During late 2014 and early 2015, barely a day has gone by without reports of tragic losses of property, livestock and wildlife as a result of fires raging across Australia, particularly South Australia and Victoria. Heatwaves have taken a devastating toll on many families.
At times like this, it is important to acknowledge the invaluable work of those South Australians who risk their own wellbeing to protect communities and save lives.
Many areas in our state are sparsely populated however they are constantly under serious risk of bushfires. It would not be feasible for each town to have their own paid fire department.
In South Australia, the Country Fire Service (CFS) is a volunteer-based fire fighting service, represented by over 13,000 volunteers. Although the Government funds equipment, protective clothing and training (primarily through Emergency Services Levy funding), the actual fire fighting duties are performed by volunteers. The majority of towns in South Australia rely on the CFS. Even some suburbs of Adelaide have CFS stations; particularly suburbs that contain scrubland.
A noteworthy tragedy of the recent South Australian bushfires was the fact that many CFS volunteers lost their own homes to the fires whilst they were out protecting the homes of others in the community.
The CFS even assist with non-fire related emergencies, including motor vehicle accidents and dealing with hazardous chemicals and other material in country South Australia. They also assist the State Emergency Services (SES) with problems associated with flooding and other weather related damage (for example, trees falling over during storms). However, fire fighting is the main job of the CFS. The CFS attends to over 8,000 incidents every year.
The volunteers can assist with bushfires, house fires, industrial fires, car fires, and other types, and all too often have to use their valuable time and resources battling fires caused by cowardly arsonists.
The CFS was only established as a statutory body in the mid 1970s with the passing of the Country Fires Act. However, subsequent legislation in 2005 (the SA Fire and Emergency Services Act) was adopted; this pulled the CFS, Metropolitan Fire Service and State Emergency Service together for funding and administrative purposes.
The Fire and Emergency Services Act outlines some general powers of CFS volunteers and also provides them with some important legal protections. For example, at a scene of a fire or emergency, a member of the CFS has the authority to enter a building, including a residence, and even break into the building if necessary. That means that if they have to smash through windows, they cannot subsequently be prosecuted or sued for trespass or damaging property.
The law specifically states that a CFS officer may take any action necessary or desirable for the purpose of protecting the life, health or safety of any person or animal, or protecting property, relevant services or the environment, or for any other purpose associated with dealing with a fire or other emergency or the threat of a fire or other emergency (despite the fact that the action may result in damage to, or destruction of, property or any aspect of the environment or cause pecuniary loss to any person).
If a person (not a CFS officer) fails to comply with a requirement or direction of the CFS officer, that person may be personally fined up to $20,000. In fact, if a body corporate fails to comply with a requirement or direction of the CFS officer, the body corporate may be fined up to $75,000.”
CFS officers also have general authority to remove unsafe structures, remove vegetation, direct evacuations and shut off the supply of water. When a member of the CFS exercises his or her powers, section 127 of the Fire and Emergency Services Act protects them from personal liability. Some protections also exist under the Volunteers Protection Act. The liability for damage to property will not lie against the volunteer fire fighter him/herself, but rather lie against the Crown (that is, the State Government).
The legislation also ensures that if a CFS volunteer is injured or killed while performing their duties, they or their family will be covered by workers compensation laws and other similar arrangements. This is important, because generally speaking, a volunteer is not covered by workers compensation legislation in South Australia.
The protections will not apply if the volunteer has intentionally and maliciously damaged/destroyed property or otherwise acted in a corrupt or criminal manner. Similarly, they will not be protected if they intentionally inflict harm or injury to a person, unless the harm was necessary to protecting the person (for example, it may be necessary or unavoidable to injure a person whilst dragging them out of a burning building).
In other words, for the protection to apply, the actions or non-actions of the volunteer must be done honestly and in good faith. Even if an act is done negligently or with lack of skill, the protections should still apply if the volunteer acted in good faith.
So as we swelter through summer, spare a thought for those volunteers in towns all across the state who give their time and commitment to the worthy work of the CFS. South Australians all owe the courageous CFS volunteers a debt of gratitude.
If you wish to become a CFS volunteer, contact 1300 364 587 or visit their website at Country Fire Service.