northern Territory have blazed through 1.3 million hectares of the Barkly Region. Dozens of fires across Queensland and New South Wales have seen at least 21 schools on the south coast of New South Wales forced to close.

But our lessons as a community are still yet to be truly learnt. This is climate damage. It is a climate crisis caused by burning coal and gas, and communities are paying the price. Of course, our communities are resilient and we support each other in times of crisis, but the government also needs to do the same for those who battle the climate crisis on the frontlines. There are many in our community who do what is needed when we are facing catastrophes, but today I want to single out the CFS volunteer firefighters who will be there when we need them. Right now, the Malinauskas government needs to step up for them.

In South Australia, the CFS and its volunteers are on the frontlines in protecting lives, properties and our natural environment against bushfire. In 2020-21, CFS volunteers delivered an extraordinary 1.3 million hours of emergency response time to ensure that South Australians are supported by a professional emergency service.

Right across our state, we rely on the incredible generosity of these hardworking CFS volunteers, yet the CFS itself has been continually underfunded and undersupported by successive governments for far too many years. Back in 2008—15 years ago—an independent building replacement review was commissioned by SAFECOM and conducted by GHD consultants. That review indicated that the funding for CFS building and maintenance programs fell well below the appropriate level to sustain the current program.

Back in 2008, 15 years ago, that report found that there were some 310 buildings that should be replaced over the next 10 years. Last year, the Country Fire Service Volunteers Association, in consultation with its many thousands of members, developed the document 'Building on Strong Foundations—2022 and beyond', which revealed that although there was $7 million spent between 2018 and 2021 for station maintenance and upgrades, and I quote from that report:

…the level of funding has not been sufficient to meet ongoing needs, with priority given to the removal of asbestos, rectifying electrical issues, installing toilet facilities. This has also identified a need for ongoing, realistic, and consistent funding as stations age and needs community change.

The CFS Volunteers Association has recommended that the state government allocate a further funding amount of $10 million over four years for the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of CFS stations right across our state. I guess $10 million could sound like a lot of money to some, but in comparison to the protection of people, of property, of our state, of our environment, it is literally a drop in the bucket.

So, as I have said in this place before, it is deeply concerning to hear the consistent lack of funding facilities and infrastructure over so many years has left our CFS stations and our volunteers with possible workplace safety hazards and lacking in even the most basic facilities like taps and toilets and a place for volunteers to change with privacy and the dignity they deserve.

For almost a decade, we have had a stated commitment to gender diversity across our emergency and firefighting services. Women, of course, have long been at the frontline of firefighting in our nation—for at least three decades—but there is still a long way to go to at least reach gender parity, with representation currently believed to sit at about only a third, at best, in many services.

Some barriers to gender equality in our emergency services are cultural and chronic and ongoing and systemic work is being done to challenge that, what is in many ways, sexism. The 2016 Statement on Workforce Diversity by the National Council for Fire and Emergency Services is spearheading that important equity work. However, our underfunded and outdated CFS stations are in themselves another significant barrier to attraction, to recruitment and to retention of an inclusive and diverse firefighting service.

This is a problem the government could solve almost overnight. As I have stated in this place before, consider this: the siren calls you, it is the middle of the night. You rush to service, but you are wearing your pyjamas. You likely have no underwear under your pyjamas. Due to the lack of appropriate changing facilities, you are required to change into your turnout gear in full view of others in your brigade.

This is uncomfortable or embarrassing at least, and a deal-breaker to serving our community at worst. It does not take a social science degree to observe that this entirely unnecessary barrier is stopping women, in particular, from getting involved or staying involved with the CFS at a time when recruitment and retention of volunteers is more important than ever. After the incident, it can be even worse, as you need to remove your now contaminated turnout gear for your own personal health and safety.

I will acknowledge that is not the case in every station across our state. I have noted already some online feedback to the welcomed 2022 upgrades to the CFS station in Yahl, Mount Gambier, which revealed with great excitement that volunteers now had 'access to a tap and a toilet'. In 2022, they finally had access to a tap and a toilet. Picture, if you will, the need to use the bathroom—a basic human need—and the expectation that one will be able to take a slash behind the shed rather than avail themselves of a bathroom, which is currently the case in far too many CFS stations. That opportunity is simply not there and not everyone is going to find it appropriate that they do not have access to a toilet and a tap.

We are not talking about a gold standard here; we are just talking about a tap, a toilet, no asbestos and no mould and any other workplace hazards that you would expect from the absolute basics for those CFS volunteers who are generously donating their time and their energy to ensure that we as South Australians have a world-class fire and rescue service right across our state.

In the past year alone, South Australia has faced destructive storms, widespread flooding and catastrophic bushfires. There are one-in-100-year weather events but they are of course happening far more frequently than that as the climate odds are against us, and we have loaded that dice. As the climate crisis continues to fuel these disasters, South Australia must ensure that we do have the emergency response capability to respond to this new reality, but right now that does not mean that they are happening every 100 years—indeed, far from it—and so business as usual is no longer an option.

CFS volunteers risk their lives to protect our community and they deserve the unconditional support of this state government, and to be provided with equipment and stations of the highest possible standard, otherwise we will continue to see the loss of CFS volunteers. The money that these volunteers save our state—they argue, and quite rightly so—by ensuring the protection of people, property and our environment cannot be underestimated, should certainly not be taken for granted, and it easily tops multiples of the $10 million that is being requested.

The least our state can do is ensure that we are treating them with dignity and respect, putting their long-term health and safety to the fore while they keep us safe. Ensuring their dignity before and after and while they volunteer to be on those dangerous firegrounds is the least we can do. As we approach an extended period of hot, dry and dangerous fire conditions, the state government must urgently ensure an audit of all CFS facilities right across our state and then provide whatever funds and support are necessary to ensure that our CFS volunteers are supported, our CFS is prepared and thriving, not just surviving this cruel summer ahead.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.