This article originally featured in the September 2020 edition of the Law Society Bulletin.
The Australian community dreads bushfire season. Last summer we again witnessed the devastating effects of bushfires with tragic loss of life (human, livestock and wildlife), and damage to property and the environment. Over recent years it seems that bushfires have become more ferocious – some attribute this to climate change, others to the build-up of wood and vegetation fuel loads and the encroachment of homes on bushland. Whatever the reasons, surely none of us can forget the distressing images of people sheltering on ovals, riverbanks and beaches from fast approaching fires, or dismiss the horrifying thoughts of the last moments of those who perished in the fires.
What is The SA Country Fire Service (CFS)?
The CFS is a volunteer based “all hazards” agency. The CFS responds to bushfires, building fires, motor vehicle accidents and hazardous material spills in country regions of SA, but is perhaps best recognised as the front line in fighting bush fires. In addition, the CFS assists local government with fuel reduction and assists to educate the community about bushfires and fire safety. The majority of rural towns in SA rely on the CFS and even some suburban locations – particularly those that contain scrubland – have CFS brigades.
The dedicated women and men of the CFS fight to save and protect the lives, homes and property of others in their community, often while their own families, homes and properties are at risk, and often endangering their own lives by doing so. The CFS maintains brigades in over 434 locations, staffed by over 16,000 volunteers of which around 11,500 are dedicated firefighters. It has over 780 fire trucks and attends over 8000 incidents each year. The CFS often works alongside the SA Metropolitan Fire Service and assists the State Emergency Service with problems associated with flooding and other weather related damage.
CFS: Legislation and Funding
The CFS was established in 1976 with the passage of the SA Country Fires Act. In 2005, the SA Fire and Emergency Services Act (the Act) was passed, which pulled the CFS, Metropolitan Fire Service and State Emergency Service together under a single administrative body and funding source. The CFS’s paid staff, equipment, protective clothing and training is funded by the State Government, primarily through the Emergency Services Levy.
Powers and protections / rights of CFS volunteers
The Act outlines some general powers of CFS volunteers and also provides them with some important legal protections. The Act empowers CFS members to take any action that appears necessary or desirable for the purposes of protecting the life, health or safety of any person or animal, or protecting property, or the environment, even if those actions could result in damage to or destruction of property or the environment, or cause financial loss to any person. Such actions can include:
- entering any land or structure, even breaking in with force if necessary;
- taking possession or assuming control of any land, structure, vehicle, body of water or other thing;
- removing or causing to be removed any person or animal to any place;
- directing or prohibiting the movement of persons, animal or vehicles;
- causing firebreaks to be cleared or ploughed, and carry out excavation or earthworks;
- making use of the gratuitous services of any person; or
- directing, so far as reasonably necessary, any person to assist in any of the above.
It is an offence for any person to fail to comply with a requirement or direction of a CFS officer or volunteer, with maximum penalties of $75,000 for a corporation and $20,000 for a natural person. Most importantly, the Act protects a CFS volunteer from civil or criminal liability for acts or omissions done honestly in the exercise of their powers or functions under the Act. Liability for any loss arising from personal injury or damage to property will not lie against the volunteer but, instead, against the Crown (except in very limited circumstances).
Similarly, the SA Volunteers Protection Act 2001 protects a CFS volunteer acting in good faith and without recklessness from civil liability for any act or omission done in the course of carrying out their duties. Certain exceptions apply to this protection (e.g. it does not apply to defamation, does not operate if the volunteer was significantly impaired by recreational drugs, or was acting outside of the scope of authorised activities or contrary to instructions).
What are the rights of a CFS Volunteer who is injured while undertaking duties?
Importantly, the SA Return to Work Act 2014 extends the protection of the workers compensation scheme in SA to CFS volunteers, despite the fact that, legally, they are not “employees”. A CFS volunteer who is injured while undertaking volunteer duties, or the family of a volunteer who is killed while undertaking volunteer duties will be entitled to be compensated for lost income and medical expenses, in addition to other entitlements in certain circumstances. In addition, the CFS Foundation provides financial assistance to volunteer firefighters and their families when needed. The
CFS is an integral part of the South Australian community. Without their service, many more lives, homes and wildlife would be lost to bushfires each year. It is therefore vital that their powers and rights continue to be protected under the law. If you are interested in volunteering for the CFS call 1300 364 587 or submit an application through the CFS website at https://cfs.sa.gov.au/site/volunteer.jsp.