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Transcript: CO Steve Warrington on ABC774
On a day when the state Opposition are set to announce - around about lunchtime today - that they will promise a Royal Commission into the industrial dispute between the fire fighters union and the fire services if they are elected one year from now at the next state election; on that very same day, the CFA is releasing information that they've kept very confidential, even secret, in the past.
Today for the first time, CFA emergency response times will be made publicly available.
Chief Officer Steve Warrington joins me in the studio. Good morning to you, Chief.
Good morning Jon, how are you?
Why are you choosing- first of all, before we get to what the data is, the response times, what they actually are; why are you choosing to make it public now for the first time?
Well, we think it's important to be transparent in our figures, and it does a couple of things for us, but primarily it gives- hopefully, it gives some confidence in our service to our communities, but more importantly or just as importantly, it allows us to dig deep into how we can better improve our service.
So a lot of our brigades haven't actually seen this data as well, so to give them that information that will allow us to do a number of things that will improve the service is only a good thing, I think.
Is it an implied criticism, then, of your predecessors and the previous boards and COs that the state has been kept secret in the past?
Oh no, not at all. I mean, the reality is we've just made a decision now to produce the data, and to be fair, MFB are doing the same.
So both MFB, and I think given everything that's going on at the moment, it's important that the state, the public see the performance, just as they do with Ambulance Victoria.
They can now, as of today, will see the performance of our fire services - both MFB and CFA - and see what quality service we both provide.
Everything is so politicised now in the fire services. It's impossible to look at anything without wondering if there's some secondary or other agenda.
And I'm sorry about that, I think it's a real shame, but that's how it is.
Look, it is sad, but the reality for us- yesterday was our first total fire ban in the Mallee, the first time ever we've brought fire restrictions into far East Gippsland and to that part of the world, so basically the eastern side of the state.
So we're primed, we've got fire in the space down in Gippsland as well.
Our focus has to be on the fire season. Just to some extent, my role is to let the politicians get on and do what they need to do.
We've got some quality people in CFA and indeed MFB, but our career firefighters, our volunteers, our quality professional firefighters, we've got to focus on the main game. That's what our public expects, and that's what we'll provide.
Well, let's get to the main game. What does the data show?
The data says that- well firstly, what we've done and we'll be releasing today at 10.30 is that we, CFA, measures our performance from time it takes to get on scene.
So from the time that you get the call to the time that you arrive on scene, we say that the benchmark is about eight minutes 90 per cent of the time.
So for our brigades, we do that at about 87 per cent of the time across the state, so that says to me that we've got a large majority of our brigades that absolutely do a fantastic job, both career staff and volunteers, but to be fair we have some brigades that struggle.
And this will allow us to really then focus on those brigades that need support, whether that be increased daytime volunteers and whether that's engineering supports, whether indeed at the other end of the scale we put career firefighters in.
So we asked for the data and we were told: no, it's embargoed until 10.30; so I'm not able to put anything you're saying to the test because even though you're releasing it for the first time, you're not releasing it until 10.30.
Well, I'll leave that to the Minister to make that announcement.
Well, and we made that point to them. Well, what's the point of having the chief officer come in if I'm not allowed to know what to ask him, and they said: because you'll have to wait until 10.30.
Well, fair enough, that's fine, but is there a difference between response times and meeting your performance targets between career and volunteer brigades?
So, in a sense, no. The reality is that both career staff and volunteers are required - and we measure their on scene performance within eight minutes - the difference is within the travel times.
So volunteers have four minutes to get the truck out the door, and therefore only four minutes travel time.
Career staff have 90 seconds to get out the door, therefore they have two and a half minutes more travel time than say a volunteer. The measurement is exactly the same. Does …
What about meeting the performance target?
Yeah, so, it varies from station to station. So we have some volunteer stations that do a really fantastic job and we have some staff- to get to the nub of your question, by and large because career firefighters are in situ, they're in stations, they can get out the door without any impediments, if you like.
Well, if they can't there's a really serious problem.
That's exactly right. So some of our volunteer stations on the other hand, particularly as we get congestion around Melbourne, there can be struggles to get to the fire station to get the truck out.
Once the volunteer gets to a station there is no delay, the same as our career staff, but it is fair to say some of our volunteer stations do struggle in that space.
And the problem that we have - and we've talked about this countless times - as Melbourne has grown, areas that used to be remote and rural have become urban and still rely on volunteers rather than career staff. That's at the very core of this industrial dispute.
So, what we've done in our service delivery model in CFA is in major hubs - and if I looked at Dandenong - we have career firefighters and our quality career firefighters provide support into Noble Park, a volunteer station, Keysborough, a volunteer station.
And so these hub and spoke models that we've got right around the outside of Melbourne are providing support to volunteers where they struggle to meet that immediate response. So …
So can we look at a table, when your figures are released at 10:30, and see what the response time is for those stations that are entirely volunteer that are in urban areas?
Absolutely, absolutely. And we'll provide you two lots of figures.
One - so if I used an example - the primary response area for a volunteer brigade. But also, the customer service, that is, with the support of, in some cases, volunteer brigades, with the support of career staff.
We don't respond in isolation, we respond as teams, trucks coming from a number of different locations.
You can save us a lot of trouble here, Chief Officer Steve Warrington.
Are there volunteer-only brigades that are at the bottom of the response time graph, where they clearly in fact should be replaced by career fire fighters?
So there are a number of volunteer brigades that absolutely struggle, and what we're doing now with the transparency of these figures is we can focus our attention.
One of the issues you have in CFA is we've got the growth corridors.
So if I look out at Mernda and Doreen the growth has been so prolific that the emergency services has a collective struggle to keep up with that growth.
So, we've recently put career staff into, say, South Morang, well, they're providing support to our volunteers at Mernda and Doreen. So we do put more and more career- we've got earmarked four career staff to go into Lara, because that Geelong area is growing.
We've got career staff around Ballarat, would you believe, Ballarat West will have career staff because our service delivery model needs, and our volunteers need, support to provide service in Ballarat.
So this is not just a Melbourne problem. Regional Victoria is growing and all our emergency services need to continue to provide services to those communities.
So, just finally, one view of this whole industrial dispute is that you can't still have a 19th century model of meeting the community's need in the 21st century.
Look, the interesting thing for me, Jon, along this journey, I don't think anybody is actually saying that we don't need reform in this state of some sort.
We absolutely- on all sides, it's about what the reform looks like.
There are volunteers who jealously protect their patch, the CFA has been their life, it's been their baby, it's their whole identity and they don't want to give up any ground.
Absolutely, and I don't think we want them to give up that way.
I'm a proud, passionate CFA person myself, been in as both a volunteer and a career staffer for over 40 years. So absolutely.
But it is about what's best service to our community.
And this isn't a CFA reform, this is MFB, CFA, this is a fire sector reform.
We have, I think, upwards over a billion dollars per annum. It is not a cost-effective and efficient and agile fire service.
We need reform. I think the debate is what does that reform look like?
And a Royal Commission, if indeed the Opposition, the current Coalition are elected to Government a year from now, they're promising a Royal Commission.
So, my answer to that, with the politicians, and there's been a lot of politics in the last 12 months, to me this is another view of the politicians.
My focus has to be on the fire seasons. We're one of the worst bushfire-prone areas in the world. We're already into bushfire season, if you like.
We saw that as late as yesterday, or as early as yesterday, if you like.
That's where my focus is. I can't allow myself or good people, career staff and volunteers, to be distracted by politics.
I'll let the politicians get on and do that, we'll fight fires. I think that's a fair deal.
It's a very fair deal. Thank you indeed.