Consulting with union interfered with response to fires, says MFB chief officer

The number of metropolitan firefighters should be able to drop below the minimum agreed level during bush fires at the discretion of the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Chief Officer, the Fair Work Commission has heard.

Chief Officer Peter Rau has told the commission that consulting with the United Firefighters Union – in line with the MFB’s enterprise agreement – interfered with one of his core roles of responding to fires in other parts of the state. The chief officer’s role was expanded as a result of the Royal Commission Inquiry into the Black Saturday fires.

The MFB is seeking to have its agreement with the union terminated.

Mr Rau told the commission that seeking agreement with the union over resources and operations was hindering his ability to assist during times of high need in country fires. He was appointed to the role of chief officer in June but has a long history with the Country Fire Authority.

In his statement Mr Rau said the cost of last summer’s bush fire to the MFB was $12.6 million with $9 million going to staff entitlements, including the requirement to keep a minimum of 270 firefighters at stations across the metropolitan area.

Mr Rau said the MFB had not, to his knowledge, been given extra funds through the state government to assist further in country fires and that there were times when firefighters were more needed in country areas than in city stations.

”The lowest we would go is 246 (in Melbourne),” Mr Rau said.

Mr Rau agreed that the union had previously agreed to allow the numbers to drop below the 270 minimum to 230 firefighters – such as during a fire in Stawell in January which he said was a short-term fire.

Mr Rau conceded under questioning from Herman Borenstein QC, for the union, that on some occcasions the union’s objection to changes had been supported by Ambulance Victoria and by the Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley.

Mr Rau said he was prepared to consult with the union about operational matters and resources but the decision should rest with him because he had the ultimate responsibility for the service.

Earlier union state secretary Peter Marshall told firefighters to maintain “morale” as it prepares to fight the move to terminate the enterprise agreement.

At a barbecue breakfast for off-duty firefighters in front of the commission in Exhibition Street, Melbourne, Mr Marshall said the FWC would hear “lies” about its members but these would fail under cross examination.

“Do not let these affect your morale,” Mr Marshall said.

“Despite the rubbish you here today, it is not true,” he said.

The hearing is expected to state 20 days before Fair Work Commissioner Nick Wilson. The MFB argues the 2010 agreement is both unworkable and illegal.

The MFB has filed an “undertaking” in the form of an employment agreement. The union says this would significantly reduce the protections and conditions for employees.

The union also questions the undertaking’s enforceability. The undertaking would expire after 12 months.

Mr Marshall claimed  the state government was using the fire services levy to fund the legal case against the union.

“It will be 20 days of wasting public money that is meant for fire services,” Mr Marshall said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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