Firefighters recognised for bravery and service, and high risk of work-related cancer

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday May 14, 2019

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service recently heard the government had worked out how to pay for extra workers’ compensation to firefighters who develop cancer, while it recognised 21 of its members and 11 units for bravery and exceptional service.

Minister for Emergency Services David Elliott chose the RFS internal Bravery and Service Awards to announce a “cost-sharing agreement” between the state, insurers and councils, following the passage of legislation last year to provide automatic compensation to some firefighters.

The new laws apply not just to the RFS, but also to current full-time or volunteer firefighters who have worked for: Fire and Rescue NSW; the Parks and Wildlife Service; the Forestry Corporation of NSW; or Sydney Trains.

Those diagnosed with one of 12 kinds of cancer any time after September 28 last year are presumed to have developed it doing their jobs, if they have served as firefighters for certain period of time. The qualifying period ranges from five to 25 years, depending on the specific illness, and is set at 15 years for seven of the 12 cancers.

The onus is on the employer to prove otherwise if it decides to dispute the presumption that the cancer is work-related.

RFS deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said last year the legislation would provide volunteers “access to compensation that is in line with other states and territories”.

About three quarters of the costs will be passed on to homeowners and other members of the community through higher insurance premiums. Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello said this would would likely be a “small increase” while the Insurance Council of Australia estimated the emergency services levy component of premiums would rise by just over 15%, and argued the funding should have mostly come from consolidated revenue instead.

The government has decided that 14.6% of the cost will come from the state’s general coffers, local councils have to cover 11.7% of the increase through their own emergency services levies, with the remaining 73.7% being added onto insurance bills all over NSW.

“Firefighters, such as those who we are honouring today, put their lives on the line to keep us safe,” said Elliott. “These changes protect those who work hard every day to protect the community.”

Ken Middleton, president of the NSW Rural Fire Service Association, welcomed the legal recognition that hazardous substances used in firefighting were a serious health risk.

“The fact is that volunteer and paid firefighters face enormous health risks – not just from fighting fire, but because of the serious chemicals they have to work with to make sure everyone else is safe,” Middleton said.

Rural Fire Service awards

Recipents of RFS internal awards are a diverse bunch. This year they include firefighters who helped improve bushfire management in the African nation of Botswana via the Australian Aid program, staff from infrastructure services and corporate communications, as well as those on the front line.

The awards booklet details the dedicated service and daring exploits of all award recipients, like the Bega Valley Brigades, which fought the Reedy Swamp fire that spread to the southern NSW coastal town of Tarthra last March:

“These fires burnt a total of 1,396.74 hectares, 65 homes, 35 other buildings and 41 out-buildings.

“Despite the horrendous conditions, the Bega Valley Brigade members played a significant role in order to protect lives and property. All crew members demonstrated extraordinary levels of courage and support to the community. Under these conditions it was a credit to all involved that there were no lives lost or firefighter injuries.”

RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons paid tribute to his predecessor, former commissioner Philip Koperberg, and awarded him the prestigous Commendation for Service 12 years after the handover.

Koperberg went on to become a NSW Labor minister and is now chair of the state government’s Emergency Management Committee.

Fitzsimmons also praised the example set by Ryan Hutchinson and Veronica Jones, firefighters of the Benwerrin Brigade in the Lower Hunter region. The commissioner presented each with a Certificate of Commendation for their actions as the first to arrive at a fire in Blackhill last October.

“These two firefighters arrived first on scene and slowed the spread of the fire and provided first-aid to the occupant, showing that team work and quick decision making play a significant role in the protection of lives and property,” Fitzsimmons said.

Top image: NSW Rural Fire Service. Source: Highway Patrol Images.

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