BIG READ: Rural Fireys threatening to quit over Blue Cards
THE Queensland Government's decision to force Rural Firefighter Service volunteers to apply for Blue Cards has enraged brigade members to the point where some are threatening to quit, according to Robert Lang.
After the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017 and a review of the Blue Card system, the Queensland Government legislated Blue Card checks to include government employees and volunteers who came into contact with children in their roles.
This meant the 33,000 members of the Queensland Fire and Emergency services, including volunteers in State Emergency Service and RFS, would be forced to apply for Blue Cards if they wished to continue in their roles beyond April 2020.
As an advocate for Rural Fire Brigades Association Queensland in CQ looking after 47 brigades, Mr Lang said his organisation had strongly lobbied the government to change the way it may be introduced or to ease the requirements but was "relatively unsuccessful".
He said there were a number of reasons why brigade members regarded the 'No card, No start' initiative as a bad idea.
They believed that the cards were unnecessary given most members never encountered children in their roles, it would overwhelm secretaries with paperwork and they may be liable if an incident happened when cards expired.
Additionally, he said, the need for the cards was poorly explained by the government, the decision was 'out of touch' and could lead to a firefighter exodus.
The Morning Bulletin has raised Mr Lang's concerns with Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Craig Crawford, who addressed each point in detail.
1) The majority of rural firefighters don't encounter juniors and believed the checks were unnecessary.
Mr Lang said 99 per cent of rural rirefighters never have contact with juniors.
"There are brigades here in Central Queensland who have already said 'We no longer want to be in the Rural Fire Service if we've got to have a Blue Card'," Mr Lang said.
"Because they don't see it as being necessary at all.
"We have attempted to compromise with the State Government where anybody with first aid qualifications or the first officers in brigades (applied for a card)."
Mr Crawford disputed the 99 per cent figure saying there were numerous occasions when RFS members could encounter juniors.
"The capacity is for any brigade, any truck, any crew, out there could have a 16- or 17-year-old firefighter on that truck," Mr Crawford said.
"Also, when Rural Fire Fighters are at local shows, school fetes, barbecues at Bunnings, all sorts of things they do out in the community, there will be kids, juniors and teenagers everywhere.
"There would be countless examples of where Rural Fire Fighters come across kids involved in car accidents, various fires, flooding events and things like that."
He said 15,000 people across QFES had now applied for their Blue Card with a final total of 30,000 to 33,000 people expected to be registered.
"We have uncovered 33 people in our ranks who have failed the Blue Card test which means they have a conviction in their criminal history that says they're not safe to be around children," Mr Crawford said.
"It's good that the number is low. I expect that we'll find more but I think this process is worth it to ensure that every single person in our department that wears a uniform, can be trusted by the community."
While criminal record checks are done when people join QFES, there aren't ongoing criminal record checks, hence Blue Card checks provided that extra layer of protection.
"If you joined QFES 20 to 25 years ago, there wouldn't have been criminal record checks back then, so we will have people in our system potentially who could be operating under fake names," Mr Crawford said.
"They could have horrendous spinechilling convictions and we don't know that they are there."
2) It would overwhelm secretaries with paperwork to process Blue Card applications and ensure they were up to date.
Mr Lang said in Queensland, there were 1414 RFS brigades with 1414 volunteer secretarys who would ultimately be responsible for Blue Cards and sooner or later the brigade management committee would have to assume responsibility for managing the Blue Cards compliance.
"When they come up for renewal, will it be their job to ensure that these people have current Blue Cards?" Mr Lang asked.
"Until we go back and rejig this whole thing, it's just rumbling on towards an inevitable conclusion that may see a lot of Rural Fire Service people leave, which will be tragic."
Mr Crawford refuted the assertion that Blue Cards would overburden secretaries.
"The form that you have to fill in to get a Blue Card takes you less than two minutes," he said.
"All that the member has to do is put in your name, address, date of birth, where you were born, sign the form and pull out their driver's licence, bank card or Medicare card.
"The work secretaries do is equally as quick. They tick, witness a few bits and pieces and then the form is gone."
He said a whole brigade could be processed within 30 to 45 minutes.
The cost to apply for a Blue Card was covered by QFES.
3) Secretaries would be liable if an incident happened when cards were expired.
"We send someone to a fire, unwittingly their Blue Card has expired and there was an incident, is that secretary going to hold some degree of responsibility?" Mr Lang asked.
"No one will answer those questions for us."
Mr Crawford said that the backend work was done by QFES's Blue Card team whose responsibility it was to make sure cards were kept up to date.
"Cards will have a three-year date when they have to be renewed but during that time if a person gets charged or convicted of one of those significant offences, it gets alerted to Blue Card services who in turn notify QFES," he said.
"It's an ongoing constant check and secretaries are not part of that process.
"Three years from now, yes we will be asking secretaries to make sure Blue Cards are up to date and that will mean going through some reapplications but we will make that quick, easy and seamless as we can.
"They won't be liable. The department is liable, ultimately it will be the commissioner who is liable to ensure all his people are worthy of wearing the QFES uniform."
4) The need for the cards has been explained poorly by the Government and the decision was 'out of touch' and could lead to a firefighter exodus.
Expecting all Rural Firefighters to get Blue Cards was "unrealistic", according to Mr Lang.
"No politician wants to come out and fess up what the real reason behind the Blue Card is we are volunteers. Volunteers tend to vote with their feet," he said.
"While we couldn't do this without the government's help, they are becoming more authoritarian and this is just one more bit in the puzzle.
"I think it's been explained very poorly.
"If there's a very good legal reason behind all this, I'm certain a lot of people would say 'If that's the case, so be it, we should do it'.
"But it hasn't been done.
"It's been done with a big stick."
Mr Crawford suspected that misinformation was at the heart of the firefighters' concerns.
"I think there's been quite a bit of mischief going on around different parts of the organisation and some people saying mistruths out there in among the Rural Fire Service," he said.
"People have been getting conflicting information and haven't known what to really believe."
He said the Government had drawn a clear line from the start where "if you're going to wear the QFES uniform, we need to make sure that you don't have a criminal record with any significant offence".
He expressed doubt that a brigade would walk away from something they loved, providing a service to the community "because they don't want to fill in a form that takes 90 seconds to fill in".
"People say it's bureaucracy. It's not. It's a criminal record check for the people currently in the role," Mr Crawford said.
"It's not a difficult thing or an onerous thing and I don't it's too much for the public to expect the people in service uniforms in the community are the right people.
"I would question the motivation why people are saying those things to understand and know why they would be making that stand.
"If a brigade was to make a stand and I haven't heard of any brigades that have done this, I would like to speak to that brigade and I think the commissioner would also like to speak directly to that brigade.
"Before anyone has a strike, revolt or exodus, let's have a conversation first."