In an unprecedented move, the Bowral Fire Station team has taken itself offline amid claims of "burn out" due to low staffing levels.
This Easter, Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) Bowral crew members have taken informal action to provide themselves with rest and family time.
As of April 13, Bowral crew members either took leave or reduced their on-call hours to the minimum number required by their industrial agreement.
This action meant if there was a fire call, Bowral staff were not available to respond.
In response, FRNSW deployed crews from several Sydney stations including Campbelltown, Horningsea Park, Macquarie Fields and Newtown to Bowral to ensure the Highlands community is still protected.
Retained staff have managed to maintain their required numbers - that’s six firies available 24/7 - for in excess of five years. And that would have continued if the department supported the station by recruiting firefighters to fill vacancies there.Southern Highlands FRNSW member
Bowral Fire Station is a retained station, manned by on-call firefighters who travel to the station when their pagers sound. As opposed to permanent stations which have firefighters rostered on set shifts in-station, retained stations rely on staff who make themselves available to respond to incidents for an elected number of hours per week.
A Southern Highlands FRNSW member, who asked not to be named, said while the award required each firefighter to be on call for only 24 hours each week, many Bowral firefighters gave significantly more.
“Almost half of the station’s team has consistently, for years on end, been giving more than 150 hours’ availability each week,” he said.
He said things had worsened as staff levels at the station decreased.
"In the past six months we've had two people leave for other positions in the brigade, who haven't been replaced," he said. “It puts the whole team at risk. Staff are starting to burn out, requests to ramp up recruitment for insufficient staffing have fallen on deaf ears. People have used the Easter break to try and recharge.”
Although it currently employs 12 staff, Bowral station is allocated funding for 18 retained positions according to the Southern Highlands FRNSW member.
He claimed the reason FRNSW had not yet replenished staff levels at the station was because the Bowral crew regularly gave in excess of the minimum on-call hours and the station didn't incur any overtime charges.
"The reality is, if staff only gave the minimum requirement, stations across the state wouldn't have enough firefighters available to operate.”
When contacted for comment, a FRNSW media spokesman confirmed other crews had been called to Bowral to ensure the station remained operational.
“Fire and Rescue NSW is experiencing retained (on-call) firefighter availability issues at Bowral fire station,” he said. “To ensure community safety, FRNSW has deployed permanent firefighters to protect the Bowral community on a 24/7 hour basis until the retained availability at Bowral improves.”
However, the Southern Highlands FRNSW member said it was staffing levels, and not availability, that was the real problem.
“Retained staff have managed to maintain their required numbers - that’s six firies available 24/7 - for in excess of five years. And that would have continued if the department supported the station by recruiting firefighters to fill vacancies there,” the Southern Highlands FRNSW member said.
He said the circumstances were taking a toll on the crew and its families. “We’re not paid for the hours we’re marked available, we’re only paid if there’s a call. And that comes at a cost to families and other employment.”
“Bowral has been brave enough to do what they’re doing. It wasn’t an easy decision but it had to be made to ensure staff weren’t endangered through fatigue or family issues,” he said.
The Fire Brigade Employees Union was contacted for comment about the informal action at the station, but a spokesperson told the Southern Highland News the union would not comment on Bowral availability “at this stage”.